This isn’t the first time I’ve ever reviewed a property with ties to Garth Ennis. He’s an extremely polarizing writer; known for filling his stories to the brim with the most graphic of violence, darkest of humor, and snarkiest of dialogue. To call him the Tarantino of the Comics Industry wouldn’t be too far off. My first go around with him was a review I did for the second season of The Punisher back in January. Ennis is responsible for the best run of comics ever associated with the character. Punisher MAX is bleak, vicious, and as far as I’m concerned the best writing he has under his belt. But it’s far cry from the kind of stories the Irish writer is known for. Preacher is considered to be by many his most beloved and best work. A crass and ultra-violent tale of a newly all powerful and faithless holy man literally trying to find God and make him answer for all of the tragedies to have befallen humanity. The TV adaption is absolute shit. The comic, apart from some juvenile humor, is ultimately a pretty heartfelt story. The Boys, Ennis’ latest book to get an adaption, is just about everything but heartfelt. Where Preacher crosses the line, The Boys chugs about a hundred miles past it, only to turn back around to horrifically mutilate it.
The Boys asks a fairly simple question. What if Super Heroes were giant assholes? The Super Heroes (or Supes, as they are commonly referred to in the show) that inhabit the world of The Boys are largely a sadistic lot of murderous psychopaths, sexual deviants, or often both. And due to corporate shenanigans and an army of lawyers, they get away with their crimes in absolute secret with a heaping side of public adoration. Who will keep these super powered deviants in check? Enter Billy Butcher and his team of miscreants, the titular title characters of the series. A motley group of vigilantes who use any means necessary to keep the Supes in check. Amazon’s adaption dropped last week. Does The Boys succeed on it’s own merits or fall victim to the vulgarity of the source material? In short, it does a bit of both.
Moderate Spoilers Follow
If all the fanfare surrounding Avengers: Endgame made you want to vomit, The Boys might be the show for you. Demystifying the myth of the superhero from the outset, the series begins with the accidental killing of protagonist Hughie Campbell’s beloved girlfriend Robin by resident Flash knockoff A-Train. As one of the members of The Seven, this world’s equivalent of the Justice League, A-Train isn’t just shielded from any repercussions of the incident, he’s made to be the victim.
A distraught Hughie is offered a 45,000$ check to stay quiet by Vought International, a corporate giant that acts sort of like SHIELD; though it’s a lot closer to a talent agency than the spy network of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Pumping out enough Superhero flicks and actual Superheroes to make Disney swoon. The normally mild mannered Hughie is enraged by Vought’s offer. This rage is used to the fullest extent by Karl Urban’s Billy Butcher, hater of all things caped and leader of our title characters. Over the course of the first season, Butcher rebuilds his team of vigilantes, starting with Hughie. There’s Frenchie, man of many passions and a master bomb maker. Mother’s Milk, like Frenchie he’s also a member of Butcher’s old team. Unlike Frenchie, Milk is methodical as hell and torn between his family and his love of taking down rogue Supes. Last but not least, we have the ever mysterious and tragic Kimiko/The Female. She’s silent, feral, and nigh on unstoppable. They’re a cunning and ruthless team, and watching Butcher and Company take out the Supes is as cathartic as it is hilarious. Plastic explosives will be stuck up b-holes and laser spewing babies will be used to gruesome effect by a maniacal Butcher. The show finds a surprising amount of success in it’s use of violence. Viewers can expect to cackle and wince in equal measure, particularly in the depiction of the powers of the members of The Seven. You’ll never be able to look at Superman the same way again after you’ve seen Homelander cut someone in half with his heat vision.
While Butcher and Company are our heroes here, they aren’t the only team to be fleshed out; as the simultaneously sympathetic and despicable members of The Seven are given an equal amount of spotlight in all their screwed up glory. The men and women of The Seven are carbon copies of the Justice League in power set and appearance. While they may seem familiar visually, they are anything but in personality. Each offers a certain deranged twist on the character they parody. Homelander, the leader of the team and Superman stand in is an unhinged psychopath with a God Complex. A-Train is an addict. The Deep (Aquaman) is the team punching bag and Weinsteinesque sexual predator. Queen Maeve (Wonder Woman) has grown burnt out and numb due to the actions of the Vaught Corporation and the depraved behavior of her teammates. Meetings for The Seven play-off similarly to a workplace comedy. Members will complain about their merchandising and film rights while others will brag about their latest exploits. It’s a good mix of mundane and absurd. This is all seen through the perspective of newest member of the team and most heroic character on the show, Annie January/Starlight; whose initial excitement and expectations about joining a team of superheroes is quickly and brutally refuted. Watching the bright eyed and optimistic Annie take abuses scaling from annoying to horrific from Vaught and The Seven can be incredibly hard to stomach. However, watching her stand strong and kick ass throughout is inspiring.
