Image from What’s on Netflix? (Why hero worship is a really, really bad idea.)
What’s so fascinating about The Boys is not so much it’s brutal, comedic takedown of superhero genre’s proliferation of contemporary popular culture as it’s hardly the first. See Watchmen and the comic version of Wanted among others.
It’s a fascinating success for its balancing of attacking that topic for constructive criticism while also exploring just about every other relevant topic of today’s world.
The superhero genre is so ingrained in society now to target them is also to target to some extent the status quo. Despite my own enjoyment of superheroes on the big and small screens, they are a symptom of the times, and if you are a serious person, the times suck.
A documentary about the rise of Marvel’s cinematic universe released before Avengers Age of Ultron posited the idea that superheroes continue to be a big draw for the masses because the times we live in are so troubled. We look at them as inspiring figures that can help us emotionally lift ourselves up by our bootstraps and tackle the many problems, some existential in scope.
The inconvenient truth is they don’t actually directly help along a better world. Worse, their fictional triumphs against adversity may distract us from triumphing against our own.
Iron Man, which started the MCU in 2008, was released during the beginning of the Great Recession. Eleven years later, we haven’t learned the lessons and are now likely on the cusp of another one. The Boys considers a more disturbing, cynical yet very solid counterpoint: what if those heroes are part of the problem, knowingly or not?
Based on Garth Ennis’ profane,angry, blunt yet decent comic series released over a decade ago, the show is by comparison less juvenile in its execution of its deconstructive vision. More emphasis on actual shock and emotion while delivering just enough of the black comedy and wry disdain from the source material. It is an improvement, similar to how the other adaptation of Ennis’ work, Preacher for AMC, is the opposite from what I’ve heard.
Who or what are the Boys? They are an undercover mercenary group with connections to the CIA with an agenda which challenges the corporate power of Vought Industries which created and manages America’s premier superhero team, the Seven.
Good news for Marvel fans, the Seven are more a vicious mockery of the Justice League( especially the Snyder version) than the Avengers, but they aren’t entirely off the hook either.
Karl Urban’s Billy Butcher is the deadpan yet deadly serious leader of the group who has the most reason to defeat Vought and the Seven out of all of them. His brutal professionalism is offset by his clear obsession in his mission. Mother’s Milk( yes, that is his name) is the calmer, more relatable de facto second of the group for most of the season. Considering he has a wife and daughter to consider, he tries his best to rein in Butcher’s riskier impulses.
Frenchie, a French-Canadian member, starts off as the most morally grey of the group due to his messy tactics but grows more sympathetic due to the arrival of Kimiko, a mute Asian woman with truly visceral superpowers who becomes the biggest clue of Vought’s dark behind-the-scenes source of superpowered individuals.
Finally there is Hughie Campbell, a young shell shocked recruit who joins up after the accidental killing of his girlfriend, Robin, by the Flash-inspired speedster, A-Train. Formerly an everyman fan of the Seven and superheroes in general, like the rest of us, his worldview changes severely following Robin’s death and Butcher takes him on an insane, soul-crushing tour of the reality of his world.
It’s a corporate nightmare where the heroic, just ethics we’ve come to expect from our superhero protectors is tainted irreparably by the interests of those who employ them. This stark realization is better presented by the newest member of the Seven, a meek yet innocent up and coming superheroine from Des Moines: Starlight.
Annie “Starlight” January is the closest thing to a superhero you’ve come to recognize from any other piece of media from the genre. Genuinely interested in using her powers to help others. Her arrival at The Seven’s headquarters in New York is almost immediately followed by the ugly truth: The Seven are not only not the heroic icons to aspire to, they are arguably if not exactly criminals themselves.
With the exception of their leader, Homelander, a cross of Captain America and Superman, they are not wholly evil nor are they wholly good. It’s a messy grey where the bad side is often stronger than the good.
A-Train is struggling with self-image issues due to other super-powered characters threatening his official status as the fastest man in the world. A struggle that eventually ties into the critical plot-point of Compound V, an addictive drug which seems to strengthen superpowers.
Queen Maeve, based off Wonder Woman, is essentially Starlight whose been in the corruptible corporate environment for too long and is now apathetic about doing the right thing. She tries to convince Starlight it becomes easier once you let go of your initial optimism for the right thing over the money-making thing.
The Deep, whose interactions with Starlight act as a well done yet harrowing observation on the MeToo movement, is not without sympathetic qualities. While his behavior is terrible and deservedly placed in contempt, he also acts as a kinder than expected satire of Aquaman.
