So what happens when you take a dark graphic novel with a jaded social commentary from the mid 2000’s and mix it with the very modern day wild imagination of Eric Kripke? How about if it’s on an online streaming network where there are no standards and filters in the content? Introducing, the original Amazon Prime series, The Boys.
This is no typical superhero story for sure. It’s hard edged, contains some very dark humor, does not hold back on the gore, and the subject matter is controversial at best. It’s not comfort food, unless you fall on the sadistic side of the spectrum. It’s definitely not “Supernatural” and that says a lot considering that series was a horror show. This is Eric Kripke doing what he f**king wants. If there’s a graphic scene involving some twisted oral sex, resulting in brains splattering everywhere, he’s got it covered. Laser eyed babies cutting people in two? Exploding a naked invisible man to tiny bits in full graphic detail? Squashing dolphins with a tractor trailer? Check, check, check. There are no limits anymore.
Superheroes are real and they are promoted, monetized and controlled by a mega corporation, Vought International. They have a dream team of superheroes known as The Seven, who are heavily marketed as the saviors of this world, which turns out to be very profitable. These heroes are more into photo ops and selling their fairy tales rather than saving the world, except for the newest member, Starlight, who joins The Seven in the first episode after being raised believing in the fairy tale. She gets quite a shocking surprise.
Hughie Campbell (Jack Quaid) is standing on a sidewalk enjoying a tender moment with his fiancee when she suddenly explodes. Turns out that one of The Seven, A-Train, was running at super speed and carelessly ran through her. He falsely claimed he was chasing a robber, which takes Hughie, the reluctant hero, on a strange journey of revenge after he’s approached by Billy Butcher, someone claiming to be a cop and champion of those victims of “supe” collateral damage. Turns out he’s really the leader of vigilantes known as The Boys, whose sole mission is to take down The Seven and Vought International.
Season One in a Nutshell
The story is evenly split between The Seven and The Boys, and each side has a very twisted tale. The biggest problem with any first season is the time it takes to get comfortable with the characters. Or, in the case of Homelander, uncomfortable. The dude is creepy as f**k. Antony Starr is brilliant as a Captain America/Superman caliber hero who smiles for the camera and pretends to save the day in public, but behind the scenes is diabolically evil. He’s uncaring about human life, exercises his power and influence in the most unsettling ways and is very chilling with his repressed and twisted sexual desires for his boss
On the flip side is his top nemesis, Billy Butcher, played by most amazing Karl Urban. This is his breakout role in my opinion. Billy is high strung and intense compared to the cool yet calculated demeanor of Homelander. He’s smart, he’s manipulative, and he’s a foul mouthed violent hothead who will do anything to take down the supes, especially Homelander, no matter what the costs. His reckless need to get his target means he often pushes his team to do things that aren’t right, especially newcomer Hughie. He and Homelander are practically two sides of the same coin. The guy can be funny as hell, though, and is a total badass.
We get to know most of The Seven, except Black Noir, who’s just plain evil and very good at his job. Translucent is the invisible man that crosses the wrong vigilante. Queen Maeve is your Wonder Woman type character who has been corrupted by years under Vought. She knows right from wrong but doesn’t have the courage to do anything about it. She also has a strange power over Homelander that hasn’t been clearly defined. The Deep, aka the Aquaman equivalent, is just having all sorts of puzzling identity issues. A-Train is battling a dangerous drug addiction just to prove he’s the fastest being alive, and it’s getting him in all sorts of trouble with everyone in his life. Then there’s the newest member, Starlight.
I love the character of Starlight, aka Annie January, played by Erin Moriarity. She is a true heroine. She came into this situation with innocence and naïveté after being primed to be a superhero her entire life by her overbearing mother. Despite everything, she maintained her sense of morality and did things her way. She chose to rescue a woman against an attack by two men rather than stick to the chosen Vought rescue script. She spoke out against misogyny at Vought International, like when Vought tried to change her innocent white and gold costume with a cape into a tight and revealing body suit. She spoke out in public about her own sexual assault by The Deep and the manipulation of Vought even though she was told to shut up and sell the fantasy about being a superhero. She maintained her innocence around Hughie though, opening up to him and revealing her true self. She even came to his rescue after finding out about his deception, still seeing the good inside him. She goes into season two aligned with The Boys, no longer naive but still maintaining that sense of doing what is right.
Equal time is given to The Boys, which don’t really come together until episode 3. Aside from leader Butcher there is Frenchie, who comes in as an expert on how to take down a supe. There’s Mother’s Milk, a social worker, who I really don’t understand why he gave up everything to join this quest again. He had a solid job, a wife, a kid, but he also believes in the cause. He also has a big problem with Frenchie. Then two new members join the gang, Hughie, who has never taken a stand in is whole life but now has been driven to it by circumstances beyond his control, and a mysterious Japanese woman known as The Female, who was found by Frenchie during a mission in episode 4. Thanks to a session with Mesmer (a great appearance by Haley Joel Osmet), they learn her name is Kikimo and she was being groomed as a super villain to take on the supes.
There’s a lot of social commentary behind the very intricate plotting. There’s the obvious message of the dangerous power wielded by large corporations. Licensing deals, government contracts, appearance fees, etc all under the guise of bettering the world. Except innocents are getting hurt by the indifference of these supes and no one seems to care. The lengths that Vought goes to score a lucrative government contract costs many lives and harms many people, but none of that is made public. It’s all about living the dream and making a butt ton of money doing it. Elizabeth Shue as the woman pushing all the buttons, Madelyn Stillwell, really shines in her treachery and control over these superheroes for the good of the company. She's the ultimate manipulator and the only one that can tame Homelander. She just does that a little too well. She's a strong woman that isn't afraid to use sex to get what she wants, just as long as she's in control.
