Ever since Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons gave us the platonic ideal of deconstructed superheroes with Watchmen, the deconstructed superhero storyline has become its own subgenre. We’ve seen all kinds of takes on it, from Warren Ellis’s cynical Planetary to Mark Waid’s serious Irredeemable to Kurt Busiek’s celebratory Astro City. (Heck, your humble reviewer has also dipped into that subgenre in prose, with the Super City Cops stories.)
In 2006, Garth Ennis (best known for his Vertigo comic Preacher) and Darick Robertson (best known for his work with Ellis on Transmetropolitan) gave us their own deconstructionist take, The Boys.
[Some spoilers follow.]
Initially published by WildStorm, an imprint of DC Comics, The Boys was abruptly cancelled after a half-dozen issues, likely because DC was uncomfortable with portraying analogues of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, and Aquaman as total assholes. However, DC expedited Ennis and Robertson getting the rights back, and even granted Robertson an exception to his DC exclusive contract to continue to work on The Boys after it was picked up by Dynamite Entertainment. The comic ran for six years, and also had a few spinoff miniseries, finally ending in 2012.
Amazon Prime has just dropped the first eight-episode season of an adaptation of The Boys, developed and show-run by Eric Kripke (among other things, the creator of Supernatural), and it’s remarkably well timed.
We’re now two decades into the revolution where superheroes took over our TV and movie screens. Prior to the release in 2000 of X-Men, superhero movies were not to be taken seriously. Those that did take the source material seriously (rare) were often done in by budgetary concerns that made it impossible to do justice to the heroes in live action. The closest anyone came were Richard Donner with 1978’s Superman and Tim Burton with 1989’s Batman, the only 20th-century adaptations that had the budget to make the heroes not look goofy and who also approached the medium with any kind of affection for the characters.
Then Bryan Singer opened the dam with his X-Men movies, followed quickly by Sam Raimi’s Spider–Man trilogy and Christopher Nolan’s three Bat–films, and then the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and then you had Greg Berlanti’s DC adaptations taking over The CW on television, Netflix gobbling up all kinds of comics adaptations (Marvel, Sabrina, the Umbrella Academy, etc.), and suddenly superheroes were all the rage.
By the mid-1980s, with the popularity of Marvel’s Uncanny X-Men and Secret Wars and DC’s New Teen Titans and Crisis on Infinite Earths, the time was ripe for a deconstruction along the lines of what Moore and Gibbons did in Watchmen.
And in 2019, with the TV and movie landscape very well populated by solid, positive takes on superheroes, it’s the perfect time for Kripke to unleash Ennis & Robertson’s deconstructionist take on the genre.
In The Boys, superheroes are completely corporatized. Vought International has pretty much all the superheroes in the world under contract, and the company licenses them out to municipalities to help them with their various crime problems. The cream of the crop are The Seven, the elite team, who are a not-remotely-subtle analogue to the Justice League. There’s Homelander, a flag-cape-wearing ubermensch who combines Superman’s powers with Lex Luthor’s personality (publicly a hero, privately a psychopath). Queen Maeve is a powerful woman in leather armor who isn’t from an island of Amazons, but is a lesbian, so there’s that, I guess? (Sigh.) The Deep can breathe underwater and talk to fish, and is generally made fun of as much as Aquaman was in his Super Friends days. A-Train is the self-proclaimed fastest man alive (though not the only speedster, as a race between him and another hero is a major event akin to the old Superman-Flash races around the Earth, only monetized). Black Noir dresses in all black (obviously, since his name is, in essence, “Black Black”) and never says a word, pretty much Batman taken to his absurdist extreme. And there’s Translucent, a character created for the TV show, who can turn himself invisible—but only himself, so he has to be naked to be effective (so of course he’s a voyeur and pervert).
The new seventh member of The Seven is Starlight, a Christian from the Midwest raised by a single-mother Pageant Mom who managed her life toward becoming a famous superhero.
Meanwhile, we have the titular Boys, a bunch of civilians who were part of a now-disbanded CIA black-ops team meant to keep superheroes in line. Billy Butcher, the team’s leader, gets the band back together after A-Train literally runs through a woman, pulping her body.
A-Train’s victim’s boyfriend is Hugh Campbell, an electronics store worker. At first Butcher just wants to use him to leverage Vought’s paying him off with hush-money to plant a listening device in Vought’s corporate headquarters, but Hugh winds up becoming a valuable member of the team.
