We may have already hit the saturation point for movies and TV shows about superheroes but, vague title aside, Amazon’s The Boys has a fun take on the genre. If super powers really did exist, isn’t it likely that most people who get them would be dicks about it?
Of course, this series isn’t the first examination of bad superheroes. The movies Chronicle and Brightburn played with similar premises, as did Watchmen to some extent (and I expect more from HBO’s impending Watchmen TV spinoff). Nevertheless, The Boys puts the idea inside a very compelling, darkly comedic framework.
Based on a comic by Garth Ennis, the story takes place in a world where super-powered people (colloquially known as “Supes”) not only exist, but have been corporatized, monetized, and franchised like professional athletes. The majority of Supes work for a corporation called Vought International, which licenses them out to protect specific cities in lucrative contract deals. Supes aren’t just costumed crime-fighters; they’re celebrity superstars who are aggressively packaged and marketed to a public eager to eat them up. They have PR teams vetting every assignment for maximum favorable exposure of their brands, and as it turns out, a lot of their engagements are scripted. They do product endorsements, are commercial spokespeople, and are often movie and TV stars too.
Seemingly thousands of Supes are integrated into society at every level. At the top of the pyramid is Vought’s flagship superhero team, The Seven, led by the powerful Homelander (Anthony Starr from Banshee). Other members of the team include the indestructible Queen Maeve (Dominique McElligott from Hell on Wheels), the cocky speedster A-Train (Jessie T. Usher), the invisible Translucent (Alex Hassell), fish-man The Deep (Chase Crawford from Gossip Girl), and mysterious ninja Black Noir (Nathan Mitchell). All of these have personality failings ranging from the minor (Queen Maeve is feeling burned-out about her job), to the problematic (Translucent is a perv, The Deep is a sexual harasser), to the truly troubling. Homelander’s wholesome and eminently patriotic public image belies the fact that he’s actually a psychopath unable to give two shits about anyone or anything that doesn’t directly benefit his profit participation points. Obviously, all of that is kept hidden from a public that worships them like gods.
Mild-mannered Hughie Campbell (Jack Quaid, son of Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan) has no super powers. He’s just an ordinary guy who works in an electronics store. He’s been a fan of The Seven since childhood and still has some of their action figures in his bedroom. Sadly, his first real-life interaction with a Supe is pretty awful and results in his girlfriend dying horribly. Hughie’s life in shattered, and he’s denied any closure when representatives from Vought try to downplay the incident and buy his silence. Hughie doesn’t want their money; he wants a public acknowledgement of wrongdoing and a sincere apology – neither of which is offered.
This tragedy brings Hughie to the attention of Billy Butcher (Karl Urban), an alleged FBI agent who has his own grudge against The Seven and a hatred of all Supes. Billy recruits Hughie on a mission to plant a bug inside Vought headquarters, which eventually leads to Hughie joining a vigilante group of non-super-powered humans plotting to take down the most powerful Supes on the planet.
These events coincide with a small town Supe heroine called Starlight (Erin Moriarty) being called up to the big leagues and selected to join The Seven, only to be quickly disillusioned that the reality of the world’s greatest superhero team is much darker than the fantasy she always imagined. Naturally, her path will have to cross with Hughie’s.
Season Verdict / Grade: A-
I’ll be honest that, given source material from the creator of Preacher (and produced by Seth Rogen, who’s also behind the TV adaptation of that comic), I kind of expected The Boys to be a lot crazier than it turns out to be. Although the show is very darkly humorous and is generous with raunch, profanity, and gore, it often holds back from being too gonzo or surreal. The upside to this, however, is that the show has much stronger narrative cohesion and is a lot more consistent than Preacher without so many wild swings in quality. Also, when it does eventually get really nutty (episodes 4 and 5 have a couple of the most hilarious scenes), those moments hit harder.
The show has quality production values and VFX, appealing characters, and a great cast. In addition to those already mentioned, Elisabeth Shue has a major role as the soulless corporate VP in charge of The Seven, Simon Pegg plays Hughie’s milquetoast father, Ann Cusack is Starlight’s domineering stage mom, and Haley Joel Osment turns up as a has-been former child star. Amazon has clearly poured a lot of resources into this as a potential breakout hit, including greenlighting a second season before the first even premiered.
The show runs out of steam a bit by the final episode, which is surprising considering the short eight-episode season. Regardless, a few minor issues aside, The Boys is a very slick and entertaining take-down of the superhero genre. I enjoyed it a lot and look forward to Season 2.