Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely. That’s a major theme in the new Amazon Prime original series The Boys, an adaptation by Supernatural‘s Eric Kripke of the Wildstorm / Dynamite Entertainment comic book series of the same name, created by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson.
For decades, comic books were seen as a bit of disposable, lighthearted fluff, with not much dramatic weight. Many of the adaptations for the big and small screens tended to veer towards the camp, such as the Adam West Batman series. It did get a little more serious with the verisimilitude of Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman: The Movie, although it was still fairly light in tone.
It wasn’t until The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen that more adult themes started to be explored seriously, and this seemed to have opened the floodgates to explore the darker side of comic books in earnest. This spilled over not just into the comics themselves, but also TV and movie versions, with Zack Snyder’s ‘Snyderverse’ being a recent notable example, following on from his cinematic take on Watchmen back in 2009.
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It would be fair to say that The Boys does share some of its DNA with productions like the ones already mentioned, as well as Brian Michael Bendis’ own adaptation for PlayStation Network of his comic book Powers, which focused on the darker and seedier aspects of superhero life. As such, it can be a hard watch at times, certainly not pulling any punches, and dabbling in such areas as corporations, religion, social media, rape and sexual assault, substance abuse, warfare, and graphic violence. No subject is too taboo for The Boys.
One of the first characters who we meet is Hughie Campbell (Jack Quaid), a nice guy still living at home with his dad (Simon Pegg), and who is dating Robin Ward (Jess Salgueiro). She ends up being accidentally killed right in front of his own eyes by A-Train (Jessie Usher), the fastest man in the world, and member of The Seven, an elite group of superheroes that happen to be managed by an organisation known as Vought International, a company wholly dedicated to the business of the ‘supes’, as they’re popularly known.
Hughie ends up attracting the attention of Billy Butcher (Karl Urban), who identifies himself as being a Federal agent dedicated to exposing the truth about the ‘supes’ and asks Hughie for his help. Hughie finds out that the so-called superheroes have all the same impulses as regular people, and are – in many cases – far more debauched and corrupt. He ends up getting involved with Butcher’s secret organisation – known as ‘The Boys’ – and ends up getting far more than he ever bargained for.
Another innocent abroad in the series is Annie January (Erin Moriarty), otherwise known as Starlight, the newest recruit to The Seven. However, coming from a very religious, small town background, Annie soon finds out firsthand about the perils inherent in big city life when she moves to New York. During a very low point, she crosses paths with Hughie, and they end up growing close, which Butcher sees as a threat to ‘The Boys’, and Hughie ends up waking a precarious tightrope when he tries to reconcile having a double life and effectively a ‘secret identity’ of his own, much like Annie.
Quaid and Moriarty are endearing leads, and are adorable together, which makes it all the more tense and suspenseful when things start to develop between them, and Hughie has to hide his secret from Annie, as he has genuine feelings for her, but he also happens to be part of a group trying to take down her team and co-workers. Moriarty in particular shows such purity and innocence, so it hurts to see her being gradually disillusioned as the scales fall from her eyes, and the reality of hero life starts to bite.
Karl Urban, as Billy Butcher, is great as he is in pretty much everything he does. We get to find out more about what Butcher’s own personal motivation in taking on the ‘supes’ is as the series unfolds, and Urban gives a lot of extra depth to the character as things are playing out gradually. His only real failing is his utterly execrable attempt at doing what is supposed to be Cockney; his New Zealand accent keeps breaking through at regular intervals, and his overall way of speaking as Butcher can only be described as ‘Maori Poppins’.
The most significant of all the ‘supes’ is Homelander (Anthony Starr), a blonde haired, square jawed Nietzschean wet dream of the whole Übermensch notion. Homelander very much sees himself as being superior to everyone else, and he acts with an arrogance and disdain for all, including his teammates. He’s extremely narcissistic, as well as brutally violent, but he also has an Oedipal complex involving his ‘handler’, Madelyn Stillwell (Elizabeth Shue), VP of Vought International. In the comics, it’s actually James Stillwell, but by doing a gender swap, it actually provides an extra dimension to their relationship.
The Boys works well as a satirical piece, as it shows how superheroes have lately become an intrinsic part of our culture, due largely to the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In this reality, ‘supes’ actually appear in their own movies, and have sponsorship deals. Vought uses them to make money, and the series shows how commoditised superheroes have become, plus how much of a cash cow. Heroism is tempered by the slavish adherence to the all-important focus groups, demographics, and social media trends, with everything being very carefully stage managed and orchestrated.
While the series does focus in on some of the hypocrisy of religion, this is confined mainly to organised, established groups and their power structures, rather than being an attack on their followers, which is refreshing to see. Starlight is the moral centre of the series, using her upbringing in a religious household as her guide in a very dangerous and uncertain world, and while she does have a crisis of confidence, she still manages to hold onto her faith. It actually portrays her devoutness in a very positive light, and isn’t used as being an opportunity to attack or undermine her.
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The Boys takes some rather unexpected turns, and it successfully ratchets up the tension throughout. It also makes us care about ‘The Boys’, by showing them having a softness and vulnerability you might not have expected from covert operatives. We end up rooting for Hughie and Annie, and want to see things working out for them, despite knowing what obstacles happen to be in their way.
In equal parts daring, bold, shocking and compelling, The Boys builds to a climax which stands it in good stead for another season, and leaves you wanting more, as just eight episodes really isn’t enough. It not only is great drama, but also happens to be the perfect antidote for anyone who feels nonplussed by the current trend for all things superhero. Eric Kripke has done a masterful job in managing to bring us something which is still distinctive in a genre which is already replete with so many different masked and costumed heroes and heroines.
We can only hope that Season 2 of The Boys comes to our screens faster than a speeding bullet.