NOTE: This review may contain some mild spoilers for the first season of, “The Boys.” That said, the review is written to accommodate those who have not yet watched the season, and as such, will avoid discussion of major plot developments.
Over two decades after they rose to mainstream prominence, superheroes continue to dominate our entertainment landscape. Spinning modern myths about extraordinary bravery, persistence and honour, among plenty of other ideals that inspire the struggling and the downtrodden to fight for what they believe in, it’s no surprise that superheroes continue to be exceptionally popular. Even god-like figures such as Superman and Thor, impossibly rich playboys like Batman and Iron Man, and awkward nerds that inadvertently attain extraordinary powers like Spider-Man or The Flash, tap into something fundamental and noble about the human condition, channeling extraordinary wealth, trauma and/or abilities into acts of selflessness and altruism, while routinely battling against comparably dangerous, well-funded and/or super-powerful foes. It’s an idealistic take on celebrity that illustrates our capacity for good, even amidst staggering fame and fortune.
Then again, considering how those in power often tend to think, act and use their resources in the real world, it’s probably a good thing that superheroes don’t actually exist, because if they did, they would probably be assholes and sociopaths. That’s the train of thought running all throughout Amazon Prime Video’s blockbuster original series, The Boys, inspired by a run of independent comic books that were originally published under DC’s since-shuttered Wildstorm imprint, before the majority of their issues were subsequently published by Dynamite Entertainment. The television adaptation of The Boys meanwhile was originally put together by Sony Pictures Television, and later acquired by Amazon, first being spawned from Supernatural creator, Eric Kripke. The series has quite the heavyweight team of producers behind it as well, which include Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg of Superbad, This is the End and Preacher fame, as well as Fast & Furious franchise producer, Neal H. Moritz, among others. Clearly, a lot of successful people wanted to be involved in this project, and the results speak for themselves, since The Boys is currently one of the most impressive shows in Amazon’s Prime Video catalogue!
I do however say that with a pretty big disclaimer. While The Boys is a great series overall, it’s also unapologetically violent, mean-spirited and harsh. Some may find the series a little too gritty, gory and unpleasant, especially if they’d rather not examine a blatant, uncompromising skewing of the ultra-popular mythology behind superheroes. If you have a stomach for superheroes behaving (very) badly though, then The Boys is a dark, squeamish delight for mature-minded adults, boldly putting the worst impulses of humanity on blast, just as the majority of mainstream superhero media tries to highlight the best potential of mankind. This is a series packed to the gills with social and political commentary surrounding issues like celebrity culture, unchecked capitalism, the military-industrial complex, the #MeToo movement, and the lack of accountability behind those who are supposed to be looking after everyday folks, and that’s just the first layer of themes! Of course, if you just want to view the series as a tough, testosterone-fueled orgy of violence and nasty behaviour, you can do that, but this outer veneer of grimacing grit hides a deceptively intelligent show with a lot on its mind, if you’re not just coming for the gore and bad behaviour anyway.
So, what is The Boys actually about? The series largely unfolds within an alternate New York City, one that’s patrolled by celebrity superhero team, The Seven, a very transparent, twisted parody of DC’s flagship superhero ensemble, the Justice League. The Seven’s members include: A-Train, the Flash stand-in, Queen Maeve, the Wonder Woman stand-in, Black Noir, the Batman stand-in, The Deep, the Aquaman stand-in, the since-retired Lamplighter, the Green Lantern stand-in, Translucent, a loose amalgamation of Martian Manhunter and Cyborg who has invisibility and durability powers, and the team’s leader, Homelander, the Superman stand-in. The story properly kicks off from here with a pair of inciting incidents, the first involving young, idealistic superhero, Annie January, a.k.a. Starlight, being recruited to fill Lamplighter’s vacated position on The Seven, and the second beginning with the perspective of cowardly electronics store employee, Hughie Campbell Jr., after his girlfriend, Robin is accidentally burst through and killed by a speeding A-Train.
These two initiating events serve as the foundation behind the dueling factions of The Boys, with one of course being The Seven, who are managed and overseen by mega-corporation, Vought International, and the other being the eponymous group of non-powered vigilantes, headed up by Karl Urban’s Billy Butcher, a former CIA operative with a severe hatred of so-called ‘Supes’. This TV adaptation also re-tools the character relationships so that the Boys have not yet struck at the Seven, unlike in the source comics, where they have been adversaries for many years before the story unfolds. This tweak to the characterization allows Hughie and Starlight to both serve as the eyes of the audience, giving us an ideal look at both the best and worst ideals driving the Boys and the Seven, respectively. The unlikely love affair that blossoms between Hughie and Starlight also does a great job of further highlighting the dramatic stakes behind the story, presenting the potential for humankind and superheroes to better co-exist, if they could just get past their own egos, and truly open up to one another.