This first season is quite the thrill ride, one that makes it very easy to eagerly tap on the “next episode” tab when you get to the end of an episode while watching it on Prime. It’s a visual feast, with strong, convincing superhero action, some delightful visuals (my favorite being Butcher wielding a laser-eyes-firing baby like Mr. Incredible wielding Jack-Jack), and a global aesthetic. Though it’s filmed in Toronto pretending to be New York, it has a crowded-city feel, and is never claustrophobic, which I like. It feels like it takes place in the large ol’ world, and that gives it a big feel that helps root it in the world, however distorted it is.
The acting is mostly magnificent. Antony Starr beautifully plays Homelander, from his charismatic, charming public persona to his frustrated private persona trying to do more with his powers than his corporate masters will allow to his utter psychopathy when things get serious. I likened him to Lex Luthor earlier, and in particular his performance reminds me favorably of how John Shea played Luthor in Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman 25 years ago, as the public persona is convincing enough to make you believe that people love him, but you also have no trouble accepting the asshole behind closed doors. I also like that we first only see the public persona, even in his meetings with his teammates, so we believe that maybe he, at least, is noble and pure—and then episode one closes with him downing the Baltimore mayor’s plane in order to preserve Vought’s secrets, killing not just the mayor and his staff and crew, but also his son.
Erin Moriarty threads the needle nicely as Starlight, as she really is trying to actually be a superhero, which is at odds with Vought’s mission statement, which is to make money (at one point, The Seven have a team meeting, and it’s entirely about profit shares), or the wishes of the other “supes,” which is mostly to be as self-aggrandizing as possible. Plus on Starlight’s first day as a member of the team, she’s sexually assaulted. (More on that in a bit.)
Laz Alonso as Mother’s Milk and Tomer Koran as Frenchie are both very good, giving their characters depth and feeling, as well as a tremendous amount of humor and heart. Karen Fukuhara is brilliantly expressive and shows a great physicality as Kimiko, who has yet to have a line of dialogue. Simon Pegg has a delightful recurring role as Hugh’s father. (Robertson used Pegg as the template for Hugh in the comics, but Pegg is too old to play that role now, so they cast him as Hugh’s Dad.) I particularly like how Pegg’s hangdog head-in-the-sand attitude is what has held his son back, as Hugh doesn’t thrive until working with The Boys enables him to live up to his potential. Casting Haley Joel Osment as a former child-star superhero now trying to eke out a living as a past-his-prime grownup was a masterstroke. And there are brilliant guest appearances by Jim Beaver, Jennifer Esposito, John Doman, and David Andrews as, respectively, the Secretary of Defense (named Robert Singer, a nice Supernatural in-joke), the Boys’s former CIA handler, the scientist who raised Homelander, and a senator who is blackmailed by Vought.
The rock stars of this series, though, are Elisabeth Shue, Karl Urban, and Jack Quaid.
Shue is superb as Stillwell, a gender-flipped version of the Vought corporate handler of the “supes” they have under contract. I love that every line of dialogue out of Stillwell’s mouth—whether in public, in a private meeting, or a personal conversation—is in MarketingSpeak. She communicates entirely via buzzwords and corporate nonsense, and it’s fantastic. She also has to try to control egotistical assholes who can kill her with no effort, and that tap-dancing serves her well for most of the first seasons (in particular, she’s able to manipulate Homelander through sex), but eventually it all comes crashing down on her.
Urban makes the whole series, and without him, it would be disastrous. But his Cockney accent and blunt attitude and unparalleled ability to live in his roles makes Butcher a fully realized character. He’s a force of nature, determined to get his way no matter what gets in his way—which, of course, makes him no better than the “supes” he’s going after. The only real difference is that he wants revenge against the supes in general and Homelander in particular for the rape and presumed death (she’s been missing for eight years) of his wife. (That plot thread comes to a devastating cliffhanger at the end of episode eight that presages some interesting notions for what season two will be about…)
But Quaid is what really makes the series work, because Kripke very sensibly focuses a lot of the story on Hugh’s PTSD. There are buckets of blood and gore and guts in this series, to a nigh-desensitizing degree, and most of the death we get is of faceless people we don’t care about, or victims we’re supposed to feel sorry about in the abstract but not really know. But Robin’s death while Hugh is holding her hands is devastating, and it continues to haunt and devastate Hugh throughout the rest of the series. Quaid beautifully plays it—Hugh just going blank periodically and remembering the trauma, and it informs every action he takes throughout the rest of the series. On top of that, however, you also have Hugh’s burgeoning competence, as he proves time and again that he’s got tremendous skills as an operative, and his work with Butcher and the gang is giving him a chance to shine that his dead-end job and hang-dog father never gave him the opportunity to do.
With all that, though, the show has some serious problems.
