How Gen V carries the X gene
Gen V on Amazon Prime is the most recent superhero show among the many commercial streaming “contents.” This one stands apart not by bringing in a surprise cameo — previously accused of assault — at the finale, but by being relevant, and focusing on character work rather than fan service (something that should have been the golden standard by now). The show’s elevator pitch is a superhero school that doesn’t care about its students like in X-Men but cares more about optics, like which student has more engagement on Twitter (X). To succeed in a declining genre, Gen V does the opposite of My Adventures with Superman by mixing a satire of current-generation superhero media with real-life social media.
Part of The Boys’ universe, this cynical and adjacent world to ours portrays superheroes as more akin to influencers rather than firefighters. They are relegated to products and brands, endorsing not morality but the values of corporations. They help only when it’s marketable and cease to have any sort of agency. If you’ve watched the previous three seasons of The Boys, you’re familiar with how it goes by now, the novelty has worn off: people want to do good, but the system doesn’t prioritize altruism, they promote narcissism. In other words, what if superheroes are superstars but the super is literal?
What differentiates Gen V from its parent series is a little CW teen drama here and a pinch of Bryan Singer’s X-Men there, where one is better implemented than the other. When the show focuses on character interactions — the dynamics between students — and the intersections of their powers and insecurities, it excels beautifully. The beginning of the show hooks viewers instantly with a pseudo mystery about secret happenings at the university. Right out of the gate, the plot brings every character together, introducing their respective traumas and their unifying dream to excel. The conflict arises when doing the right thing isn’t beneficial to their future, as personal success is dependent on individualistic rivalry and following the rules set up by self-important institutions. Here, our young heroes' innate desire to do good conflicts with their dream to be perceived as good. In this world (and maybe sometimes ours), kindness and humanistic values do not run parallel with status, rather they run opposite to one another (think J.K. Simmons hating Spider-Man cranked up to eleven). Thus the usual heroic sacrifice is not life and death, it’s cancel culture, it’s social exclusion versus external validation.
*Slight spoilers below*
The show suffers however midway through, when by the end it does become about life and death; it escalates as these things usually do, with an expected third-act superhero climax, and a little twist left for the second season to resolve, something to keep the conversation going in pop culture. While the first half of Gen V focuses on one meaning of X, where social media takes center stage of the conflict and public perception is always in most character’s minds, the rest focuses more on the other meaning of X, complete with planned genocide on superpowered beings, a superpowered seizure, and even a (not so) civil war. As with other superhero third acts, Gen V rushes character evolution for spectacle and crossovers, making it trip on the same mistakes that the genre it’s critiquing usually does. Like most modern superhero media, the show succeeds until reminders of an interconnected universe full of familiar faces heavily insist on itself, and sidelines everything else it worked so hard to build.
*Spoilers end here*
Even so, The Boys’ Universe does provide something that no other contemporary cape content has successfully reproduced, a well-written fleshed-out filthy world with filthy superpeople. This isn’t PG X-Men, where the birth of mutant powers is allegorical to a coming-out party, in this universe superpowered puberty kills superbly. While other franchises may have synergy through themes like nostalgia, this one is far less naive, the throughline being a critique of itself and the world that watches it. This does pose a problem though, as Gen V is a spin-off set in a world where superhero spin-offs exist and are generally considered bad and exploitative. I think the show gives a genuine reason for existing but is unable to free itself from that paradox. Can something be a satire on the whole of media when it itself furthers the media-making machine?
Overall, it is still nice to have a superhero show that has actual writing and direction, rather than relying on nostalgic reveals. Overlooking the sometimes excessive gorefest, Gen V’s only glaring fault is clumsily treading the line between being satire and the target of its own satire, not always with flying colors.