This presents a superhero series that’s pretty much entirely devoid of super-villains and other such threats, at least for the time being, and one that instead focuses on the idea of ego and abuse of power, which you could equally savour as a thinly-veiled examination of modern society, or just an unhinged parade of shitty behaviour. There are still some great action scenes peppered throughout this first season’s eight episodes, but they’re spaced out pretty far in most cases, with the dialogue and character work instead occupying most of the focus in the storytelling. This is great though, since it allows The Boys to effectively develop most of its personalities and ideas to maximum effect, leading to an excellent job of world-building, however coarse it is. This leads to a narratively rich debut season that rewards repeat viewings, being full of effectively interpretive personalities pushing their respective agendas without a clear right or wrong answer, and all believing themselves to be right and above the competition. At least, that’s the goal, and it’s one that The Boys manages to meet more often than not.
If there is one potential gripe about this otherwise superb first season of The Boys however, it’s the fact that the show’s overall character debate ultimately ends up being a little one-sided for now, despite its valiant effort to give a fair shake to the personalities of The Seven and Vought. As much as the show tries to add character complexity to Vought’s corporate overseers and their flagship ‘product’, namely the superheroes they manage, it’s pretty apparent at this point that The Boys is primarily siding with Hughie and Butcher, despite their vigilante squad’s own horrific acts of violence, murder and lawbreaking. Some of The Seven are given effective, morally grey dimensions, namely Queen Maeve and The Deep, who can come off as well-meaning victims of their own celebrity status, but A-Train and Homelander especially, the two central antagonists of the series at this point, are so over-the-top violent, amoral and destructive, often needlessly so, that it’s pretty much impossible to ever take their side. Likewise, Elisabeth Shue’s scheming Vought VP, Madelyn Stillwell attempts a balance by being a mother at an older age, but it doesn’t really work, since she’s still a conniving, untrustworthy corporate parasite who is more or less evil for the sake of being evil.
The Boys, meanwhile, are given more even-handed emotional and psychological attention, particularly Hughie, who finds himself struggling with his awakened lust for violence, no doubt a byproduct of spending his entire life scared and vulnerable. Butcher, meanwhile, has let his obsession with bringing down Vought more or less destroy everything else in his life, even when it comes from a valid reason of grief, and struggling against a problem that the world seemingly refuses to solve. The Boys’ ensemble is soon after rounded out by a few other thugs as well, namely Frenchie, a philandering weapons expert that eventually comes to discover love for the group’s sole female member, a mute, super-strong victim of illegal experimentation played by Suicide Squad’s Karen Fukuhara, and Mother’s Milk, a reformed family man who’s just trying to keep his hands clean, now that he has a wife and daughter. The conversations, insight and surprising intelligence behind the Boys makes them feel starkly real and easy to root for, even as they attempt to take the fight directly to superheroes with god-like powers, and even as Butcher in particular pushes the boundaries of moral standing.
The Boys can sometimes be a grueling watch, if you aren’t actively seeking out its nasty, misanthropic tone, and its first season’s otherwise modest eight-episode length can sometimes feel longer than it is. Still, there’s no denying that this series is exceptionally produced, exceptionally written, exceptionally performed, and exceptionally directed, and once you’re able to embrace its pitch dark satire, The Boys truly soars as a rather bleak, but still entertainingly biting take on superheroes. The series isn’t ultimately out to scold you for liking superheroes, or celebrities in general, but it’s also not afraid to ask uncomfortable questions, and portray uncomfortable themes, while still managing to do that within an engaging, darkly satirical storyline that remains very easy to enjoy and get invested in on its own merits. Amazon Prime Video has really been crushing its original series catalogue lately, and The Boys is perhaps one of the streamer’s current crown jewels, if you have the stomach for it. This is a clear cut above your usual superhero drama, on streaming or otherwise, and if you’re not afraid to get your hands dirty with the darker side of justice, The Boys presents a violent, snarky slice of hell that continues to find new, inspired depths through which to plumb the genre.