The Boys is a new superhero drama on Amazon. It is dark, and gritty, and ultraviolent.
I could probably stop right there because, as the therapist tells the protagonist in the second season of Fleabag, you already know what you’re going to do. Everybody does. Superheroes are such familiar territory, such an overdetermined premise, that this show’s appeal (or lack thereof) may well feel already decided for most viewers. That’s even more true for the dark and gritty subgenre of superhero stories. Between The Dark Knight, Jessica Jones, Watchmen, Daredevil, and more, a show that asks the question “What if superheroes … were bad?” doesn’t have the revolutionary edge it might’ve when the Garth Ennis–Darick Robertson comic series on which it’s based first started publishing in 2006.
In one sense that’s an issue for The Boys, which has the difficult task of trying to distinguish itself in an overcrowded field. But that sense of wide familiarity, of a culture oversaturated with superheroes, is also a necessary precondition for The Boys to exist at all. Like so many of its dark and gritty cohort, The Boys takes the idea of a world where superheroes are real and follows it to the logical extension of superheroes who are human. They are flawed, messy, often egotistical, cruel people who wreak untold havoc in the guise of doing great deeds. In the first scene of the first episode, a Flash-like hero named A-Train (Jessie T. Usher) is running so quickly, so heedlessly, that he literally runs through a woman, turning her body into a fine red mist. He leaves her boyfriend Hughie (Jack Quaid) holding the only remaining parts of her that A-Train’s carelessness did not obliterate: Her two hands.
Later in the pilot, a young woman who’s been recruited to join an elite superhero team called the Seven quickly realizes how wrong she was to idolize them. Starlight (Erin Moriarty) is overwhelmed by the experience of walking into the Seven’s majestic headquarters, awed by the grandiosity of it all. She’s overcome by it, at least until the hero she’s loved most since childhood, the Deep (Chace Crawford), unzips his pants and makes clear that Starlight is expected to perform actions in addition to saving people from burning buildings. Superheroes are disgusting is the bottom line there.
The “Boys” of The Boys are a group determined to unveil the beloved superheroes for the corrupt and criminal sociopaths that they are. Like the heroes themselves, who are obvious knockoffs of iconic characters like Superman and Aquaman, the Boys are also a familiar trope, a ragtag bunch of underdogs trying to take down the most powerful forces in the world. Their identities and backstories are somewhat mysterious, especially Karl Urban’s character Billy Butcher, who half-accidentally recruits Everyman Hughie to join his quest. Much of the Boys’ work, and many of the Sevens’ misdeeds, result in cheerful, extremely graphic bloodshed. At one point a woman with superpowers is high on a performance-enhancing drug, and while receiving cunnilingus, she orgasms so hard that her thighs burst open a man’s skull as though she was squeezing a grape.
If that were all The Boys had to say, if its only goal were to create a familiar superhero world and then squeeze it into a pulp between a pair of powerful, ecstatically orgasming female thighs, the show’s range and appeal would be pretty limited. The moment I realized the show might be doing something else, something more interesting, underneath its glossy coating of viscous bodily fluids, comes relatively early in the first episode. The Seven are sitting around their massive boardroom, going through a rundown of their recent adventures and top priorities, and a hero named Translucent (Alex Hassell) interrupts the meeting with a subject of great concern: copyright infringement. Pirates are distributing his movie illegally, people are selling unlicensed superhero merchandise, and Translucent wants to know what they’re doing to stop the significant drain on his bottom line. “We’ve all got, what, four points?” he asks, sparking a squabble among the Seven about their various profit-sharing deals.
If the Boys are extralegal Robin Hood figures and the Seven are the amoral, overpowered assholes of its universe, the organizing frame of this cynical worldview is Vought, an immense global corporation that controls all the world’s largest superheroes. Vought doesn’t just keep them in line and organize their activities. It markets them, promotes and licenses their images, designs their battles, orchestrates their victories, runs their press appearances, and sells and trades them to various urban centers like sports stars being traded among teams. The key to Vought, and to the wellspring of thoughtful acerbity pumping through The Boys’ veins, is Madelyn Stillwell (Elisabeth Shue), its vice-president and mean mommy-figure-in-chief. There are several standout performances in The Boys — Chace Crawford is unnervingly believable as the sleazy, dickish the Deep, for instance — but Shue’s Stillwell is among the best of them. She is sleek and careful, polished corporate smoothness with an utterly hollow space where a moral center should be.
The Boys’ dark underbelly of superhero stardom relies on viewers recognizing the models its “heroes” are based on. A-Train is like the Flash, the Deep is like Aquaman, and the square-jawed, smugly superior Homelander (Antony Starr) is the show’s Captain America. Those characters, and the happy band of outlaws who work to take them down, are the superficial mechanisms that make the genre work, that make The Boys something recognizably pulpy. But the best part of the series is not that we recognize Homelander as a twisted, perverted Captain America knockoff. The best part is that we also immediately recognize the real-world corollary for Madelyn Stillwell, with her corporate greed, her desperation to keep this organization within her control, and her laser focus on public image.
The Boys imagines a world where fantasy characters with superhuman powers exist and are mostly villains. But the show’s best idea is its ultimate antagonist: The ceaseless working giant of corporate capitalism and the people who enable it. Those criminals are all too real, which is exactly The Boys’ point.