Based on the comic book series of the same name from acclaimed writer Garth Ennis (who also created Preacher), The Boys has been called the Watchmen of its generation for its merciless evisceration of everything audiences hold dear about mainstream superheroes.
Thus, when it was announced that The Boys was coming to Amazon with writer-producer Eric Kripke (TV’s Supernatural) at the helm, the only question was, how far would it go?
A CONTROVERSIAL COMIC BOOK
Running for 72 issues from 2006 to 2012, The Boys was controversial from the get-go, moving to publisher Dyamite Entertainment from #7 onwards after the original publisher (DC-owned) Wildstorm grew uneasy with the subject matter.
Packed with filthy language and filthier deeds from villains and so-called heroes alike, Ennis’ wicked sense of humor ensured that the proceedings were rooted in reality, while maintaining a hair’s-breadth distance from outright parody. With more sex, violence, drugs, and gore than even his acclaimed Preacher, it seemed that a proper adaptation of The Boys could never take place. However, with the rise of event television, the goalposts of what’s allowed onscreen move farther and farther away every day, and the advent of multiple streaming platforms have created an unprecedented demand for content, resulting in The Boys making it to TV in a surprisingly faithful manner.
The first episode introduces us to Hughie Campbell (Jack Quaid, The Hunger Games), an unassuming young man working a nondescript job in an electronics store. Living with his retro tv-addicted father (Star Trek’s Simon Pegg, whom the comic version of Hughie was actually modeled after), the bright light in Hughie’s life is his girlfriend, Robin. But when Robin loses her life through the carelessness of superhero A-Train, Hughie is recruited by mercenary Billy Butcher (Karl Urban, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings) into The Boys, a group dedicated to ridding the world of arrogant “supes”.
The Boys’ primary targets are the world’s premier superteam, The Seven, who are managed, marketed, and funded by the Vought corporation, under the watchful eye of Madelyn Stillwell (Elizabeth Shue, The Karate Kid, CSI). Led by the patriotic Homelander (Anthony Starr, Without a Paddle), The Seven operate beyond the jurisdiction of the authorities, often resorting to brutal tactics in their day-to-day heroics when they aren’t making public appearances, starring in films and reality shows, or taking part in PR events.
For Butcher, The Boys’ crusade is deeply personal, as he blames Homelander for the disappearance of his wife. With Hughie as the new recruit, veteran members Frenchie and Mother’s Milk join Butcher to go about their work with various levels of professionalism. Over the course of their investigation into a conspiracy that could implicate everybody with super powers, the team will take advantage of Hughie’s burgeoning relationship with Annie (Erin Jessica Jones), who just happens to be The Seven’s newest recruit.
MEDIA DARLINGS, MEDIA DEVILS
Amusingly, for all the talk of The Boys comics being a 21st century take on Watchmen’s legendary superhero deconstruction, the show is more of an indictment of celebrity culture and the idol worship it engenders. Much like Paul Vehoven’s Robocop (1987) and Starship Troopers, The Boys makes multiple uses of in-world commercials to enhance its commentary. But where Verhoven’s work used clearly exaggerated situations and visuals to get their points across the glimpses we get of this universe’s content are eerily on-point for how much they resemble the garbage that passes for reality TV these days.
From endorsements, book deals, and film franchises, to speaking engagements and mentions on the evening news, The Seven aren’t just the world’s most popular heroes, they’re like the Kardashians, Beyoncé, and Logan Paul combined, complete with all the outbursts, mishaps, and PR nightmares that that implies. As a superhero show, this is hilarious, but as a satire, it’s downright brilliant.
PLAYING WITH CONVENTION
The series derives much of its effectivity from modern audience’s familiarity with superhero conventions; it doesn’t take a genius to see the parallels between members of the Seven and their mainstream counterparts, which makes it all the more shocking to see them acting the way they do. Where The Umbrella Academy showed heroes as flawed individuals trying to do the right thing, The Boys is happy to portray them as amoral assholes that make Henry Cavill’s brooding, neck-breaking Superman look like a beacon of hope.
The mix of cynicism and humor is encapsulated in a sequence where Homelander and fellow hero Queen Maeve (Dominique McElligott, House of Cards) are in a hijacked plane that is plummeting to Earth with everybody onboard. Surrounded by passengers pleading to be saved, the script squeezes in a jab at superhero tropes when Homelander points out that he can’t just grab the plane from below and guide it to safety as he has no ground to push off of. With a nonchalance borne of never having to own up to his actions, Homelander takes Maeve, leaving the passengers to their fate.
Later on, while surveying the resultant crash site, Homelander not only pretends to have no knowledge of the event, but uses it as an opportunity to spin the tragedy on camera to push for a bill allowing superheroes in the armed forces. It is this mix of scathing commentary and superheroes behaving badly that gives The Boys its edge and appeal. Whereas a film like 1999’s Mystery Men arrived too early on the scene for mainstream audiences to appreciate what it was trying to do, we now live in a world where the Marvel Cinematic Universe has dominated the box office for the last 11 years, allowing the shocks and jokes to land with maximum effectiveness.
THE WOMAN ON TOP
As the main force behind Vought Industries, Stillwell, as portrayed by the surprisingly perfectly-cast Shue, is a force to be reckoned with; ostensibly a hard-working single-mom, the character’s PR leanings are presented as making her as devious, remorseless and vicious as any supervillain. Able to switch gears at the drop of a hat, Stillwell manipulates the heroes under her as deftly as she runs her business. The appearance of her corporate superior late in the season acts like an in-joke in and of itself—he is played by no less than Giancarlo Esposito, who memorably played Breaking Bad’s equally conniving (and ruthless) Gus Fring.
Leading the opposition is Urban’s Butcher, the appropriately-named leader of The Boys, who, while a full-blown supe murderer, has a propensity to let his emotions dictate his priorities. Sporting a full-blown (if somewhat inconsistent) Cockney accent, Urban is clearly having a ball in the part, leaving no part of the scenery unchewed.
As the new recruit, Quaid’s Hughie is the perfect audience point of view character for this fantastic, yet familiar, world. A lifelong follower of superheroes, Quaid’s room is decorated with all the posters, action figures, and other assorted memorabilia found in the homes of many a real-world fan. With his favorite ironically having been A-Train himself, Quaid’s wide-eyed introduction to the world of superhero homicide is one with endlessly creative solutions to uncommon problems, such as, how do you kill a man with diamond skin?
THE BOTTOM LINE
Arriving in a post-Avengers: Endgame pop culture landscape, the timing is right for a satirical, cynical look at superheroes. Whether or not audiences will be ready for one as in-your-face as The Boys will come down to personal taste, but this writer, for one, is fascinated to be living in a world where a show featuring caped crusaders, #metoo, and a dolphin getting run over by a truck isn’t a complete disaster, but, rather, one of the most supremely entertaining binge-watches of the year.
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