This past weekend saw the debut of Amazon Prime’s series The Boys. Based on the Dynamite Entertainment comic of the same name by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson, it takes place in a world where superheroes are a little too real. In addition to their powers and noble personas, many are also corrupted by power and greed to a degree that would make most politicians blush.
As expected, a group of regular humans (dubbed The Boys) decide that it’s time to expose the superheroes’ many callous transgressions to the adoring masses…or take them down all together.
In this review, we’ll be taking a look at the entire season as a whole rather than an episode-by-episode breakdown. There will also be some minor spoilers, but nothing that will give away any of the big reveals at the end.
A Beautifully Rotten World
As an unabashed Marvel Zombie, I love the MCU as much as anyone. But virtually every example of humanity’s baser instincts in that world is provided by characters unequivocally identified as villains. Even the conflicts amongst the heroes (like Civil War) present both sides nobly.
In the universe of The Boys, however, get a much more realistic version of how many super-powered folks would probably act. Think about the rampant hypocrisy and hedonism many of our professional entertainers and politicians get up to behind the scenes. Now imagine people who’ve been afforded the same level of fame and power as those groups, but with super powers that make them like gods among us.
Sure, there would be some genuinely good ones out there (like our Chris Pratt and Haley Atwell), but a large percentage of them would probably engage in private behavior most folks find highly offensive…and would totally do if they were on top of the world themselves.
Thankfully, this dynamic isn’t utilized as a lazy exercise in cynicism. Even the most vile of the characters are given stories that somehow manage to elicit a degree of sympathy.
Justice and Judgement
Although multiple superheroes exist in this universe, the most well known are The Seven, a thinly veiled Justice League homage who are corporately backed by Vought International. In addition to saving the world and stopping crime, they are also advertised, merchandised, and star in their own various media properties.
All the characters here are great, although Homelander (Anthony Starr) and Starlight (Erin Moriarty) are the ones who drive the narrative along with completely stealing the show.
From the first time you see him, it’s painfully obvious that Homelander’s perfect Boy Scout persona is a facade for a stone cold sociopath. Even with that foreknowledge, his depravity still manages to shock and horrify without ever falling into mustache-twirl territory. He truly believes he’s doing good no matter what it costs. Much of this is a credit who Starr, who plays the character with a gut churning mix of simmering rage and earnestness.
On the other side of the coin, Starlight is a genuinely good soul. This doesn’t mean she always makes the right decisions, but it’s easy to empathize and root for her.
After the first episode, I was afraid that she would be stuck in holding pattern of naive fear and self-loathing. Thankfully, Moriarty uses the abuse and disillusionment she suffers to organically mold her character into a stone cold badass.
Boys Will Be Multi-Layered Boys
Surprisingly, it was the group’s leader, Billy Butcher (Karl Urban) who left me the the most disappointed. Don’t get me wrong — he was still good and has some of the series’ best lines. But aside from various flashbacks to his life before becoming obsessed with taking down the supes, we don’t see a whole lot of growth. Even the mute Kimiiko (Karen Fukuhara) appears to undergo more of a change over the course of eight episodes than he does.
As for the other members of the team, we get some truly great arcs. None of them change more than poor Hugh Campbell (Jack Quaid), who is recruited into Butcher’s group after his girlfriend is accidentally (and brutally) killed by one of The Seven.
Hugh works as both a great character in his own right and an extension of the audience. Even for someone who lives in a world with superheroes, what he sees and experiences is genuinely shocking. In addition to losing faith in the heroes he once regarded with near religious reverence, he also learns that the “regular” world in which he exists is for more corrupt than he ever thought was possible.
As for Mother’s Milk (Laz Alonso) and Frenchie (Tomer Kapon), we don’t see them change so much as other aspects of their personalities are revealed over the course of the series. They make for a pretty great frenemy team, their hatred for each other revealing more similarities than either would care to admit. They also both end up working as the team’s conscience in completely different and wonderful ways.
Sequences and Sequins
I’ll admit, some of the superhero costumes look a little cheesy at first glance. By the end of the first episode, however, they totally work. The garish designs aren’t meant to be edgy or cool — they are meant to put a fresh, bright coat of paint to cover the many stains on their wearer’s souls.
