It’s hard to remember a time where superheroes weren’t in the cultural zeitgeist, and with the genre’s enduring popularity (and domination of the box office) you really have to wonder if the genre will ever see any kind of waning in its popularity. Are we ever going to get sick of seeing Marvel crush the box office, or are super-powered men and women going to be a permanent fixture in what seems like every form of media?
Something like The Boys would seem like the perfect antidote in an age when you can start a conversation with anyone on the street about the likes of Captain America, Wonder Woman, or any other dozen or so comic book adaptations that have hit the screen. The genre is practically begging for the proverbial wedgie at this point, and the first season of The Boys promises to deliver the gory goods on the premise that superheroes aren’t the shining heroic beacons we thought they were.
The world of The Boys is similar to ours: everyone loves superheroes, they’re a cottage industry unto themselves and dominate every aspect of our lives. There’s even a massive, extended cinematic universe in what’s the first of many shots fired at the Disney-Marvel machine. The reality is much bleaker: it’s an entire sham. The origin stories are phony, the superheroes care more about their public image than saving the world, and when they’re not being more depraved than a Roman orgy or actively amoral they’re completely incompetent.
Ordinary comic book geek Hughie Campbell (Jack Quaid) learns this the hard way when his girlfriend is turned into viscera when a super-powered speedster accidentally runs through her. The incident is covered up by the Vought corporation which manages every superhero and has its eyes on national defense. The top superhero team in their stable is The Seven: an analog to the Justice League worshiped as gods among us who can do no wrong. Their top-tier superheroes include a psychotic hybrid of Captain American and Superman called the Homelander (Antony Starr), a boozy and disillusioned Amazonian warrior called Queen Maeve (Dominique McElligott), and the sexist aquatic superhero The Deep (Chace Crawford) grappling with their own uselessness within The Seven.
Hughie is approached by Billy Butcher (Karl Urban), the leader of a shady clandestine outfit called The Boys that monitors and brings out-of-line superheroes to heel, though Billy is of the opinion the only good superhero is a dead one due to his own bad blood with The Seven. While Hughie sees the dark underbelly of the superhero world courtesy of Billy and his motley crew of outcasts, superheroine Starlight (Erin Moriarty) is called to join The Seven and finds out the big leagues aren’t all they’re cracked up to be as her honest nature and desire to do the right thing are gradually warped through the patriarchal and corporate machinations of Vought.
The Boys shares some of the same DNA of the other Seth Rogen-produced series Preacher (currently wrapping up its final season on AMC). It takes the controversial work Garth Ennis and updates it somewhat for the modern era while smoothing down some of the rougher edges. Not that there isn’t plenty of inappropriateness to keep fans of the source material happy, but things are slightly less dark than they were in the comics. The comic mirrors Ennis’ disdain for the entire superhero genre, and published during the height of the George Dubya era, The Boys struggles in its differing tone and time period. Scenes of the Homelander whipping up the population into a nationalistic froth over Islamic terrorists feels more at home well over a decade ago than it does today, and the allusions of Vought as a stand-in for Halliburton don’t resonate as the most pressing matter as much in the post-truth Trump era.
The series expands on the characterization of the superheroes, namely The Seven, and we’re given more backstory that helps illustrate why they became the fame-hungry monsters they are rather than positing that all superheroes are irredeemable douchebags that the world is better without. The Boys is more concerned with criticizing the corporate strategy of the House of Mouse’s plan for total domination in every sphere of pop culture. The Seven are, in some respects, victims of the very same company that made them successes in the first place. Queen Maeve has been broken down after the years of being a superhero and the Homelander is losing touch with humanity and becoming a megalomaniac.
There’s a difference between beginning to raise doubts about the superhero genre like the series does with its occasional bursts of insight and humor versus Ennis’ vision of burning everything to the ground, though there’s always the opportunity to go even darker in the next season (The Boys has already become one of Amazon’s most watched series and picked up for another season, after all).
Karl Urban lets his faux English accent, beard, and tacky Hawaiian shirts do most of the acting, all the while clearly having the most fun and spouting the C-word with abandon (something of a holdover from the less progressive days in the comic book industry) while Jack Quaid’s Hughie serves as the everyman who gets enveloped into the seedy world of superheroes and vigilantes with an equal mix of anger and anguish. Antony Starr’s Homelander is by far the most intriguing character. As an Evil Superman arcehtype, he is utterly terrifying as his mask of all-American corporate charisma dissipates and he can casually commit atrocities with his heat vision and strength based solely on fickle whims.
The Boys‘ satire doesn’t always land its punches like it should, but the acting is solid and the humor makes up for its tonal deficiencies (i.e. superheroes terrible at being superheroes and wanton carnage versus pathos-driven characters). It’s not quite the tasking the superhero genre deserves in 2019, but at least it’s a start in the right direction.