Pop Disciple Film & TV Reviews by Sean Shepherd
Superhero satires aren’t exactly uncommon these days. Films like Super, Kick-Ass, and even Marvel’s own Deadpool are more recent examples, but none are quite so thorough and eloquent as The Watchmen comic released in 1986.
Alan Moore’s dense epic took a long, hard look at what a world of masked heroes might look like in an alternate 1980s, where an authoritarian culture bred distrust of any extra-governmental justice. And the picture he painted was a stark one: a group of damaged, egomaniacal, even psychotic individuals caught in what proves to be a futile struggle against an enemy from within. It was less a statement on why superheroes don’t exist and more on why they shouldn’t.
Now, ten years after The Watchmen’s film debut, Amazon Prime’s The Boys aims to tackle the same broad idea with its own flavor of brutal and uncompromising satire.
The immediate question is obvious: what makes The Boys a different animal? There’s a lot of answers to that question, but the most obvious is the time of writing. Alan Moore wrote for a Reagan-era audience still in the Cold War. Garth Ennis wrote The Boys for a post-9/11 audience stuck in the seemingly endless War on Terror. Comic books were plenty popular in the ’80s, but the mass appeal of comic book media today exists on a scale unimaginable while Moore was writing The Watchmen. Barely twenty years ago, comic book films were still critical and commercial bombs. Remember Spawn? Steel? How about the 1990 version of Captain America? Now, look at the list of the highest-grossing films of the last decade. You’ll run out of fingers counting those with either a Marvel or a DC logo on them. And the critics aren’t turning their noses up at them either. Check Rotten Tomatoes, and you won’t find a single Marvel film that dips below 60%. Streaming services are littered with superhero-based series: Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, The Flash, just to name a few. The genre has matured into a media juggernaut with no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
The minds behind The Boys couldn’t have picked a better time to throw their hat into the ring of superhero satires—and what a satire it is. Giant mega-corporation Vought International discovers, manages, and promotes superheroes in the same way that Hollywood brings up film and TV stars, only they’re allowed to intervene in everything from law enforcement to federal investigations. The most famous and powerful, The Seven, are dead ringers for both Marvel and DC characters, from the Superman-plus-Captain-America analogue named Homelander (Antony Starr) to the Wonder Woman-esque Queen Maeve (Dominique McElligott). Some, like Flash analogue A-Train (Jessie T. Usher), double as sports stars or actors. Except unlike their comic book counterparts, they’re the most disgusting, self-absorbed, callous people imaginable. Translucent (Alex Hassel), the invisible and invulnerable one, spies on people in the bathroom and complains about copyright infringement cutting into his profits. Aquaman analogue The Deep (Chace Crawford) sexually coerces women to ease his insecurities. A-Train laughs about the people that die as collateral damage during his crime-fighting. All with their images protected and legally invulnerable, with an army of corporate bureaucrats at their disposal.
Starlight (Erin Moriarty), a small town Wisconsinite with super strength and the ability to turn electricity into light and kinetic force, wins herself a position within The Seven. It’s her dream come true. That is, until she gets a good look at what the Seven and Vought really are. What follows feels like an itemized list of corporate evils: sexual harassment, genuinely dangerous situations being stage-managed for broad appeal, the reduction of human lives to public relations statistics, and genuine contempt for the people they’re supposed to be helping. As appalled as she is with how Vought runs things in practice, she must decide if and how to fight the very entity that holds her hopes and dreams hostage.
Meanwhile, Hughie (Jack Quaid) is a tech retailer in New York City whose life is destroyed when a careless superhero kills the love of his life on his way to stop a crime. Deeply traumatized, he’s approached by a mysterious man named Butcher (Karl Urban) who promises him a way to get revenge against not only A-Train but the whole system that protects him. They join forces with a group of Butcher’s old “friends” to try and even the scales between the super-powered and the ordinary. Much like Starlight, he must decide how much he’s ready to sacrifice to satisfy his sense of justice.
