tv Gen v Was Always Much More Than a Boys Spinoff. Its Season Finale Proved That.
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.
We love to send superheroes to school.
The X-Men came together at Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. The Fantastic Four’s Future Foundation and at least three academies — the short-lived Teen Titans, the magically inclined Strange, and the comic book series-turned-Netflix-hit Umbrella — all riffed on that idea and admitted protégés too. Though they aren’t formally superheroes, Harry Potter and his friends go to Hogwarts, while Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children and Brakebills University for Magic Pedagogy (featured in The Magicians) function similarly. They are all part of an extremely common trope.
These stories have a lot in common, but the most important lesson is you can’t judge a superhero by their cover. The most powerful people can come from the humblest beginnings, and these schools are often for people who never felt like they belonged. A place as supernatural as the students are might be able to give these exceptional beings what the rest of the world can’t: a home, friends, and family that understand them and teachers to guide them.
Speaking as a person of real-life school experience, superhero school is better.
That’s mainly because no one is ever learning trigonometry in these stories. Nope. Super-powered kids learning “sohcahtoa” isn’t what sells, but mixing the other parts of high school — the anxiety of making friends, the blazing insecurity of being a teen, the joy and embarrassment of first crushes, the universal fears about the future — with magic and superpowers is exponentially fun. And the massive popularity of these narratives would suggest that even the real-life popular kids see themselves in the overlooked protagonists in these stories.
On the surface, Gen V, the young-adult spinoff of Amazon’s hit The Boys, looks like one of these tales. Satires are supposed to. In The Boys’s nihilistic cinematic universe, however, great power tilts toward fascism, great responsibility is swapped out for unquenchable narcissism, and truth and justice are not the American way.
Just as The Boys does with superhero storytelling, Gen V isn’t just about clowning the genre. Though there’s more than enough time spent watching the sleazy havoc of petty, irresponsible college kids blessed with superpowers, the series has its sights aimed at something bigger. It asks who’s in charge of our heroes, what they’re being taught, and what exactly this generation did to deserve this.
God U: A college for the future fascists of America
In this world, superheroes go to Godolkin University, a school founded by the very powerful pharma-entertainment-defense-everything corporation Vought International featured on The Boys. According to this world’s lore, Vought International was founded by a Nazi named Frederick Vought who created a serum that gave normal people powers. Vought parlayed his invention into freedom, exchanging the serum for asylum in the US.
Dubbed “God U,” Godolkin is essentially the University of Alabama for the super-powered, allowing them to major in either crime fighting or performing arts. These are the only two academic paths at these schools, and they are extremely lucrative. The latter track teaches kids how to use their powers to become entertainers and build a celebrity following. In both the real world and The Boys, the line between hero and celebrity is already thin, so supes becoming actors and influencers seems like a natural progression.
The crime-fighting major is the elite college on campus, though. It carves the would-be warriors into teenage titans with the ultimate goal of being drafted into The Seven, the world’s premiere superhero group. In The Boys universe, superheroism is contracted out, with teams of heroes functioning like the Lakers or the Yankees. Graduating at the top of your class and beating your classmates at Godolkin is a surefire way to get into The Seven, become a celebrity superhero, and reap all the rewards.
The parallel to college sports is purposely on the nose, given the many instances of real-world NCAA corruption where colleges have been caught chasing money and student-athletes and coaches have been accused of crimes, sometimes major ones.
It’s important to note that in The Boys universe, superpowers aren’t natural. They only manifest in people injected with a drug called Compound V, a derivative of Frederick’s Nazi serum. The powers themselves — sometimes undesirable ones like detachable limbs or shrinking — are random, and Compound V can have harmful side effects that mirror steroids.
Following this logic, it’s clear that the proud parents of each incoming class at God U were, at some point, injecting their babies with life-altering and potentially life-threatening drugs in the hope of hitting the genetically altered jackpot.
Despite this moral ickiness, Marie Moreau (Jaz Sinclair) desperately wants to be a good person. Part of her desire stems from her guilt over accidentally killing her parents when her powers manifested; she’s blessed/cursed with the gruesome ability to psychically control blood (e.g., make people’s hearts stop, repair wounds, sense if people have diseases or abnormalities in the circulatory systems, turn a person’s blood into a weapon, etc.). Given God U’s commitment to diversity, academics, and molding young people into the best superheroes on Earth, it’s her dream school.
Once there, she finds an ally in her roommate Emma Meyer (Lizze Broadway), who has the ability to change her physical size, and a good number of grudging acquaintances. There’s Jordan Li (Derek Luh and London Thor), an indestructible superhero with both a male and a female form; Andre Anderson (Chance Perdomo), who can manipulate metal; super-strong Sam Riordan (Asa Germann); and Cate Dunlap (Maddie Phillips), a telepath with a type of mind control that allows her to “push” people and override their free will.
As the season unfolds, it turns out Marie’s alienated origin story isn’t unique. Emma’s powers are connected to her binge eating and purging. Jordan’s parents aren’t accepting of their bigender child. Andre’s powers might be giving him brain damage. Sam, the brother of the late top-ranked super Golden Boy (Patrick Schwarzenegger), has schizophrenia. Cate accidentally pushed her little brother to his death.
The promising future supers at God U are not okay, and those are just the good kids.
