In the UK: Available on Amazon
Superheroes are easily satirisable and deconstructed. Probably the most famous graphic novel, Watchmen, is a deconstruction of both superhero tropes in general and DC’s then-recent acquisitions of Charlton Comics’ superhero characters. But probably the most famous and earliest superhero TV show the average person can remember was a satire.
Amazon’s The Boys, itself based on a comic by Garth Ennis that was a thinly veiled satire of DC’s Justice League, is therefore not exactly a pioneering, radical idea. We’ve been here, done that, seen the Robot Chickens about it.
So super-original it may not be, but that doesn’t mean it’s got nothing to say – or that it’s not interesting.
At first glance (and first episode), The Boys looks like it’s a simple idea: what if superheroes were real? And not just real, but like celebrity actors, musicians and sports stars? Sure, they might originally have got into it to save lives. But with all that cash from movie appearances and endorsements, as well as the political influence they could acquire, how long would it be before they started caring only for number one, rather than the little person?
Against that backdrop we have the story of electronics salesman Hugh “Hughie” Campbell (Jack Quaid). His dad (Simon Pegg, upon whom the character of Hughie was originally based) is a big superhero fan, Hughie less so – particularly when the fastest man alive
The Flash A-Train (Jessie T Usher) stops paying attention for an instant and literally runs through Hughie’s girlfriend, killing her.
Soon, Hughie is thinking dark thoughts about the spectacularly uncaring A-Train and other superheroes, particularly Vought International’s top flight team ‘The Seven’.
Meanwhile, good Christian girl Annie January (Erin Moriarty) is over the moon to be joining the Seven, having idolised the likes of
Superman Homelander (Antony Starr), Wonder Woman Queen Maeve and Aquaman The Deep (Chace Crawford) practically all her life. However, when the Deep suggests that for her to be assured of her membership, she might have to do something for him (hint, hint…), that dream soons turns into a nightmare.
Annie and Hughie’s paths soon cross, but it’s the meeting between Hughie and the oddly accented Billy Butcher (Karl Urban) that’s soon to transform their lives. Butcher runs a little anti-superhero operation called ‘The Boys’. The supes are corrupt and he’s going to take them down. And soon Hughie is helping him. By sticking cables up people’s butts.
For the first episode or two, The Boys looks like it’s simply going to be The Boys simply doing unpleasant things to pastiches of DC superheroes in an escalating cavalcade of exec producer Seth Rogen’s preferred style of gross-out humour. There’s sex of all kinds, people exploding and the entire gamut of swearwords – all interspersed with your bog standard jokes about Aquaman.
I mean – watch this video and you’ll have seen every joke The Boys makes about The Deep without having watched a second of it.
Depth, even in the Deep
However, it soon moves beyond having the vast perspicacity to suggest that Wonder Woman might, gasp, be bisexual and name-checking #MeToo to consider more interesting issues. Why are most superheroes American? How would that play with the Christian right – would belief in the exceptionalism of the US be buoyed up even more? Would superheroes then be expected to endorse reactionary morality and to be against gay marriage, for example? And would they join the military to fight other countries?
Similarly, the simple cardboard cutout pastiches of the Justice League obtain nuance. Starr’s Homelander is the prime beneficiary of that nuance, becoming part-Trump in his John Wayne-style popularism, but showing the same dangerously intelligent, morally compromised edge that Starr was able at showing in Banshee.
But the others benefit, too, including the increasingly disillusioned Moriarty, the already disillusioned, morally compromised Queen Maeve, the constantly worried about his performance A-Train and yes, the Deep – what must it be like to be the least respected member of a superhero team, the butt of constant jokes, and yes, able to talk to fish and hear about the constant misery with which man fills the oceans?
Adding to the complexity is Elisabeth Shue’s Vought International de facto boss, constantly negotiating billion dollar deals with politicians and then forcing the superheroes to do what’s necessary to ensure the deal comes off. Here, too, there’s an interesting sub-textual plotline about steroids that actually takes on a Scanners quality.
The Boys will be boys
Oddly, The Boys – and their token Girl – are the least interesting thing about the show. I didn’t especially care about Hughie, beyond his involvement with the far more interesting Moriarty, perhaps because his character is so insipid. Similarly, Butcher’s hard to root for or care about, perhaps because the character’s a dick, but perhaps because Urban’s accent veers around so much it didn’t feel like he was putting the effort in and taking things seriously.
Then again, ‘Frenchie’ the Frenchman is played by an Israeli who can’t even say putain correctly, and Pegg’s American accent is only marginally better than his Scottish one, so while superhero Starr can deliver the goods, none of the mere mortals seems to be doing that well.
The disappointment of the actual Boys aside, The Boys is a pretty decent update of Watchmen in its own right, tackling different, more modern themes in different ways to make us examine both superheroes and ourselves. It’s got some really good action scenes, some pretty decent ideas and some good jokes, too. You might need a strong stomach and a strong tolerance for the c-word
Just don’t pay too much attention to Urban’s accent.