The series is at its best when exploring Butcher and Homelander. Tied together by an incident 8 years prior to the series, the pair are two sides of the same coin. One of the most underrated actors to come out in the last 20 years, Karl Urban is equal parts sadistic, cool, and tragic as Billy Butcher. Butcher, the so called hero of the show, is an absolute bastard. If it were anyone but Urban playing him, he’d be unlikable as all get out. But after you’ve seen that swaggering, Hawaiian shirt clad cockney punch out an invisible man, it’s nigh on impossible to not be charmed by him. This is despite the fact that he’s essentially Captain Ahab with superheroes instead of a whale. Butcher’s hatred of anyone with powers is mirrored by Homelander’s disdain for humanity, or the “mudpeople” as he calls us. Played to perfection by Antony Starr, the inverted take on the Man of Steel is terrifying. Functioning as a high school bully, Norman Bates style sociopath, and an angry god all at once, Starr weaves one of the best TV villains since Prince Joffrey. Homelander is a magnetic presence. And watching Starr slip in and out from a very convincing Steve Rodgers impression and into the absolute monster that he is kept me glued to the screen. As the season progresses, the leaders of The Seven and The Boys gradually begin taking more relevance and screen time. Giving the two strongest performances on the show the strongest story arc.
Along with Butcher and Homelander, a good majority of the characters in the show get some solid development and characterization. Hughie, Starlight, and the rest of The Seven come to mind. That being said, the remaining members of The Boys themselves are given very little to do. Mother’s Milk has a silly name and a family, playing the “I’m too old for this shit” Roger Murtaugh to Butcher’s Martin Riggs. Frenchie has a cartoonish accent and is uh… French? And crazy? That’s really it with him. He gets a few nice moments with Kimiko, but that’s really it. Speaking of Kimiko, she fares a little better than Frenchie and Mother’s Milk, as she gets a tragic backstory and a few cool fight scenes. But apart from being sad and good at punching, she doesn’t bring much to the table either. It’s a pretty big flaw that 3 of the 5 characters from which the show takes it’s name are barely fleshed out and boring.
Through the escapades of Vought International, The Boys tries its hand at some social commentary. And while I’ve gotta give them props for trying to say something a bit deeper than the usual comic book adaption, this isn’t exactly an Alan Moore story. Vought International is a greedy and lawbreaking corporation. It covers up senseless collateral damage and whatever else depravity the supes have been up to as well as a litany of other criminal acts. Lobbying in particular is one of it’s many egregious acts that the series spends savaging. While everything the show has to say about the above is about as heavy handed as commentary can get, it isn’t problematic. Where it really trips up is in it’s handling of sexual assault and misconduct.
As mentioned above, The Deep is The Seven’s punching bag and a sexual predator. Early in the first episode, he pulls a Louis C.K. before forcing another character to perform a sexual act on him. It is later revealed that this is normal behavior from him that Vought and The Seven are all too privy too. The show doesn’t stumble in depicting the effect this has on his victim, but in how it treats The Deep throughout the rest of the season. Even after the reveal that he’s a sexual predator, The Deep is portrayed as an almost lovable sadsack whose plight is often played for laughs. A sympathetic loser who just wants to get some recognition and protect the adorable creatures of the sea. Making The Deep a sympathetic character at all is wrong on about a hundred different levels. Giving him a drawn out character arc is absolutely infuriating. There’s nothing sympathetic about about a rapist, and giving one so much attention isn’t just a misstep, it’s completely amoral. His story line pissed me off in every way a piece of fiction shouldn’t.
The Boys is not a show for everyone. It’s ugly, cynical, and about as edgy as an 11th grade poetry slam. It bares mentioning that the show’s attempts to take a look at some of the biggest issues facing the world today range from heavy handed to horrific. But it’s also a hilarious and fairly well written take on the comic book characters that have come to dominate popular culture in the last decade. The action is great and the acting is even better. So if you can stomach some of the murkier aspects of what you see on screen, The Boys is well worth your time.