Real talk: The Boys is about how superheroes are bad. In fact, the most shocking reveals of The Boys are when people turn out to be somewhat good. The Amazon Prime Video drama rolls around in this ethos like a pig in mud, to a degree where one might almost question why we even care about the super-powered.
It’s funny to remember the time when superheroes weren’t so pervasive, when we were thrilled by even a glimpse of them on screen, whether it be an afternoon animated series or a Tim Burton-directed blockbuster. Those are, of course, long-ago days, which The Boys is very smart about drawing upon. Based on the comics by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson, the show invokes pop culture’s ongoing obsession with superheroes by crafting a world largely like our own (Jimmy Fallon’s hosting The Tonight Show, even!), but with powered fellas and ladies running about, most of them supported by mega-corporation Vought. However, they’re all basically terrible people, and thus the existence of the Boys, an informal group of unrepentant jerks aiming to put “supes” in their place and/or destroy them entirely.
The basic framework here is “power corrupts”: On the surface, the Vought-empowered superheroes are valuable members of the Seven (The Boys’ equivalent to the Justice League—Jimmy Fallon exists in this world, but Superman does not). But as screwed up as the “supes” might be, the Boys’ quest to destroy them takes things down an even darker path.
This means that the show features some of the year’s most explicit and brutal scenes; the need to assault the viewer’s senses with extreme moments of violence at times feels a bit gratuitous, but there’s also a sort of visceral glee that comes with those moments, and there’s a smart choice made to keep them surprising, as opposed to suspenseful. There’s always an odd tinge to a show that feels the need to be “extreme,” but fortunately the scent of Axe Body Spray and whatever smell you might associate with the X-Games wears off at a certain point. Instead, The Boys settles into a comfortable groove, and while the violence is at times horrific, the show maintains a comedic tone for the most part, avoiding real moments of horror.
That said, for a show so dedicated to tearing down superhero tropes, The Boys tragically doesn’t have a lot to say about said tropes, beyond a commitment to absolute nihilism. The world built by Supernatural creator Eric Kripke is somewhat confusing, one which establishes superheroes as both real people, but also the central characters in movies and TV shows and other cultural ephemera. As a result, it ends up being a missed opportunity to really explore how powers might change a person, as well as the world they inhabit—what it means to ordinary humans when people with the powers of gods walk among them.
This is something reviewers know—when you critique something, you have to have an argument beyond “it’s good” or “it’s bad.” And The Boys struggles to find that argument, largely due to the distraction of its superpowered characters. It’s an ouroboros of meta references.
For comic book fans, the idea that superheroes might not be paragons of virtue hasn’t been novel since 1986, when Frank Miller’s scripts for The Dark Knight Returns deconstructed Batman and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen created a superhero universe populated by deeply flawed humans (powers notwithstanding). While updated here for a post-Avengers world, at a certain point the meta elements of the series threaten to overwhelm the need to actually tell a story—though it’s worth noting that the production design does a stellar job of making “supes” and the culture surrounding them feel like a truly real and embedded part of this world.
Unfortunately, for every trope The Boys seeks to deconstruct, another gets emphasized: For example, the character only known as The Female (Karen Fukuhara), a young Asian woman who never speaks but proves truly lethal. Thankfully, she’s not the only woman on this show, but the others are all subject to some sort of horrific violence or assault over the course of the season; not to say that men aren’t also the subject of brutality, but it definitely leans one way.
The good news is that Elisabeth Shue is a fascinating presence, as a figurehead for the Vought Corporation whose fluctuating moments of morality add real complexity to the series. And Erin Moriarity gets real agency as Starlight—after her memorable appearance in the first season of Marvel’s Jessica Jones, it’s a pleasure to see her get her own set of superpowers. Karl Urban proves to be a thoroughly committed performer as Billy Butcher, whose dedication to taking down “supes” of course has a personal edge, but then again, when you see what men like the blatantly fake and evil Homelander (Antony Starr) are getting up to it makes sense that he’s devoted his life to taking down the cause. Meanwhile, Chace Crawford, as Aquaman-esque superhero The Deep, delivers a sort of unsettling smarmy charm that draws upon his Gossip Girl experience.
In many ways, the show proves to be a brutal and cynical portrait of 2019, as it makes a point of illustrating that anything can be commercialized and corporatized, even a person’s sexual assault or other personal trauma. Realizing this point makes for a deeply cynical viewing experience as a result. Avengers: Endgame is now the (not adjusted for inflation) all-time box-office champion because people love and believe in superheroes—they represent a level of goodness beyond what real life offers us. That doesn’t mean they’re perfect people (in fact, the best Marvel movies have made a point of showcasing their flaws), but they still remain aspirational in a way that gives their stories value, when the worst aspects of 2019 rear their ugly heads. The Boys is all about tearing down false idols, but it doesn’t build up anything in their place.