Throughout the season, The Deep tries to actually use his water based abilities to help the environment and the sealife that live in it, but his sexual misconduct and the interests of the company keeps him further and further away from actually attempting a course of redemption.
Black Noir and Translucent round out the Seven. So far, the former is played for laughs as a silent Batman-esque member who aside from helping out in some of the shadier aspects of the business, doesn’t seem to be that bad. We don’t even get to see what his face looks like yet. Translucent, whose powers are a hybrid of the Invisible Man and Luke Cage is a major focus of the Boys’ mission early on in the season. What lies in store for him is also instrumental in the arc of young Hughie especially.
Even though the Boys’ mission to fight and expose the dark side of the Seven seems like the right thing to do and it is, the measures the group takes is no less questionable. To fight a darkness that masquerades in the light, the show literally forces Hughie to “get his hands dirty” to get revenge and closure.
I mentioned earlier that the Boys is more than an R-rated critique of the superhero genre. Other issues of the day like gun violence, the military industrial complex, the media’s bought and owned role in defending the status quo, sexual harassment, religion, religious hypocrisy, terrorism, government and corporate corruption; it’s all there and it’s all tied to two unnerving concepts that make the whole grim, gritty thing matter.
The first is the achingly realistic ambivalence of the populace. Hughie’s dad, portrayed by Simon Pegg who was the visual representation of comics-Hughie, loves his son. But he is a man who upon being confronted with the ugly truths his son is discovering, doesn’t want to bother too much or at all with it.
The American public have been fed a series of convincing and not so convincing lies for so long about the people that protect them. Even if the whole country was to be given the full scope of the truth behind the curtain, would they handle it as responsibly as we, the audience, would hope for? While the series hasn’t reached that point narratively, there are signs that comforting lies for the public in the post-truth world may be the greatest power the Seven and Vought have.
The other aspect that makes it all work out in the end aside from the execution of presentation, acting, effects and pacing is the sense that even when truth comes to light, it’s not just the lackluster public reaction that’s a problem, it’s how Vought’s corporate image can make even scandals into prospective success stories.
Mid-way through the season, after Starlight speaks about the Deep’s sexual coercion and abuse while also taking the time to make a weighty anti-theistic argument at a prayer rally( with her quasi-controlling mom in attendance), Vought takes that once swept under the rug ugly facet of The Seven and makes into a publicity attempt to promote their vision for Starlight’s superhero persona. A bastardization of the better angels of MeToo. Nothing is beyond Vought Industries’ manipulation.
One thing stands even more intimidating than Vought’s near monopolistic power: the anti-Superman Homelander.
Anthony Starr’s Homelander is a terrifying figure in this season’s run and will undoubtedly continue to be so next season. While he does act like Cap and Superman without the heroic, redeeming qualities, something more sinister is at play with him.
Despite his successful public presentation as the most noble yet most humble member of the Seven, his issues go beyond being a moral reverse of the characters he’s based from. He has deep psychological issues, some of them oedipal relating to the female CEO of Vought, Madelyn Stillwell. Some relating to his dark, kept in secret upbringing.
To put it another way, Homelander reinforces why Steve Rogers’ and Clark Kent’s childhood outcomes may have been a matter of life or death for countless people in their respective universes.
The scariest part to Homelander is he could easily let loose and do whatever he desired outside the company’s control. He acts like he is controlled by the company because he wants to. The threat of him going off is what often inspires the highest tension in the season.
There is so much that The Boys covers well in eight episodes that I wouldn’t know where to stop if I went even more in-depth. A lot of that would delve deep into spoilers so I will end it like this.
The Boys is a brilliantly crafted adaptation of a graphic novel series that often let its mean spirited demeanor get in the way of its potent messages. The series cares more than the comic about the hearts of its deeply flawed characters, whether they are super or not.
The message that cuts deepest for me is that if superheroes were indeed real, it would almost certainly be closer to the reality of this Amazon Prime show than the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
I’m not saying whatsoever that the MCU doesn’t have grey aspects that are explored well. It’s just that for the sake of its own messages, the idealism of its long term story is clearly more optimistic. The Boys crafts a well thought out representation of the honest result of superpowered individuals in a realistic world, a world that has become poisoned and decrepit like our own.
The sign it’s a success is that it inspires more thoughtful consideration than nihilistic hopelessness.