Another example of exposing social ills comes at an evangelical conference, clearly exposing the hypocrisy of leaders preaching at people to live a moral Christian life when behind the scenes exposes their bigotry, homophobia, misogyny and greed. The biggest hypocrite ends up being Starlight’s evangelical mother, showing the delusional mind of a parent that will do questionable things so their child can grow up being powerful and famous because that’s how they value success in life. It was her dream, not her daughter’s.
The trap of addiction to a performance enhancing drug is also explored. Not only does it unravel lives but results in a very disturbing sex act that gets A-Train’s girlfriend into some hot water as well as taking down A-Train himself. That drug leads to another shocking reveal in the season, one that also brings to the manipulations of the evil corporations that manufacture drugs, much like the modern day Opioid crisis.
(Detox superhero style)
The difference between a good and a great TV show is how intense a reaction is spurned. The Boys goes to extremes to stun and shock the audience, which is remarkable since thanks to online streaming services and graphic video games shocking an audience is not easy. One reason is because the show does not shy away from pushing the violence, gore and inhumane behavior. As an audience member, it can get downright uncomfortable. It’s supposed to be. That’s how the message gets across. It is all laced though with meaningful character interaction and very wicked humor. Hmm, sounds a bit familiar for Mr. Kripke, doesn’t it?
There is a ton of production value in each one of these episodes. There are only 8 episodes a season, but so much goes into them. Each are an hour long and manage to tackle so much in terms of action, character interaction, shocking VFX and a plot that goes places that you couldn’t imagine. Nothing is sacred and no one is safe. They are truly “mini movies” in every sense of the word. Binge watching is a bit tough though, because so much is thrown at you at once it’s a little mind blowing. You need time to recover after each episode for sure.
Somehow though, I’m left at the end wanting more rather than turning it off and vowing I’m done. How? Despite their flaws, I’m invested in these characters. That’s strange since there are really no real heroes here. There are anti-heroes, and even the so-called “good guys” aren’t very good. They’re just pissed. The superheroes aren’t all bad either, despite most of them being corrupted. The true heroes of this story fall on both sides.
The biggest sell, once I chose to overlook the excessive violence and nihilism, are the heartwarming moments to show there is hope in this awful world. The relationship between Hughie and Annie/Starlight is adorable, even though it is plagued with secrets and deception. There is also the very offbeat connection between Frenchie and the very mysterious The Female, who can kick some major ass. The teamwork in general between Hughie, Frenchie and Mother’s Milk is pretty awesome, despite the fact that their leader, Billy Butcher, has a single minded focus on revenge rather than justice and often puts his team at risk for the wrong reasons. The fact that love can even thrive in these circumstances shows that despite the horrific crap, Kripke is a romantic at heart. Those scenes are endearing, and offer some kind of hope that love can conquer all. Well, that and using a laser eyed baby in the right way. You end up rooting for people on both sides, which adds a dimension to this story you don’t normally see in your Marvel or DC classics.
I’m not going to call season one flawless. The plotting, while brilliant overall, was still inconsistent at times. I’m still pondering the rule on how you can kill supes because if they all have Compound V in them, don’t they all heal? Then why did only some of them? (except Translucent, that was wickedly awesome). l question the amount of time spent on The Deep. I’m still waiting for the payoff. I have hope that all this time spent on him is going somewhere other than mild comic relief, but all I know so far is the dude should really stay away from sea creatures.
There are also some character inconsistencies from episode to episode, especially with the volatile Billy Butcher. Of course, one could say he’s just unstable, but one could also argue it was all a ploy to mask his true motivation until the latter half of the season. That does of course lead to a shocking twist at the end of the season that changes everything for season two, so I guess there is a payoff in exercising patience with his character. I could have also dealt with fewer scenes of Homelander leering through the wall at Madelyn (while she’s breast pumping?), but I guess how else do you get the message across that the dude has really disturbing mommy issues? I also wish we could have gotten more of Simon Pegg as Hughie’s father. Talk about an under utilized actor!
(Warning, profanity, gore and violence alert)
Laser eyed baby in the fifth episode, “Good for the Soul.” Pure Kripke and I love it. Just search for “The Boys laser baby” on Youtube. It’s a little too graphic for this site!
Billy Butcher’s brilliant Spice Girls inspired pep talk in the fourth episode, “The Female of the Species”
Billy Butcher and Hughie’s fight scene with Translucent at the end of the first episode. It’s a really funny way to end what was a slow and unsettling episode. Poor Hughie was never the same after this.
Hughie’s snap decision to blow up a patronizing Translucent after seeing the poster on the wall “Keep your hands clean” in the second episode, “Cherry.” His shell shocked reaction, covered in blood and other body parts, screams graphic novel shot. So well done!
Starlight (after she saves Hughie in the season finale): "I’m a f**king superhero."
Overall grade, a B. It takes a few episodes for this series to find its stride but once it does, you can’t stop watching. Now I’m ready to take on season two, which from my understanding is even better. I’m ready.
Wondering about Jensen Ackles' role in The Boys season 3? Get the Scoop from Alice Jester! Meet Soldier Boy!