The Boys review: Amazon’s new superhero show is a slap in the face of the Marvel Cinematic Universe; an explosion of bad taste
Cast - Karl Urban, Jack Quaid, Erin Moriarty, Elisabeth Shue, Antony Starr, Dominique McElligott, Jessie T Usher, Chace Crawford, Simon Pegg
Rating - 3.5/5
There is a scene in the first episode of The Boys, the new show on Amazon Prime Video, that sets up the subversive tone of what’s to follow. A young superhero is introduced to the world by a giant conglomerate, at a massive public event that has deliberate overtones of the San Diego Comic-Con. She’s going to be one of the Seven, an elite team of superheroes that the whole world looks up to. It’s been her childhood dream. It’s almost as if Marvel is unveiling the latest cast member of the Avengers, handpicked from obscurity, destined for stardom.
After waving to the crowd like an obedient ingenue, Starlight - that’s her ‘supe’ name - is taken backstage, where she runs into her childhood idol, a member of the Seven called The Deep. He fights crime underwater and calls himself the ‘number two’ of the team. They exchange pleasantries, and Starlight tries her best to not come across as a blubbering fan-girl. But just as she’s beginning to relax, she turns to see The Deep with his pants around his ankles, offering her a smooth ride at her new home in exchange of sexual favours, and threatening her with dire consequences were she to refuse.
Watch the Boys trailer here
The scene has been significantly altered from the comic book upon which The Boys is based. In the original story, written by the great Garth Ennis, Starlight isn’t alone in the room with The Deep, but is instead cornered by every male member of the Seven. She’s gang-raped by a bunch of powerful men, who are adored like celebrities around the world; untouchable and unblemished.
Creator Eric Kripke had the good sense to tone this scene down (for obvious reasons), as well as several other controversial aspects of the comic book; but has thankfully retained its satirical edge. While on paper The Boys is a boisterous (and very timely) takedown of celebrity culture and Hollywood, as it lumbers inelegantly from one episode to the next, it reveals a deeper agenda.
It is to our generation what Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen was to the 80s - a deeply cynical evisceration of the idea of utopia. No such thing exists, the show says, and whatever we’ve been told otherwise is a bunch of cruel lies. The Boys is a show for our times, an age of rotting morals and fallen idols - in politics, in entertainment, and across more industries than we could comfortably ignore.
As we have already seen, ideas such as this aren’t welcome in superhero storytelling; at least not in the mainstream. The handful of occasions on which this has been attempted, mostly by one man, Zack Snyder - Watchmen, Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice - the experiment has failed, spectacularly. Superhero movies are meant to be an idealistic escape from the realities of our lives; not an unflattering mirror. And even though it has the humour and the tone of the Deadpool films, or Kick-Ass, The Boys has none of the idealism.
And leading the fight against this machinery of deceit is a man named Butcher, a rugged mercenary played by Karl Urban doing his best Michael Caine impression. Butcher rounds up his old cronies - men with names like Frenchie and Mother’s Milk, each of them with personal vendettas to carry out - for a hare-brained scheme that involves kidnapping, torture, and occasional murder, as they go about exposing the superheroes once and for all.
In another scene, the leader of the Seven, an evil Captain America clone called Homelander, convinces his cohort to let a hijacked plane crash. He has this discussion with her in the cabin, in the presence of children, after they’ve taken care of the terrorists, but have no means to actually land the plane safely (the pilots have perished). To the show’s credit, it lingers on the disbelief of some of the doomed passengers. Not only have they come to the realisation that they about to die, but everything they’ve believed about superheroes has been dismantled before their very eyes. It’s like watching a world famous chef add a pinch of poison to your meal, before forcing you to eat it.
But besides the examination of toxic masculinity and potent #MeToo commentary, The Boys also has interesting ideas about military corruption and the corporatisation of politics - quite the hot- button issue, both in our country and the US.
An engaging subplot involves the VP of Vought Industries - that’s the evil conglomerate that essentially serves as a management agency for the superheroes - influencing congressmen into passing a bill that would allow its clients to take part in military operations. While at the same time, a gaggle of PR persons monitors their every move so as to maintain a perfect facade in front of their millions of fans. The first Iron Man movie touched upon this, as did Batman Begins, and Snyder’s Watchmen. But while Tony Stark, Bruce Wayne and Dr Manhattan were struck by a bout of conscience and turned over new leafs, the superheroes in The Boys view this as a stepping stone to greater power.
As a property created by a proud deviant, most of it is in very bad taste. But it is sort of serendipitous that the show arrives in a year when brainwashed audiences have ensured that five (!) Disney movies will crack the billion dollar mark at the box office. The Boys takes immense pride in messing with the status quo, although it isn’t for a moment lost on me that to watch it, you will need to pay money to Amazon.