For starters, the original comic is completely over-the-top, and leans into the pure hedonistic, psychotic insanity of how emotionally crippled shitheads would be if given super-powers. Kripke and his writing staff don’t go nearly as far as Ennis did, and that’s both good and bad. Sometimes restraint is a good thing—but also it seems like it’s skimping on how awful a lot of the behavior can be.
Starlight’s sexual assault is particularly problematic. In the original comic, it was three of the heroes saying she had to orally pleasure one of them or be kicked out. This is modified in the show to only The Deep (not one of the three from the comic) saying that she has to blow him to stay in the group, but instead of being portrayed as standard operating procedure, it’s shown as something that happens on the down-low, and then becomes an issue when Starlight goes public with it. But then the follow up is that Deep is sent to Sandusky, Ohio to become their superhero (a very obvious punishment, especially since Sandusky has a low crime rate), and we keep cutting back to his boring, frustrating life, including him hooking up with a woman who turns out to be turned on by his gills. A significant amount of screen time is spent making us feel sorry for this shithead, who also tries to rescue aquatic life from captivity and gets them killed instead. It’s really yucky that the show is trying so hard to turn this sexual predator into some kind of victim, and I’m sorry, but fuck that shit. He deserves much worse, and trying to make him out to be sympathetic is entirely the wrong way to go with it.
On top of that, the fallout from Starlight going public with Deep’s sexual assault is half-assed. They paid some lip-service to what happened, but that was it. Starlight has as much of a right to cope with the aftermath of her specific trauma as Hugh and Butcher—both of whom lost the women they loved to supes—but while the two men get to feel pain and try to deal with it, Starlight just goes on as if she’s finished her part of the plot and is moving on to the next part. And maybe that’s supposed to be a statement on how strong she is as a character, but it doesn’t come across like that. It mostly just feels like the woman doesn’t get the same meaty character stuff the men get. Hell, Deep gets more story space dedicated to how he’s recovering from being punished for the sexual assault than Starlight gets in her recovery from the actual assault. Instead, Starlight gets to blame her Pageant Mom From Hell (played with no nuance whatsoever by Ann Cusack).
The writers have no idea what to actually do with A-Train, as his character changes to whatever the plot needs it to be. Is he an entitled asshole? Is he a troubled drug addict? Is he a victim of his success? Is he a screwup, in over his head and backed into killing his girlfriend? Is he scared of aging? He’s impossible to get a handle on, and it doesn’t help that Jesse Usher is spectacularly uninteresting in the role.
One of the most important events in the season is Homelander and Queen Maeve’s botched attempt to rescue Flight 37, which has been hijacked. First of all, the hijacking is written as if it takes place before 2001. Of all the changes made to airport security over the past 18 years, the one that’s most important is that cockpit doors are now bolted shut during flight, which makes hijacking damn near impossible.
But much more important is that planes have black boxes and people have cell phones. Homelander and Queen Maeve were still on the plane for several minutes after Homelander (rather incompetently) fried the cockpit and realized that they couldn’t save anybody. Maybe there wasn’t much of a signal over the ocean, and maybe the plane wifi was out after Homelander fried the console, but I find it impossible to believe that in 2019 nobody was recording the two heroes taking out the hijackers and sending it to their friends or livestreaming it somewhere before the cockpit was fried. Between that and the black box, there’s no way the cover story that they got there too late would hold water. The entire Flight 37 sequence comes across as a poor substitute for the comics, which had the supes deal with the hijackers on 9/11 to disastrous consequences (though it was the Brooklyn Bridge, rather than the Twin Towers, that was destroyed). That worked as recent backstory for a 2006 comic book, less so for one set thirteen years after that, but the change doesn’t work.
Some of the changes made from the source material are improvements. In particular, I like that The Female in the comics gets an actual name in the TV show (Kimiko), and that the Boys don’t have powers. Butcher’s pathological hatred of supes has more heft to it if he doesn’t inject the rest of the team with Compound V to give them powers as well, as he does in the comics. And the gender-flipping of Mallory (the Boys’s former boss) and Stillwell is done to good effect.
However, the biggest change involves the final fate of Butcher’s wife, which isn’t completely revealed until the last scene of the last episode of the season, and it’s brilliant.
All in all, The Boys is a problematic, difficult, sometimes great, sometimes horrible series. If nothing else, after two decades of good and noble heroes, the audience is probably pretty well primed to enjoy a look at the same characters and explore what would happen if they were irredeemable assholes.
Keith R.A. DeCandido’s latest novel is Alien: Isolation, based on the classic movie series and the 2014 videogame in particular, and is on sale this week—go out and buy it! He has written about pop-culture for Tor.com since 2011, with a special (though not exclusive) emphasis on Star Trek and comic-book adaptations.