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Review: The Boys Is a Bleakly Cynical Take on the Superhero Genre

The Amazon series is a little too fond of its antiheroes to really throw them in the muck.

2.5
The Boys
Photo: Jan Thijs/Amazon

Adapted from writer Garth Ennis and artist Darick Robertson’s cult comic book series, The Boys is a cynical, bleakly comedic take on the superhero genre. In both the comic and TV show, superheroism has been privatized, with various costumed fighters managed and marketed by companies like Vought International. When, for example, A-Train (Jessie T. Usher)—who’s part of an elite team called the Seven and bills himself as the fastest man alive—accidentally crashes into a woman on the street, her body explodes into a gory soup of blood and bone, the fingers on her severed hands still intertwined with those of her boyfriend, Hughie (Jack Quaid). A Vought representative assures Hughie the company wants to do “the right thing” and offers him $45,000, as long as he signs a nondisclosure agreement.

Vought’s celebrity superheroes are so rich and powerful, so above it all, that the deaths of normal people don’t faze them. Crowds may be good for the adoration that fuels their fame and feeds their images, but on an individual level, a regular person is as significant to them as a scuff on their focus-tested boots. This, a trench-coated, bearded man named Billy Butcher (Karl Urban) tells Hughie, is where he and his team—informally called The Boys—come in, to retaliate against superbeings when they get out of line, by whatever means necessary.

Much was made of the difficulty in adapting something so gleefully profane as Ennis’s Preacher for TV, and his Boys comics arguably go to even greater (and occasionally pointless) extremes. In translating them to a one-hour-per-episode streaming format, the show’s writers add about as much as they subtract. Amazon’s adaptation certainly maintains the graphic violence, though in the writers’ attempts to excavate Ennis’s salient commentary and anarchic ideas, they judiciously cut much of the sexual violence and juvenile shock tactics while turning a more sympathetic eye to the characters. No longer do any of them feel like simple vehicles for cruelty, or targets meant to receive it. A large portion of each episode is even devoted not to The Boys, but to the inner workings of Vought, from the perspective of the largely sociopathic Seven and the company’s vice president Madelyn Stillwell (Elisabeth Shue), who’s as practiced at navigating super-egos as she is at coldly crunching the numbers behind smoothed-over corporate acts of representation and empowerment.

Some of the show’s very best moments come from its wicked corporate satire, often seen through fresh-faced hero Starlight (Erin Moriarty), the newest member of the Seven. Her glimpse behind the scenes is hardly what she expects, as her outfit is made more revealing by the marketing team, various characters encourage her “authenticity” as if it’s a cultivated false persona, and festivals featuring organizations named things like “Capes for Christ” book her for speaking engagements. Though The Boys includes hilarious moments like hero The Deep’s (Chace Crawford) attempt to rescue a dolphin from his SeaWorld-like sponsor or a proposed reality show about the Seven, the series satirizes our fascination with celebrities, fictional heroes, and capitalism at large without losing its class-conscious edge: There are no real supervillains in this world, only the natural abuse of power by the super-powerful.

Elsewhere, though, the show maintains a few of the comic’s problems with race and women. It’s in the silent, infantilized Asian woman (Karen Fukuhara) who joins The Boys, the Middle-Eastern terrorist clichés, and all the dead women piled around the story’s margins to motivate its chiefly male protagonists. But it also never quite reconciles the pitch-black roots of its principal characters with their more sympathetic TV counterparts. The Boys are no longer a C.I.A.-sanctioned hit squad as they were in the comics so much as everyman vigilantes raging against the machine, and rather than regard their actions and bravado with skepticism as Ennis’s source material did, the show arrives at an awkward middle ground.

For as much as The Boys’ exploits start off with a gruesomely literal bang, the Amazon series pulls back to posit them as more of an investigative crew engaged in some occasional blackmail as they dig through Vought’s secrets, leaving only Urban’s Billy Butcher to occasionally play the wild card. The Boys’s skewering of superheroism is often clever, but as the series progresses, the more hands-off approach of Butcher’s crew can leave them with little to do, to the point where the messy, circular plotting of the finale all but leaves them sitting on their hands. Although this adaptation excises the most misanthropic parts of its source material, Ennis did, at least, have a clear thematic vision for that mean, nihilistic story. This show, by contrast, is a little too fond of its antiheroes to really throw them in the muck, to the point where they can feel like guests in their own series.

Cast: Karl Urban, Jack Quaid, Elisabeth Shue, Antony Starr, Erin Moriarty, Dominique McElligott, Jessie T. Usher, Laz Alonso, Chace Crawford, Tomer Capon, Karen Fukuhara, Nathan Mitchell, Jennifer Esposito Network: Amazon

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