Except for Black Noire. He actually looks pretty cool.
It also helps that The Boys features some truly stunning action sequences. I wasn’t sure what to expect from an Amazon Prime series that cynically deconstructed superheroes, but I’m happy to report that they didn’t skimp on the VFX and action budget.
Queens on the Board
Two of the most intimidating characters in the series don’t even have super powers.
Despite being Vice President of Vought International, Madelyn Stillwell (Elizabeth Shue) pretty much runs every part of the superhero business, from what disasters/crimes The Seven stop to toy merchandising. She’s stubborn and ruthless to the point of admirability, refusing to let anyone bully her no matter what type of political or superhuman power they may have at their disposal.
On the government side of things, CIA Deputy Director Susan Raynor (Jennifer Esposito) sticks to her principles with the same tenaciousness that Stillwell is willing to bend hers.
It’s clear that she has the same disdain for the supes that Butcher has, but she also refuses to take any sort of action without proper evidence. That might seem like a typical law enforcement director trope, but not when you’re dealing a character like Billy Butcher, who manages to convince everyone else to do his bidding.
Despite only being in a few episodes, watching Raynor repeatedly shut Butcher down is oddly satisfying…and makes the moment when she finally decides to join forces with him even better.
Laughing Through the Pain
Any show that has a trailer featuring a baby being used as laser gun (pictured above) is obviously going to have some laughs.
But beyond that bit of brilliantness, The Boys manages to be funny on a number of different levels. Yes, there’s plenty of dark slapstick humor to enjoy, especially if you hate Aquaman (or dolphins). But there are also plenty of quieter moments that still managed to make me laugh out loud.
That said, the most ridiculous characters aren’t super powered. Where Stillwell played her corporate ruthlessness with subtle grace, The Seven’s publicist Ashley (Colby Minifie) is an over-caffeinated parody of her profession.
And despite how great is character he is for most of the series, Urban’s Butcher often veers so far into over-the-top nihilism that it becomes hard to take him seriously.
I’m not a prude by any stretch, but the amount of blood and guts in The Boys managed to occasionally make me feel squeamish. Most of the time it’s perfectly effective (like when Hugh’s girlfriend Robin explodes right in front of him). There were a few times when things felt a tad gratuitous, but the series does a good job reminding you that this is a flesh and blood world inhabited by humans with super powers. Graphic brutality would almost have to be the normalized to some degree.
Also, if you are put off by graphic sex scenes, you may want to have the fast forward button at the ready. There aren’t a whole lot of them, but they’re definitely designed to be more shocking than titillating. One scene in particular manages to combine with the aforementioned gore in a way that it makes me very worried for whoever X-23 might be dating in the comics right now.
Poor Form on the Landing
I’m all for a good cliffhanger at the end of an episode. Heck, make it multiple cliffhangers and you’ve definitely got my interest. That’s a big part of the reason I stayed awake an entire night watching every episode of The Boys.
But when it comes to cliffhangers at the end of the season…those are great, too! Unfortunately, the season finale of The Boys leaves so many dangling plot threads that it’s feels frustrating instead of intriguing. If the end of the finale had been for any other episode, it would have been great. But the audience deserves more resolution than what we got.
It also didn’t help that the series’ primary reveal/cliffhanger was something that anyone could see coming from a mile away. Don’t get me wrong — I’ll still be there for season 2 to see how things play out. But considering how good the rest of the series is, it’s a shame it had such a wobbly ending.
I’ve seen a lot of talk about The Boys being a backlash-fueled response to the popularity of superheroes (and superhero worship). While that definitely tracks, the series also isn’t so cynical that it forgets how much fun the genre can be, as well.
While I’m not sure it would have worked as a movie, eight episodes provided the perfect amount of time for each of the main characters (and many of the minor ones) to be throughly explored. It’s more than a little surprising to find yourself occasionally hating a man on a righteous crusade while also feeling a slight twinge of sympathy for a truly vile and pathetic Aquaman knockoff.
All of this great character work is framed against furiously paced storylines that weave earth-shattering conspiracies and grabs for geopolitical gains against the struggle to deal with trauma and loss. Combine all of that with great acting and cinematography, and you’ve definitely got a series that’s worth staying up all night to watch.