Homelander, A-Train, and Butcher get interesting arcs as well, mostly involving choices that pit something they desperately want against their human connections. Even The Deep, who spends most of the series hilariously failing to find meaning in his parasitic existence, gets much more development than you’d expect. Queen Maeve has the seed of an arc well planted as the burnt-out, resigned alcoholic who’d like to remember what it’s like to actually help people. Add all this together, and you end up with a surprisingly rich narrative for a show that on first blush, appears to be no more than a dirty, over-the-top caricature of the superhero media phenomenon.
To cover all the things being satirized in this show would be beyond the scope of this review, but I’ll give you some choice moments that I think speak for themselves. Homelander and Queen Maeve, after brutally killing suspects that have just surrendered, shoot each other to cover their tracks, smiling as the bullets bounce off their impenetrable skin. After breaking up a drug-trafficking operation, Starlight is immediately rushed by Vought cameras that were waiting in the wings, among them her publicist urging her to give a cheesy one-liner. Ezekiel, an elastic hero who condemns homosexuality, is seen at a secret club having very stretchy intercourse with three different men. So many aspects of American culture are on blast here that it’s a better question to ask what isn’t being satirized.
In the process, The Boys is shamelessly and gloriously dirty. The script is loaded with obscenities and crude sex talk, especially from Butcher. Sex is nearly always raunchy and often uncomfortable to watch. Ever speculate on what Ant-Man’s kinks might be? There’s a scene for that. The violence is visceral enough to make certain heroes feel like horror movie monsters, particularly Homelander, who casually laser-eyes people into bloody pieces when the cameras aren’t on him. Even Christopher Lennertz’s score occasionally dips into borderline garage-band territory, mostly when the anti-hero team is at work, contrasting with his more orchestral Marvel-movie music that plays when the Seven are in action. The resulting tone is something far less straight-faced than The Watchmen, but never so tongue in cheek that it has no heart.
A lot of that heart is owed to some consistently solid performances. Jack Quaid manages to be believable whether Hughie is traumatized and panicking or focused and motivated. Karl Urban perfectly embodies the smug, sneering punk exterior of Butcher and the cold rage underneath the surface. There’s some menacing stuff from Antony Starr as Homelander, who can switch from grins and pats on the back to implicitly threatening a messy, violent death without batting an eye. Erin Moriarty gives Starlight sincerity that never comes across as presumptuous. A big standing ovation goes to Elisabeth Shue, playing Madelyn Stillwell, the morally bankrupt vice president of Vought International. Sleaze oozes out of her every pore when she’s on-screen. Her strong-jawed, all-business smile wields corporate platitudes and polite conversations like weapons, especially to keep control of Homelander and his disturbing Oedipal complex.
It’s no exaggeration to say that this is a dream project for showrunner Erik Kripke. With Supernatural on its way out and Revolution long gone, he’s taken his first bite of what promises to be a big, meaty plate with an adaptation of his favorite comic book writer’s work. In place of the severe budget and content constraints of his network TV days, however, is a new challenge: adapting such an irreverent, cynical, and exploitative work in a way that respects both the material and the audience of 2019. Not only that, but he’s working directly with the original writer, Garth Ennis. Thus far, their collaboration seems to be working without a hitch.
Scenes that are played for mere shock value in the source material (Starlight’s sexual assault in particular) have been thoroughly reexamined and injected with meaning far beyond what was originally conceived. The broad storyline is appropriately focused and unified with an ongoing theme of human connection—or lack thereof—being the primary motivation for most of the cast. Kripke’s real success with Supernatural was in knowing where its heart was. It’s quite an achievement that despite the increased budget and scope of The Boys, that lesson is still on full display.
Amazon really went for broke on The Boys, already booking a second season before the first even debuted. With a rich story, flawed characters, and a brightly lit, unwashed world that begs to be explored further, I don’t think I’m alone in saying that I can’t wait for the next season.
Listen to Christopher Lennertz’s score for The Boys.
Author | Sean Shepherd
Editor | Alex Sicular
Layout | Ruby Gartenberg