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You’ve seen the video. A look of apprehension blossoms into toothy delight on the face of a superhero with a grown-out dye job, who laughs mechanically and declares, “All right!”
The meme of Homelander, a character from Amazon Prime’s The Boys, has been all over Twitter for weeks, racking up more than 60 million views across thousands of tweets that typically express the shock of receiving good news — or the moment you realize you’ve gotten away with something.
“When I tweet something out of pocket and nobody unfollows,” one take on the meme said. “When Radiohead play the wrong chord but the crowd just thinks they’re being experimental,” read another. People have used the clip to talk about sports, pop culture, life’s mundane little surprises, and so on.
“For something to be as popular as this meme, it has to happen naturally,” Darick Robertson, who cocreated Homelander and the comic book The Boys in 2006 with Garth Ennis, told me. “They have to actually really appreciate it.”
Robertson is one of the show’s executive producers but said he prefers to let the writers and actors do their thing without him on set so he can be surprised along with all the other fans when he watches the final product.
“Never in a million years did I expect The Boys to blow up the way that it did, much less this meme,” he said. “It’s exciting and it’s weird.”
The Boys satirizes the superhero genre. The supernaturally gifted have been monetized and marketed by a powerful corporation, and a vigilante group (the titular Boys) is working to end their corruption. One of the most corrupt heroes is Homelander, played by actor Antony Starr, a Supermanlike character with an intense desire to be adored, who appears on a broadcast news program to rail against the mainstream media.
The meme comes from a brutal scene: Attendees in a rally, clothed in American flags to match Homelander’s costume and carrying on-the-nose anti-snowflake and “America first” signage. A counterprotester hits Homelander’s young son in the head with a can after calling the superhero a “fascist.” Homelander immediately zaps him with laser vision, killing him.
One man claps, and the rest of the crowd follows with applause. Then we see the face from the meme — shock over the murder he has just committed followed by delight when he realizes his fans endorse his elimination of an opposing party.
Twitter user @callouswayne posted the first viral instance of the clip from The Boys on July 12, four days after it appeared in the finale of the third season. She told BuzzFeed News she was thrilled that it became “one of the biggest bangers on Film Twitter” and said she's seen numerous people tweet that the meme's ubiquity convinced them to watch the show.
We don’t get the full context of the character’s shortcomings as a milk-drinking murderer through the meme, though. To those who haven’t seen the show, it’s just a highly expressive range of emotions, similar to that of the “Kombucha girl” and “white guy blinking” memes of yesteryear.
Robertson didn’t write the memed Homelander scene but said it reflects his original intention for the character, that “if superheroes existed in our real world now, they would be as corrupt as anyone else because of money and politics and celebrity.”
When he and Ennis started brainstorming the character back in 2004, they didn’t plan on making him a politically polarizing figure — just a sardonic take on the superhero craze. Robertson has seen people praising Homelander, even dressing as him at rallies, and he wonders whether they understand he’s supposed to be the bad guy.
That’s a discussion that has, for the past two months, torn the subreddit for The Boys asunder. After the show’s third season premiered in June, some fans began complaining about how it satirizes right-wing politics, which devolved into such intense fights that moderators began locking threads, and then were criticized for doing so. Users deleted their accounts in protest.
Showrunner Eric Kripke told Rolling Stone that Homelander “has always been a Trump analogue” to him, it’s just becoming more obvious now. But to him, it’s bigger than that. Homelander is a reflection of “white-male victimization and unchecked ambition” meant to show the audience how easily public figures can amass fans even when behaving badly.
“Antony [Starr] is brilliant in the way he captures how Homelander desperately wants to be loved and accepted despite being terrible,” Robertson told BuzzFeed News. “He’s got this beaming smile and these adoring fans and he’s so awful.”
Homelander is by far the most memeable character on The Boys through clips of him pushing a kid off a roof, drinking milk, and looking around nervously, though the reaction memes don’t have the full context of his character’s depravity. But it’s getting people to watch the show so they have the opportunity to absorb its complete message. But the memes are driving people to watch the show and absorb its message. And maybe that's the perfect way to thoughtfully consume political satire in the social media era.