Hard to deny that we live in an age dominated by the superhero. That classic Superman chestnut, “Look up in the sky!“, feels as apropos as ever when you can’t drive down a major road without Tony Stark’s mustachioed mug or Clark Kent’s Kryptonian biceps flexing down at you like judgemental gods. They rule the box office, they rule the pop culture conversation, they rule the graphic t-shirt real estate at every coffee shop. We’re about one particularly effective after-credits scene away from fandom spilling over into actual worship—pull up any video from inside Hall H if you don’t believe me—which means there’s no better time to ring up The Boys.
Adapted by Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, and Eric Kripke from the Dynamite comic series by writer Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson, the eight-episode Amazon series has a wickedly sharp eye for what an actual modern age of superheroes would look like. Costumed vigilantes come with an army of publicists to craft public apologies. Major media corporations schedule the crime-stopping “team-ups” that would drive the optimal amount of social media engagement. And there’s the possibility that the superheroes themselves, so shiny and glossed in front of a camera, are the type of A-list TMZ trash-monsters in their private lives who might smash a man’s skull during a particularly aggressive round of analingus. This is an actual thing that happens in The Boys. A lot of wild things happen in The Boys. But underneath all that superpowered ass-murder is genuinely one of the most timely TV series I’ve seen in a long time.
Our way into the mayhem is “Wee” Hughie Campbell (Jack Quaid), a completely normal A/V salesman living a completely ordinary life until a super-fast superhero named A-Train (Jessie Usher) literally runs through his girlfriend Robin (Jess Salgueiro), turning her into a cloud of blood and guts. A-Train is essentially untouchable as a member of The Seven, the world’s premiere superhero team, along with aquatic fish-talker The Deep (Chace Crawford), silent ninja Black Noir (Nathan Mitchell), the invisible Translucent (Alex Hassell), superstrong ass-kicker Queen Maeve (Dominique McElligott), and the squad’s Superman-esque leader, Homelander (Antony Starr). Quieted with a half-assed apology and ironclad Non-disclosure Agreement, Hughie’s thirst for revenge leads him straight to Billy Butcher (Karl Urban), former leader of an under-the-radar squad that worked to keep the “supes” in check: The Boys.
Running parallel to Hughie and Butcher is the story of Starlight (Erin Moriarty), The Seven’s bright-eyed and optimistic new recruit who quickly learns she’s joined a team of corrupt corporate suits, perverts, and murderers. The two plots intertwine, and soon a grand conspiracy emerges surrounding the mysterious super-steroid “Compound V” that could completely destroy the superhero game and the mega-corporation that funds it, Vought.
The Boys operates on a few different levels, all of which the creative team nails on one level or another. It’s your classic gettin’-the-band-back-together story, as the Compound V conspiracy convinces Butcher to track down the rest of the retired Boys, Mother’s Milk (Laz Alonso) and Frenchie (Tomer Capon), who are eventually joined by the hyper-violent killing machine known only as The Female (Karen Fukuhara). It’s also a pretty dang intriguing mystery tale dressed up in tights and capes, as well as a pitch-black comedy filled with enough flying guts, exploding dolphins, and C-4 shoved into a person’s unholy crevices to keep even the sickest of you puppies squirming.
But where the writing staff really excels is in the world-building. They’ve kept large chunks of the comic book story intact while also stripping away a bit of the X-Treme Edginess—I like Garth Ennis a lot, but Garth Ennis is occasionally too Garth Ennis for his own good—and setting it firmly in a setting that’s both comic-book elevated and so perfectly 2019. Superheroes argue not about the number of lives saved, but their cut of the merch and box office sales raked in from the Vought Cinematic Universe. ESPN runs 24/7 coverage of a race between speedsters. SEO experts and video editors cut together image-boosting clip shows of The Seven interacting with the common folk. (Possibly my favorite joke in the entire show is the fact newcomer Starlight’s segment is placeholder text that just says “Starlight relating to people.”)
And with that comes a really dark, unique relatability to the material that’s completely different than any on-screen comic book series out there. Though we don’t live in a world of actual superpowers, we do live in one filled with supremely shitty people in extraordinary positions of power and wealth. Tune into literally any news outlet of your choice—or just log on to Twitter dot com—and you’re bombarded with the latest government figure or Hollywood elite who was caught and/or just outright said the depths of their sheer shittiness. It makes you long for the days when a celebrity’s name trending meant they were just dead, not a sexual deviant. The Boys, similar to the comic series, leans hard into this idea: What if the rich, powerful fraudsters and public masturbators of the world were actually sitting in the position of the gods? It’s the darkest material on the show, but the story approaches it unflinchingly. There’s a real stomach-churning familiarity to a high-ranking member of The Seven dropping his pants in front of Starlight and asking how badly she wants to be a part of a superhero team. But even the worst parts come with a sense of wish fulfillment; as awful as it is to see and recognize a world run by all-powerful assholes, it’s thrilling when you realize The Boys is really about how ordinary people can fight back.
As Starlight, Moriarty shines brighter and brighter with each episode, a fantastic foil to Quaid’s increasingly twitchy Hughie. The cast is pretty electric across the board—especially Karl Urban out there throwing around c-words like his name is Cookie Monster—but there are two performances in particular that really make the story tick. Antony Starr is terrifying as Homelander; he plays the main supe like a petulant child given the strength of a nuclear bomb—a Shazam who also burns people’s faces off—and it’s chilling how quickly the actor switches between Homelander’s toothy-smiled choir boy image and the stone-cold persona below. Standing behind him is Elisabeth Shue as Madelyn Stillwell, Senior Vice President of Superhero Management at Vought. The Oscar-nominee is perfectly icy in the role, and low-key the most terrifying character on the show. As the mass murders and war crimes pile up around her, Madelyn is just booking the dates and scheduling the meetings, proving there’s nothing more horrific than a suit who signs lives away with a smile.
If there’s a complaint to be had about The Boys, it’s that its first eight-episode run ends awkwardly, right in the middle of the narrative with several loose threads dangling and a few key characters left forgotten in the home stretch. You have the sense the creators were pretty confident given the fact casting announcements started to pop up before a season 2 was confirmed. [UPDATE: Which it was, just now, at Comic-Con.] But the roller-coaster ride to that abrupt end is something you must experience. Like Alan Moore‘s Watchmen in the late-80s, The Boys TV series has the chance to be the superhero deconstruction of our time. Less a peek behind the curtain, and more a seedy glimpse behind the social media likes and box office numbers, a story that manages to be heartbreakingly relevant while still finding time to have Karl Urban kill a room full of goons with a super-powered baby.
Oh shit, did I not mention Karl Urban kills a room full of goons with a superpowered baby earlier? Yeah, man. Watch The Boys. A lot going on there.
Rating: ★★★★★ Excellent