Amazon Prime’s The Boys comes really close to greatness.
Based on the Garth Ennis comic book of the same name, The Boys takes the superhero genre and uses it to satirize just about everything under the sun.
It tackles celebrity worship, branding culture, the superhero genre itself, sexual harassment. You name it, they poke fun at it. And they attack it hard and head-on.
Producers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg weaved together an adaptation that, despite its flaws, is fun, exciting, funny, and fascinating. It isn’t perfect, but its flaws are few and far between. Let’s break down what it is that makes The Boys so super.
In the world of The Boys, superhumans known as Supes, and they are media commodities. They have theme parks, tent pole movies, and TV deals. And all of the major Supes are managed by Vought Industries, a massive conglomerate that keeps their darkest secrets under wraps.
The series protagonist, Hughie Campbell (Jack Quaid, Star Trek: Lower Decks), comes face-to-face with that dark side when his girlfriend Robin is carelessly disintegrated when the super speedster A-Train (Jesse T. Usher, Shaft) runs straight through her. Unfortunately, there’s no justice for her death. A-Train is a member of the top Supes team in the world, the Seven.
Hughie tries to go back to his normal life until he’s approached by Billy Butcher (Karl Urban, Thor: Ragnarok). Butcher leads a covert group (the titular Boys) dedicated to exposing and taking down Supes when they get out of line. He recruits Hughie for a single mission to help get some dirt on A-Train and his cohorts. But a misstep puts Hughie in the fight for the long haul.
Matters become yet more complicated when Hughie begins dating Starlight (Erin Moriarty, Jessica Jones), the newest member of the Seven. Starlight is a Supe from the Midwest who’s been raised as the superhero equivalent of a pageant kid. She gets her gig with the Seven with an audition tape that showcases her genuine naivete and general goody-two-shoes nature. But Starlight quickly realizes what a viper’s nest the Seven really is.
As the series progresses, Hughie, Butcher, and the rest of the team dig deeper into Vought Industries and wind up on the radar of its CEO, Madelyn Sitwell (Elizabeth Shue), and the Seven’s leader and most powerful member, Homelander (Anthony Starr).
The Boys is an ensemble piece, but make no mistake about it. This is Karl Urban’s show.
He’s mostly recognizable to audiences for supporting roles, like his part in Thor: Ragnarok or as Dr. McCoy in the reboot Star Trek films. But anybody who’s seen Dredd knows that Karl Urban is a scenery-chewing machine. He gets a chance to show that off with gusto in The Boys.
Urban doesn’t play Butcher in over-the-top fashion. He takes the role with no regard for the fact that there might even be a top. And despite the bravado with which he tackles the role, Urban knows when to rein it in when the scene calls for it. He senses when to turn on the surrogate father, big-brother dynamic with Hughie and when to be a carefree badass. The Boys is Urban at his unhinged best.
Quaid and Moriarty as Hughie and Starlight, though, are the heart of the series. And they each play their parts with just that: All kinds of heart.
There’s a real connection between Hughie and the audience, and Quaid is our window into the world of the Supes from the outside looking in. We’ll get to the writing later, but Quaid does a great job of turning reaction shots and exposition dumps into engaging and interesting scenes. Quaid is extremely expressive in both voice and look, and his vulnerability keeps us grounded despite his fantastic surroundings.
Moriarty as Starlight, on the other hand, is our spy on the ground. She’s our window to the behind-the-scenes world of the Supes and the Seven. We live the moral quandaries along with her as she goes through the culmination of a lifelong dream only to find out it has its nightmarish elements.
Her first meeting with the Deep is revealing (in more ways than one) and informs her character for the rest of the series.
Moriarty plays Starlight as a character desperately trying to hang on to her humanity in a world of gods. She never loses that “aw shucks” demeanor, but she still conveys the character’s growth.
Writing And Presentation
Rogen and Goldberg are clearly fans of Garth Ennis, having brought Preacher to AMC a couple years back. Since their earliest big collaboration, Superbad, it’s been clear that they’re also fans of sophomoric humor.
That love is blatantly evident here but never becomes overbearing. What’s more impressive is the balance in the stories. It’s a government conspiracy series, a superhero epic, a buddy cop story, and a screwball comedy all rolled into one.
There are twists and turns, and the series is more than a look at how the real world might interact with superhumans. The turns are too fun to spoil or even hint at here, but I can say that the character of Homelander is one to look at very closely. We meet this world’s Superman stand-in and take him at face value. But when we see his character is deeper than that, we have one preconception of him.
Homelander is more than Superman with a dark side. He’s extremely complex and layered. Each layer peeled makes him more complex and more layered.
The Boys is also an incredibly violent and graphic series, and it takes advantage of its fantastic setting. There’s no shortage of blood and guts and definitely no lack of depictions of sex. And they are not handled with restraint. Every spatter of blood and every awkward sex scene is handled with over-the-top madness, but they’re only on display in brief glimpses.
Balance is the key in the storytelling with The Boys, and it’s a work that Thanos would be proud of.
But where it does falter is in the satirization side of things. The whole “what if superheroes” were part of the real world angle is a little bit played. And while The Boys puts a refreshing spin on it, some of its art-imitating-life elements are a bit on-the-nose.
As impactful as Starlight’s first encounter with the Deep is, it smacks of being too self-aware of the real world.
The show moves past these self-aware moments and gets back to business quickly enough, but not quickly enough that I didn’t find myself hung up on the real-world analogues they point to.
The Boys is a lot of fun. It’s a layered story about superheroes, but at the same time, it’s extraordinarily human.
While it gets a little heavy-handed with the real-world topics it satirizes, it never loses sight of what it’s mean to be. A good, fun story. The glimpses at reality-based superhero storytelling are jarring from time-to-time, but they’re never enough to take us out of the show.
It does a fantastic job of balancing satire, action, and intrigue. In the super squeaky clean world of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the notoriously-dark setting of the DC Extended Universe, The Boys pokes fun at all of the above. And it becomes its own, unique little bit of brilliance in the process.
The Boys is streaming on Amazon Prime.
All images courtesy of Amazon.