Amazon’s new series, “The Boys,” has been marketed as a humorous, subversive take on the superhero genre. It explores the corporatization of superheroes, and what would happen if the good people sworn to defend the population were narcissistic, self-serving, and at times downright evil. On the surface, exploring themes of corrupted superheroes is a fascinating and new idea, but “The Boys” falters in execution.
“The Boys” explores a world where superheroes are beloved celebrities, managed by the shadowy Vought Corporation. The primary heroes are The Seven, a dark version of DC’s Justice League. When a speedster accidentally kills a civilian, her grieving boyfriend Hughie finds himself embroiled in “The Boys,” an anti-superhero group dedicated to holding the powered responsible for their crimes.
On the other side, fresh-faced superhero Starlight is chosen to be the new member of The Seven, only to find being a hero is not all she believed. If these narratives sound a little tired and cliché, it is because they are.
Ultimately, “The Boys” is just a story of a seemingly good but corrupted corporation, and the morally ambiguous people on the inside and outside. We’ve seen this story many times before, and done much better, in “Blade Runner’s” Tyrell Corp, the Alien franchise’s Weyland-Yutani, and “Mr. Robot’s” Evil Corp.
The only thing that sets “The Boys” apart from these is the commodity — superheroes. The clever idea of the commoditization of heroes is completely wasted, as it gets little exploration beyond the tired and well-tread ground of the cost of fame. The wasted potential for these ideas is the most frustrating aspect of the series.
Another problem with the show is its confusion of shocking imagery with genuine edge. “The Boys” is not for the faint of heart. The sex scenes can be graphic at times, and the gore warranting the MA rating. However, sex and blood on screen are nothing new, nor are they particularly shocking anymore. Shows like “Game of Thrones” show that sex and violence alone are not enough to sustain a series, and only really work when backed up by strong writing and characters.
The writing is weak, with an overreliance on swearing and on-the-nose dialogue, with neither stylization nor realism. Aside from a handful of clever one-liners, the dialogue is remarkably forgettable, as the story moves in incredibly predictable places. What stands out, however, are the characters, some of who are far more original than their source, while the others are cliché stock characters, with virtually no depth.
By far the best part of the series is Karl Urban, playing antihero Billy Butcher, the head of the eponymous anti-superhero group. His absolute commitment to his snarky, morally ambiguous character shines through, making even his most awkward lines work through a well-developed and acted character. Butcher’s snark, rage, humor, pain, passion, and drive are all melded beautifully by Urban.
Anthony Starr plays Seven-leader Homelander, an insidious amalgam of Captain America and Superman, with a Patrick Bateman empty smile. His pomposity belies a darkness lurking beneath the All-American surface.
Dominique McElligott’s Wonder Woman-esque Queen Maeve, the Seven’s de facto number two, effortlessly melds the stoic leadership image with inner turmoil. Her character is unfortunately not given enough screen time to further explore her arc, which is one of the more interesting in the series.
Chace Crawford breaks away from his “Gossip Girl” past playing The Deep, a CW pretty boy Aquaman, with an evil streak. Deep’s involvement in a Me Too storyline was surprisingly well handled, focusing more on the characters and the individual situation, rather than making it overly political. Deep’s humorous attempts at depth due to his extreme narcissism are consistently entertaining, and Crawford plays the role fantastically.
Jessie T Usher oozes arrogance and smarmy charisma as A-Train, “The Boys'” version of The Flash. A-Train is put in an antagonistic position from nearly the beginning, and Usher finds a clever way to maintain some audience sympathy.
The two protagonists are tragically forgettable, with little depth and nothing to set them apart from the many other heroes just like them. Jack Quaid, son of Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan without a fraction of their talent, plays Hughie, the cliché everyman hero in-over-his-head. His awkwardness functions, and he is perfectly okay in the series, but completely forgettable, a problem for a show’s hero.
Erin Moriarty’s Starlight is likewise the stock character of the good girl who gets her dream, only to realize it’s not everything she thought it was. The disillusioned, earnest nice girl has been done to death, and Starlight offers nothing new to the tale.
Likewise, the other members of the eponymous Boys, Mothers Milk and Frenchie, are given the barest of characterizations, with a quirk or two functioning in place of an actual personality. They are distinct enough that they can play off each other with some interest, but neither are fully formed characters.
The visuals are stunning; particularly in regards to how certain powers are filmed, in particular Translucent (the invisible man) and A Train (the speedster). One of the earliest visuals in the series is A Train running through a person at top speed, briefly stopping to realize what he has done, and fleeing. The creativity put into the admittedly gory shot was fantastic, and set my expectations unduly high for the rest of the series.
Likewise, the visual team played around with the mechanics of the invisible Translucent brilliantly, with shots of him doing mundane activities such as drinking water or dramatic combat situations all avoiding the tired fuzzy outlined image, and fully committed to depicting him completely hidden to the viewers’ eye, aside from when clothed or doing something. The attention to detail in the visuals is sorely lacking in the story and script, displaying the failed creative potential.
When the comic book series “The Boys” was first released in 2006, creator Garth Ennis set out to top his previous series, “Preacher,” by upping the sex and violence. The series is produced by Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg, who also are the minds behind the successful adaptation of “Preacher.” They have been behind some fantastic and some terrible films and series, but are at their best when melding childish humor with surprising depth.
“The Boys” would be well served if it had more of both. As it stands, the series is merely a mess of missed potential.