Other more nefarious characters on the fringes aren’t afraid to use abilities like mind-wiping and invisibility on their classmates — a terrifying layer to add on top of all the bullying, peer pressure, and sexual assault that already happens in real-life college. God U also has its own version of legacy admits and special treatment, as Vought International is there to make sure that its most promising students don’t get caught up in granular things like underage drinking charges or manslaughter.
But Gen V isn’t just about playing with the many sordid scenarios that would happen if you gave teens and young adults immense power. It’s about how they got that way in the first place.
These kids didn’t have a choice in their destiny. The people who were supposed to take care of them did. Their parents ditched that responsibility and gambled with their kids’ lives, thanks to the most powerful company on Earth. The people who raised Marie and her friends essentially fed them into a machine, a system, that’s much more powerful than laser-beam eyes, telepathy, or even blood-bending. The kids of Gen V are, to the adults around them, disposable.
It’s a damning portrait of how the competition of capitalism broke us along with everything from college sports to law enforcement to our families. Not only that, it has even broken the attempts to mitigate it; Gen V highlights how an evil company is adept at capitalizing on the language of diversity and equity to achieve its goals.
That this show is airing on Amazon Prime, a branch of one of the richest companies on Earth founded by a billionaire infatuated with muscles and space, is not lost on me. Nor is the phenomenon of right-wing fans slowly realizing that The Boys superheroes they love are actually villainous fascists (the show has arguably one of the most robust GIF presences on Twitter, now called X). Some of the show’s larger messages might be lost on the cast, however: Perdomo, one of Gen V’s leads, recently scrubbed his social media after internet users found out his account was “liking” and promoting far-right, sexist, anti-vax politics.
The show’s complicated real-world baggage aside, Gen V is a riotous indictment of fascists both big (like corporations and universities) and small (like parents and teachers). With legal guardians like these, the massive psychological damage these young people carry isn’t that surprising.
What happens in Gen V’s cynical and twisted season finale
In the final episode of the first season, Marie and her friends find out that Indira Shetty (Shelley Conn), the dean of God U, has been using the college as a front. Viewers have seen Shetty do some nefarious things over the season, but most of the kids haven’t been privy to her dastardly deeds.
Beneath the campus is an underground lab called the “Woods” where Shetty has been creating a contagious virus that kills supes. She’s been testing her biological weapon on wayward students and wants to unleash it on the superhero population en masse. Shetty wants revenge.
Her daughter and husband were on Flight 37, a bungled rescue mission and significant event in The Boys universe. Homelander (Antony Starr), and Queen Maeve (Dominique McElligott), The Boys’s analogs to Superman and Wonder Woman, tried to save the flight from terrorists but ended up damaging the plane’s control panels. Instead of rescuing as many people as possible, Homelander — a fascist, megalomaniac sociopath — believed that any survivors would rat out their fault and damage superhumans’ reputation. He lets everyone aboard die. Homelander has also since used the crash to ask for more power and less regulation from authorities.
The discovery of Shetty’s plan splits the team.
Cate, who had the closest relationship with Shetty and was thereby manipulated the most, is out for blood; she pushes Shetty to kill herself. Cate, with Sam, releases the students trapped in the Woods and turns them on the non-super faculty and staff at God U. In a crossover role slightly larger than a cameo, Victoria Neuman (Claudia Doumit), a shady, anti-supe lawmaker, gets her hands on the virus.
Marie, Jordan, Emma, and Andre decide that even though Shetty was planning genocide of their kind, they need to take a stand and protect the humans. Said humans are only out for themselves and try to cut deals — even promising a spot on The Seven — with the supers, promising anyone anything if they can kill Cate and the freed kids.
Cate’s revolt is a bloodbath. She pushes Sam and the Woods prisoners to homicide. But she’s finally cornered by Marie. Out of the blue, Homelander, the world’s most powerful super-fascist, tells everyone to stand down. Vought execs call him in to save their lives. Just when he looks like he’s going to incapacitate Cate and her carnage, he blasts Marie with his laser eyes and calls her pathetic for turning on her own kind.
In the aftermath, the show skips forward. It’s sometime later, and God U and Vought have covered up the rampage, anointing Cate and Sam as heroes. They’ve pinned the massacre on Marie, Emma, Jordan, and Andrew. Marie, it turns out, has survived Homelander’s eye blast. She and her friends are being held in what seems like a high-security mental institution. They’re trapped and have no idea what has happened in the outside world.
The people in charge have made the decision that blaming these kids — three of whom happen to be people of color — is more beneficial to Vought and, by extension, God U. Vought has also made Marie and her friends into notorious criminals, ruining their lives, their families’ lives, and putting the ire of a country on them. If they do find a way out, probably with a hand from The Boys (the anti-superhero group the original series is named after), they’ll never be able to live normal lives again.
On the other hand, if Cate and Sam are still alive and haven’t already been martyred by Vought, they don’t have it any easier. Just because they’re poster children doesn’t mean they’re being treated as such. Vought has kept them around because they have some kind of value. Cate’s power to mind control people is extremely handy for a company that has its fingers in seemingly every industry in the world. Sam is immensely powerful, maybe one of the strongest supes ever. Vought has probably figured out how to bribe, manipulate, threaten, or blackmail the two of them into complete compliance.
Given the outcome, it becomes clear that the students were in a no-win situation. Protecting the lives of the people who want to kill you or killing them before they kill you — none of it matters. They never had a chance or a choice. Even with their amazing powers, superhumans are still humans; corporations have the real power.