Nearly 40 years ago, watch men and The Dark Knight Returns turned superhero comics upside down. Fascist “heroes” upholding unjust systems for wealth and fame, “villains” driven to crime by desperation and injustice — in a genre that was once defined by straightforward battles between good and evil, all bets were now off. Ever since, storytellers have continued to play with the power dynamics and political implications of superheroes: Moral ambiguity is essential to series like Amazon Prime’s The Boysfor example.
Riley’s Boots I’m A Virgo, which started this week on the same service, explores many of these same themes. The story revolves around Cootie (Jharrel Jerome), a giant teenager living in Riley’s hometown of Oakland, California. Although his size makes him stand out, to say the least, Cootie doesn’t want to be special. He just wants to hang out with his friends and his girlfriend Flora (Olivia Washington), eat dozens of fast-food burgers in one sitting, read comic books, and vibe.
But being a 13-foot-tall Black man makes Cootie a target. And soon, an arrogant Iron Man-type billionaire who calls himself The Hero (Walton Goggins) makes capturing Cootie — who the media depicts as a dangerous “thug” because of his race and size — a priority. I’m A Virgo’s story has all the hallmarks of a revisionist superhero tale: A fascist “hero” who’s essentially a cop on steroids, driven by corruption and bigotry. A misunderstood leading man driven to populist crime — in this case, destroying a device in the Oakland power plant that regularly causes rolling blackouts — by a society that wants to fetishize him and kill him at the same time.
Even Cootie’s relationship with his aunt and uncle, Martisse (Mike Epps) and Lafrancine (Carmen Ejogo), has elements of the classic “chosen one” narrative that, in a more conventional series, would see Cootie rising to his destiny as a gargantuan protector of Oakland’s oppressed. Aim I’m A Virgo is not a conventional superhero series, and Boots Riley does not believe in lone vigilantes, whether he agrees with their political views or not. Simply pointing out that “good” and “evil” are relative terms isn’t enough for Riley. He wants to shatter the superhero binary.
Riley is a longtime community organizer as well as a musician and a filmmaker; a member of both the DGA and the WGA, he’s been a vocal supporter of the current writers’ strike. In a recent interview with Wired, he said: “I’ve never been someone who has put forth the idea that we can make this gentler capitalism. I’ve always been someone that said we have to get rid of capitalism […] right now what we have to do is organize a labor movement, a mass militant, radical labor movement.” And that passion for, and sincere belief in, the power of collective action drives I’m A Virgo.
Compared to an exciting battle between two superpowered foes, community organizing is a long, slow, unglamorous process. This is dramatized in I’m A Virgo through the character of Jones (Kara Young), an activist and member of Cootie’s friend group. Jones is building a coalition to launch a general strike, a mass movement that unfolds in the background of the conflict between Cootie and The Hero. Several key conflicts in the series play out in front of picket lines, and at one point, Jones expresses her frustration with Cootie, telling him (in so many words) that all this cape bullshit is a distraction from the real work.
And when Cootie is confronted by the limitations of his powers against a deeply entrenched, moneyed system, it’s Jones who steps in to defy The Hero. She does so not with fists or gadgets, but by breaking down exactly the role The Hero plays in upholding the capitalist system, and how his actions produce the disaffected underclass of “criminals” he’s sworn to fight. He’s creating the problem he claims he wants to solve.
Jones’ monologue on the cycle of unemployment, crime, policing, and corporate profit is a genuinely radical moment, especially on a show that was produced by Amazon — a company with its own fractious history of labor struggles. It’s an explicit call for viewers to question why we need to divide the world into good and evil in the first place, and who profits from that partition. I’m a Virgo presents a third option beyond heroes and villains, where citizens don’t have to wait for a hero to step up and save them. Instead, it asks: What would it look like for the people to save themselves?