Review by C.J. Bunce
Underneath The Boys, a series so full of all things offensive, with language, misogyny, immorality, violence, sex–something sure to offend everyone, lies a backbone of a story that might have something to say, if the way it was laid out wasn’t so exploitative. It’s easy to imagine show execs Eric Kripke, Evan Goldberg, and Seth Rogen pulling the strings behind the curtain on this project, but what exactly are they trying to say? Mocking the real-life modern horrors on your TV, protected by the acknowledgement that the moral is clear that all the bad they show is bad, it’s intended as satire, as social commentary. It’s an unusual medium to convey its many messages, questions without answers for many things Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson took on in their source material comics of the same name, very much like Alan Moore and Frank Miller’s stories from the 1980s it attempts to pay homage to. It’s impossible not to compare The Boys to Moore’s Watchmen–superheroes for a dark and modern time that are different but familiar to the superheroes we all know so well–it may be even closer to Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns despite its lack of well-known characters. The entirety of the story of the first season, now streaming on Amazon Prime, is the familiar “Who watches the watchers?”
Who are “The Boys” of the title anyway? Led by ever-angry Bill Butcher, played by the actor of all franchises Karl Urban, it’s a small team of five rebels determined for their individual reasons to take down Vought, a corporation that manages the superheroes that protect Americans from almost every crime that’s occurring. As good as the production values are, the series is not that clever, but its difference is how over-the-top and grimy it’s willing to get to tell its story. From the previews you might think it compares to The Umbrella Academy. Make no mistake, the storytelling in The Boys is better and less yawn-worthy, except The Umbrella Academy showed off some better superhero special effects along the way with its Number Five character. You’ll find a lot here no one else is willing to touch on TV, making it a clear NC-17/R+ show: Carlin’s seven dirty words get explored, anti-fundamentalism, blasphemy in themes and situations, assault on today’s politics and extremism, nationalism, misogyny, sex abusers and other deviants, gender issues–most of these used to make valid points about issues mirroring modern times. But like watching the daily news (or newsfeed) it’s not that enjoyable. It never manages to approach similarly violent but fun efforts like tongue-in-cheek superhero films Deadpool or Kick-Ass. Except for the vengeance. When the bad guys pay–and that’s strangely rare–it’s hard to deny some of the scenes are pretty satisfying, especially when Urban wields a newborn supe as a laser gun.
The Boys has some cream-of-the-crop acting, which elevates the entire project. Urban leads it all as the Daniel Craig-in-Layer Cake level, put-upon, amped-up mercenary Butcher. As with all of his performances he jumps right in, creating one of his best, ugly characters (compare to his Caesar, Vaako, Cooper, and Skurge). Equal to that is a layered performance by Jessica Jones’ Erin Moriarty. The series is really about her. She plays Annie January aka Starlight, a young, naive woman who sincerely wants to use her powers to help others. She makes it into an elite, corporate controlled group of “supes” called The Seven. But she quickly learns The Seven are more bad than good for America and the planet: one supe forces her to have sex, another invisible supe hangs out in the restroom leering at her. Along the way Starlight picks up a friend in The Hunger Games’ Jack Quaid as Hughie Campbell, a guy whose girlfriend is killed by a speedster supe in The Seven–but was it an accident? Hughie is enlisted to help Butcher try to take down Vought–the corporation behind The Seven. Vought might as well be Detroit’s Omni Consumer Products from RoboCop or Veidt Enterprises from Watchmen, but even more vile. The shock and in-your-face violence is every bit a match to these films from that infamous era of no-holds-barred 1980s violence.
The attempt at addressing real-world problems may draw some comparisons to Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, but where Sabrina is as much an indictment of religion, The Boys is about indicting everyone and everything–trust no one, believe in nothing, because integrity is a thing of the past. Superheroes as good guys? That’s a story for the comic books. No, The Boys lacks that fun and quirky humor of Sabrina. And the story lacks that nuance to make something great.
The supporting cast sells the show as well as the leads: Rounding out The Boys of the title are Laz Alonso as a smarter than average mercenary and Tomer Capon as a French Jack-of-all-Trades criminal. Haley Joel “I see dead people” Osment is a welcome relief as a thwarted superhero who can read minds. Jennifer Esposito (Spin City) is a tough cop who has worked with Butcher before. Laila Robins (Planes, Trains & Automobiles, Law & Order) is stellar as an ex-CIA operative, who hopefully gets more screen-time next season. A key superhero gets squandered in tepid subplots: Dominique McElligott′s (Being Human) Queen Maeve, and Nathan Mitchell (iZombie) as Black Noir is virtually non-existent. The lead repugnant superheroes are Homelander (Antony Starr) as a grown-up Brightburn, A-Train (Jessie T. Usher) as a dopehead speedster, Translucent (Alex Hassell) as invisible perv, and The Deep (Chace Crawford), an Aquaman who assaults Starlight and is a failure at everything he attempts. All are led by Voight’s irredeemable big wig, played by Elizabeth Shue. Simon Pegg is here wasting his acting talent as Hughie’s dad, complete with awkward American accent–he’s in the series because Hughie was based on the actor in the comics.
In the end, you may just ask: Is tying up problems with a nice quick bow in a finale episode enough to justify eight hours of submerging viewers in all the bad out there? That doesn’t altogether happen so cleanly–the finale is primarily a set up for next season. Ultimately The Boys tips past the edge of being exploitative, especially couching it all in capes and toothy grins and that stuff of traditional comic books. If not for the quality actors, it’s easy to mistake, justifiably or not, The Boys for entirely dismissible junk. If you enter this dark and violent world you’ll decide for yourself. It just may not be all you hoped for.
More Moriarty and McElligott kicking ass, more Esposito, and more Robins may have made the season better. More of their characters would be a great feature of a second season.
Not one for the kids but it has superheroes so every comic book reader and fanboy/fangirl will think they need to add it to their watch lists (because superheroes), The Boys is streaming now exclusively here on Amazon.