Always start with a song. Or your lead character using a laser visioned infant like a flamethrower. Either’s good.
The Boys does NOT play around. In the slightest. However, unlike the comic it’s based on it’s vastly successful in dealing with issues of everything from sexual abuse to corporate malpractice. Also Karl Urban spends eight episodes playing the grandson/lovechild of John Constantine and Captain Jack Sparrow and who doesn’t want to see that?
In the world of The Boys, superhumans are celebrities and commodities. All run by Vought, a corporation based out of New York, they dominate popular culture, keep the streets safe and it isn’t close to enough. The Seven, their premiere super team are chafing at the bit. Vought want superhumans in the military and at the worst possible time for him to do it, speedster A-Train kills a civilian.
That one death could, in lesser hands, be used as a blanket excuse for everything. Here it’s an inciting incident the show uses to yank the skin away from the world and show us the gristle underneath. It’s a wound that never heals and that’s never truer than with Hughie. Played, with astonishing series anchoring lack of front by Jack Quaid, Hughie loses Robin (Jess Salgueiro) when A-Train literally runs through her. Traumatized and furious, he’s taken under the grubby trenchcoated wing of Billy Butcher (Urban), a man with a plan. You see, Butcher’s paid to put the boot in when supes get out of line and it’s been a while. He sees an apprentice in Hughie and together with engineer Frenchie (Tomer Capon) and medic and counselor Mother’s Milk (Laz Alonzo) they set out to go to war with Vought. There’s just one problem. Hughie’s new friend Annie (Erin Moriarty) is also the newest member of the Seven…
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why this works so much better for me than the TV adaptation of Preacher. Both are Garth Ennis scripted books, both are from the same production team but The Boys lands, for me, much harder. I think that’s because where Preacher is a western and fundamentally in love with that story form, The Boys is a reaction to superhero ubiquity. Normally that would bore me senseless and was one of the two things that led to me giving up on the comic (The other being it’s relentless, cheery squalor. ‘Wahey! Tits and bloooood!’ yeah, no thanks.). But instead of that, the series uses it’s existence in a different medium to comment on not just the ideas behind superheroes but the real world catastrophes that would flow from them.
It’s also a very, very angry show about the inherent sociopathy of multi-corporations. And it’s produced by Amazon. And irony! Which gets points on the back end.
Irony ALWAYS gets points on the back end.
est of all though, it’s a show which works overtime to explore every side of its central premise. Don’t worry, this isn’t some ‘good people on both sides’ bullshit. The villains here are profoundly evil, contemptible people and Anthony Starr’s turn as the permanently smiling, permanently confused and endlessly bored Homelander is utterly terrifying. But it’s also contextualized, as is everyone else. The series continually holds the old fashioned black and white morality of early superhero comics up as a compass point to navigate to even as almost none of it’s characters do that very thing. In other words, it feels a lot like a show that doesn’t hate superheroes, but hates that the reality doesn’t measure up to the ideal.
That’s a massive step up from the comics and it means everyone here feels like a protagonist rather than some meat waiting to be abused for a punchline. Chace Crawford and Jessie T. Usher are fiercely good as The Deep and A-Train, the two most squalid members of the team precisely because of how pathetic they’re also shown to be. Queen Maeve, the Wonder Woman analogue played by Dominique McElligott slowly transforms from an embittered pseudo-alcoholic into a woman re-discovering her own power and integrity. Erin Moriarty’s turn as Starlight is bluntly astonishing, as the character is pushed to the absolute edge, questions everything and finds she actually does have a heroic core ideal. Butcher, played with chewy swagger by the always wonderful Urban, is revealed to be both a loyal and loving husband and a sociopath who’ll say anything to anyone in pursuit of an ideal that is torpedoed beneath the waterline in the series’ final seconds. Even Hughie is transformed from a wild-eyed permanent victim into a man who is still terrified for his life but is also remarkably good at both violent improvisation and emotional honesty. No one here is a hero. But not everyone here is a full blown villain and that’s what makes Homelander existentially disturbing. Everyone else is conflicted. He’s impatient. Not a quality you want in an invulnerable human raised in a lab by the Christian far right.
The show, of course, isn’t perfect. The Female, played by the excellent Karen Fukuhara is, so far little more than a mute Wolverine clone. But so far that’s pretty much the only problem. The show works incredibly hard to justify it’s extremes and almost always does. It looks at superhumanity not with the embittered eyes of an industry choked and sustained by it, but through the lens of modern awareness of power. To misquote Bowie, we’re quite aware what we’re going through and that we’re far from immune to the consultations of corporations or, in this case, superhumanity. And that, for better or worse, is where Billy Butcher comes in.
The Boys is infinitely better than I dared hope it would be and is on Amazon Prime now. Season 2 was announced before season 1 aired and is currently filming.