The cynicism of Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson’s The Boys isn’t something that you can dismiss in the age of comic book adaptations we’re currently living through, and Amazon’s done nothing to downplay that fact with its new series based on the graphic novels. Whether we like to admit it or not, superheroes and the corporations that created them have become integral parts of our general pop-cultural discourse, and that reality is something worth unpacking.
Despite all of its larger-than-life, comic book-y trappings, The Boys is a show rooted in a very specific aspect of our reality. Here, superheroes aren’t just real or symbolic figures living lives removed from those of the people they protect. They’re bona fide celebrities who make awkward appearances on late-night talk shows promoting both their heroic efforts and the upcoming films based on their lives, all of which are carefully orchestrated by a monolithic corporation that the public worships.
In the world of The Boys, people don’t just worship superheroes because they save lives and ostensibly make the world a better place, but because the heroes are very much in on the consumerist, capitalisation of fandom that you see here in the real world.
Unlike the live-action adaptations of certain other comic books, The Boys’ admittedly grimdark storytelling serves a legitimate, non-aesthetic purpose. The series wants you to sit with the idea of a world with honest-to-God capes and think honestly about what that might look like. In doing so, it also makes you consider just what it is that you, the viewers, get out of superhero narratives.
If Disney, Warner Brothers, and Google somehow came together to form a conglomerate production company that also supplies superhuman police officers to precincts in cities willing to pay for them, they’d be something like the Vought corporation that functions as The Boys’ de facto big bad.
Vought-branded superheroes are integral parts of the criminal justice system throughout the country as they operate as a kind of supplementary assistance to the baseline human police. Cities want heroes the same way they lust after major sports franchises because the capes also function as a kind of status symbol with cultural cache, and Vought Vice President Madelyn Stillwell (Elizabeth Shue) understands just how valuable that makes them.
To the public, Vought’s superheroes are paragons of virtue and justice who singlehandedly preserve peace and the American way in the various cities, and the Seven — the series’ analogue to the Justice League with some Avengers sprinkled throughout — are essentially gods who walk among men. But they’re also the stars of their own film franchise, and their financial success depends on how effectively they can be marketed to the public, and many of them — the Seven in particular — are raging, hypocritical arseholes.
Like all celebrities, the Seven’s heroes are still just people behind closed doors, and like all people, they’ve got hangups, problems, and emotional issues. What sets the Seven apart, though, is that they’re literally the most powerful celebrities in the world, and that power has long-since gone to their heads in a variety of dysfunctional, criminal ways.
The world’s too busy obsessing over whether Homelander (Antony Starr) and Queen Maeve (Dominique McElligott) are going to get back together to notice that she’s deeply in the closet and he’s an unnerving sociopath with an Oedipal complex.
The heroes’ secret lives (not as civilians, but as off-duty heroes) are rife with the kinds of wild debauchery we’re accustomed to hearing about from different parts of the entertainment industry. But what The Boys wants you to consider is how people would feel about that kind of moral depravity if they were confronted with it directly.
Like the comic, the series follows as pleasantly boring Wee Hughie Campbell’s (Jack Quaid) life begins to fall apart after his girlfriend Robin is suddenly murdered by the speedster A-Train (Jesse Usher) while the supposed hero is high out of his mind.
As shocked as Hughie is by Robin’s gruesome demise, he’s even more devastated at the impartiality Vought brings to the table as it swiftly works to downplay A-Train’s “accident” in order to maintain his public image. Hughie’s disillusionment ends up giving him purpose as he begins to see heroes like A-Train and the other members of the Seven as the monsters they actually are, but it isn’t until he meets Billy Butcher (Karl Urban) of the titular Boys that he realises what he wants to do with all of his fury.
While Hughie’s more than down with the Boys’ plan to take down the Seven, it’s a staggering task for a host of reasons beyond the metahumans’ seeming invulnerability. The Seven aren’t just a team of superheroes, they’re the most valuable brand in the world with an unlimited amount of resources at their disposal to ensure that they stay that way. Much like Disney, Vought is in the business of being the only major game in town, meaning that Sitwell and the corporation will stop at nothing to maintain their economic and cultural dominance.
As interesting as Hughie’s arc in The Boys is, it’s rather straightforward and direct compared to Annie “Starlight” January’s (Erin Moriarty), the newest and youngest member of the Seven who joins the team fully believing in all the ideas they represent. Long before Hughie begins to see the Seven for what they really are, Starlight learns firsthand that it’s truly best to never meet one’s heroes, especially when they’re people who’ve never had anyone check their outsized egos.
The Boys does eventually get around to a rather traditional plot about capes going after villains who pose a legitimate threat to public safety, but the show’s politics and cultural commentary are easily its strongest suits.
One of Sitwell’s biggest goals is to get Vought’s superheroes into the armed forces, effectively guaranteeing the company’s economic success for the foreseeable future, but her plan raises all kinds of ethical flags that present themselves in waves, both to other characters and to viewers.
Unlike Marvel or DC’s live-action heroes, who all kill in what passes for “audience-friendly” ways that have desensitised people to the reality of what they’re doing, The Boys’ metahumans revel in the brutality of their attacks.
The show wants you to understand just what kinds of dangerous, but relatively pedestrian, things a person with super-strength could do, like squeezing someone’s head with their thighs until the person’s head explodes. Every so often, The Boys ups its gore factor for no reason other than to remind you of the grossness that logically comes along with super-heroics, and it has the added effect of highlight the ideological griminess of it all.
By the end of the season’s eight episodes, The Boys manages to tell a solid story with a breadth and depth of character development that Netflix’s cape fare always insisted it needed more time to do, which is refreshing, and its reflections on the ways that we obsess over comic book heroes are interesting.
That all being said, The Boys is an Amazon production, and no amount of biting critique is going to change the fact that it’s every bit a part of the big machine it’s rallying against as Warner Bros. or Disney.
The Boys is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.