In Amazon’s The Boys, showrunner Eric Kripke (Supernatural) and producers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (Preacher) bring Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson’s violent, explicit, and irreverent take on superheroes to the streaming service, delivering an amped-up look at the dangers of hero worship, the frightening influence of corporations and money, and, most of all, the corruptive nature of absolute power. But, The Boys is also a razor-sharp satire of comic book tropes, from their origin stories down to the little details that make them unique (and impossible to resist for audiences worldwide), as it takes familiar elements like Aquaman’s fish-talking powers or Superman’s innate goodness and twists them just enough to render them frightening and off putting.
And at a time when comic book characters are central to the biggest movie franchise the film industry has ever seen, to the point that nearly every Marvel movie is an obligatory theater-going experience, The Boys couldn’t have been more timely in making its small screen debut. In bringing Ennis and Robertson’s work to television, Kripke has envisioned a world in which superheroes are the world’s biggest celebrities, with their faces (masked and otherwise) emblazoned on every imaginable product from beer to breakfast cereal, and when they’re not saving citizens from armed bank robbers or maniacs with guns, they’re starring in movies about themselves. And, of course, the world at large is constantly ready to eat it all up.
But there’s a dark side to the world that these super-powered individuals inhabit, one that’s corrupt down to its core and unduly influential to the highest levels of government. No one seems to care, because superheroes are awesome and they make the average citizen feel safer about the world around them. No one, that is, except for Billy Butcher (Karl Urban), who enlists the help of a faint-hearted electronics store employee, Hughie Campbell (Jack Quaid, Plus One), after his girlfriend is reduced to a puddle of goo right in front of him by the doped-up speedster A-Train (Jessie T. Usher, Shaft). The resulting team-up puts both Hughie and Butcher on a collision course with the Vought Corporation — the mega-conglomerate that controls and markets all the supes — and its most powerful members who make up the Justice League-like group, the Seven.
Even for those who haven’t read the comic on which it is based, The Boys’ casting is pitch-perfect. Urban, in particular, is on one throughout the entire eight-episode run of the first season, and as such his performance brings an anarchic energy to the already unruly tone of the series as a whole. When paired with Quaid (who, after his performance in this year’s best romantic comedy, Plus One, opposite PEN15’s Maya Erskine, is quickly becoming a star in his own right) the two become a fun, charismatic duo, in part because Hughie is in over his head and Butcher is sneakily using the grieving young man as a means to his own vengeful ends.
The Boys of The Boys are more than Butcher and Hughie, though. The series is an expansive ensemble piece that includes Laz Alonzo, Tomer Capon, and Karen Fukuhara as Mother’s Milk, Frenchie, and the (questionably named) Female, respectively. Meanwhile, the Vought side of the equation includes former Banshee star Antony Starr as the psychotic superman Homelander, Dominique McElligott (Hell on Wheels) as the Wonder Woman analogue Queen Maeve, and Gossip Girl co-star Chace Crawford as the dime-store Aquaman, the Deep.
It’s an enormous cast to keep track of, and yet Kripke and his writers’ room have a knack for not only giving each character their fair share of screen time, but in giving them distinct personalities to boot. The result is often a series of funny, foul-mouthed encounters that either gets to the heart of what makes a ragtag team of unpowered, superhero killers work, or explains how, despite their immense power and depravity, the Seven are largely controlled by very simple, very human desires.
The series will no doubt be on the receiving end of some criticism for the way in which the death of Hughie’s girlfriend, Robin, acts as motivation for the character. And the same goes for Butcher, as the circumstances of his own agenda gradually become clear. Though the show doubles up on examples of “fridging,” Kripke and his writers make a point to illustrate the pointlessness of revenge, while also playing with at least one character’s motivating circumstances, suggesting all is not what it seems.
The series also uses the presence of Erin Moriarty’s Starlight, a nascent superhero with ties to the evangelical Christian community, as a way of furthering the show’s depiction of women in both superhero fiction as well as the show’s own fictional world. As it turns out, the two aren’t terribly different, as Starlight becomes an unlikely symbol of the show’s #MeToo movement, as the character’s agency within the narrative and the Seven grows. That may or may not appease those who take issue with The Boys’ use of familiar, contentious comic book tropes as a means of progressing its own plot, but there are examples of The Boys’ awareness of the issue as well as its efforts to try and address it with greater depth.
Despite this, The Boys is an entertaining and frequently hilarious series that succeeds at poking fun at the world of superheroes and the corporations reaping enormous profits off of them. But it never does so at the expense of its own story or its many characters. In particular, Starr and Crawford do tremendous work making Homelander and the Deep into the kinds of wicked heroes fans will love to hate, while McElligott succeeds in eliciting empathy from the audience, despite her allegiance to the corrupt league of heroes.
But it is nevertheless Urban and Quaid’s show, and the two deliver a pair of compelling anti-heroes who splash around in some morally gray waters without having to come out clean on the other side. At this point in the series’ run The Boys doesn’t seem interested in that, at least not for all of its characters. Instead, Kripke manages to take the story to a fascinatingly depraved place by season’s end, one that more than justifies the early season 2 renewal, and further complicates the already complicated world of Billy Butcher and his motley crew. Overall, The Boys is an incredibly fun ride that expertly satirizes the dominance of superheroes in today’s popular culture.
The Boys season 1 will stream exclusively on Amazon Prime Video beginning Friday, July 26.