If there’s one thing 2020 needs right now, it’s a hero.
Thankfully, though, we won’t be holding on for said hero until the morning light, because superheroes are ten a penny at the moment – albeit a very different kind of superhero to that which we’re used to.
Their storylines are grittier, their enemies’ intentions more twisted. Their costumes are less… costumey. The battle sequences are far more bloody and ostensibly violent than we’re used to, too.
And that all makes absolute sense to us, quite frankly.
You don’t need us to point out that the world has shifted dramatically since Iron Man first soared into cinemas in 2008 – and we’re not just talking about the Covid-19 pandemic. Indeed, just one glance at the rolling 24/7 news headlines is all it takes to reconcile ourselves to the fact that these are dark times.
So why shouldn’t our superheroes err on the darker side, too? Why shouldn’t they tackle heavy themes of abuse, misuse of power, addiction, and grief? Why shouldn’t they deal with shady government officials peddling viruses into the world?
And, above all else, why shouldn’t they force us to take a long hard look at those we hero-worship IRL, too?
With that in mind, then, here’s our pick of this year’s best and grittiest superhero offerings.
The Boys are back in town
Based on the 2006-12 comic book series by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson, The Boys plunges us headfirst into a world in which superheroes dominate the culture, their stories told in films and their faces plastered all over merchandise. A world…
Well, a world very much like our own, quite frankly.
Watch the trailer for season two of The Boys below:
The corporate superheroes at the centre of this clever satire, though, are corrupt as hell. Those who tuned into the very first episode will know that the story kicks off as A/V store employee Hughie Campbell (Jack Quaid) takes a walk with his girlfriend, Robin (Jess Salgueiro). Their sweet back-and-forth conversation, though, is brutally cut short when a superhero named A-Train (Jessie T. Usher) literally speeds through Robin and reduces her to an explosion blood and guts.
Hughie is, understandably, traumatised beyond belief. A-Train issues a statement of regret on live TV (which is sort of like an apology, without actually saying sorry), insisting he was using his Flash-like powers to stop a bank robbery.
And, behind-the-scenes, Madelyn Stillwell (Elisabeth Shue) – who’s basically something like a manager to her superhero stars – has her team offer Hughie an eye-watering cheque in exchange for his signature on an NDA.
The first season of The Boys continued its gleefully violent satire much in this vein, giving us the sort of superheroes who sexually assault their fans and colleagues, orchestrate disasters to stay relevant, frequent sordid superhero sex clubs, and carry out vicious murders with a twinkle in their eyes.
No wonder Hughie decided to team up with Billy Butcher (Karl Urban), Frenchie (Tomer Kapon), Mother’s Milk (Laz Alonso), Kimiko (Karen Fukuhara) to try and take them all down, eh?
And no wonder so many fans are eagerly counting down the hours to the premiere of the second season – which picks up immediately after the finale’s fallout, and deals with that big ‘supe’ dilemma: if superheroes are made in a lab, who’s making them? And why?
Initiating Project Power
The Boys, of course, is not alone in its ‘superheroes with a twist’ offering. Slick action thriller Project Power, which has been steadily trending on Netflix since its release on 14 August, introduces us to a world where goons tote glowing vials of ‘Power’ – a newly-launched designer drug – on every corner.
Watch the trailer for Project Power below:
Power, as you may have guessed from the name, gives users a time-limited surge of superhero energy. It makes them feel incredible, and enables them to do incredible things. The comedown, though, can be difficult. Terrible, even. Some people have even been known to (ahem) spontaneously combust.
Still, though, people clamour to get their hands on Power. Even Detective Frank Shaver (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has developed a nasty habit for the drug, which he buys from teen dealer and aspiring rap artist Robin (Dominique Fishback). But, when the mysterious Art (Jamie Foxx) arrives on the scene, it quickly becomes apparent that there’s more to the Power craze than anyone ever realised.
Project Power’s trio of protagonists lurk in the murky grey area between hero and villain: a drug-dealer, a corrupt cop, an ex-soldier with PTSD and a murky agenda. The impact of Hurricane Katrina on its New Orleans residents is tackled in big, broad strokes. And the threat of addictive pharmaceuticals and drug tests, too, causes us to squint a little harder at figures of authority.
Considering this film is all about shades of grey, then, is it any wonder that it takes place predominantly at night?
A not-so-picture-perfect Utopia
Hot on the heels of The Boys season 2 and Project Power comes Utopia, which is due to save the world on 25 September. The Amazon Prime series – helmed by Gone Girl’s Gillian Flynn – follows a group of die-hard comic fans, who meet online and bond over their obsession with a seemingly fictional comic called (you guessed it) ‘Utopia’.
However, it’s not long before they wind up unearthing hidden meanings within the comic book’s pages, predicting threats to humanity. And these are not just the makings of a conspiracy; they are very real dangers coming alive right now in their world.
Cue the group embarking on a high-stakes adventure, bringing them face-to-face with the comic’s famed central character, Jessica Hyde, who joins them on their mission to save the world… or so they assume.
You guessed it: Hyde is harbouring a deep secret of her own. Gulp.
And where there’s one, there’s more
The buffet table of twisted superhero offerings is a well-stocked one.
Earlier this month, Netflix released Freaks – You’re One Of Us to the masses, who gobbled up its tale of a meek fry cook who a) discovers she has superpowers and b) uncovers an unsavoury, widespread conspiracy.
There’s also two seasons of The Umbrella Academy – all about seven estranged siblings with extraordinary powers – available to stream now. And Raising Dion, too, which sees struggling mother Nicole (Alisha Wainwright) struggle to figure out how to raise her suddenly superhuman son Dion (Ja’Siah Young), all while job-hunting and mourning her dead husband Mark (Michael B Jordan).
Watch the trailer for Raising Dion below:
Meanwhile HBO’s Watchmen gives us mask-wearing vigilantes (all of whom are treated as criminals by government agencies), but none have superpowers. And, for an extra dash of realism, they’re woven into a society that’s all too reflective of our current state.
Elsewhere, we have the unfathomably popular Warrior Nun, whose eponymous character is a young woman who wakes up in a morgue with inexplicable powers and immediately finds herself caught up in a battle between good and evil.
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There’s also Titans, which has followed Dick Grayson (Brenton Thwaites) and his superhero team for two seasons so far, putting him up against villains like Deathstroke. And El Vecino, which follows a 20-something struggling with adulthood as he unexpectedly becomes a superhero.
Plus, let’s not forget the critically-acclaimed (and sadly cancelled) Jessica Jones, which weaves a tale about an abuse survivor’s struggles with PTSD after a tragedy puts an end to her short-lived career as a superhero.
There’s more, of course. There’s always more, for those bold heroes who seek to find it.
But these 11 titles should be more than enough to sate your desire for dark and gritty superheroes. And all, too, boast the sort of gripping stories that will captivate even the staunchest superhero haters out there, too.
So, all that’s left to ask is this: which will you be watching first?
Images: Amazon Prime/Netflix
Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.