The Boys: Season 1 (Amazon original) — a review

The Boys was a revelation. This is the superhero television show that I’ve been waiting for, apparently.

Comic book deconstructionism, as a movement in superhero comics, owes some of its longevity to the work done in the 1980s by writers like Alan Moore and Frank Miller. Moore and Miller, and others of their ilk, attempted to apply human psychology to superheroes. An alternate definition of deconstruction: taking a stable archetype and analyzing its basic components. Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns influenced the generation of writers who followed.

Mark Waid wrote Kingdom Come, in which Lois Lane was murdered by the Joker, who is in turn murdered by a superhero called Magog, a hero who won’t hesitate to kill. With beautiful art by the always-in-demand Alex Ross, this four-issue series goes seriously dark, but fanboys were thrilled by Superman and Wonder Woman becoming a super-couple, even if this was an Elseworlds story and not official canon. I think Brad Meltzer’s Identity Crisis, also for DC Comics, qualifies as well. Alan Moore’s run on the Image Comics Supreme title is often mentioned as an example. Superman is a favorite archetype to deconstruct.

Marvel Comics haven’t been immune to the deconstructionism bug. One could argue that Stan Lee’s idea to introduce superheroes with real-life problems was a major act of superhero deconstructionism in itself. At the time, the popular DC Comics superheroes were too one-dimensional, too impossibly nice and safe. The rise of anitheroes such as Wolverine and the Punisher could be considered symptomatic of desconstruction, as the line between superhero and supervillain became blurred. The Ultimates series, which put a more realistic spin on the superhero genre, and heavily influenced the MCU, certainly broke down longstanding archetypes into their components and made Hank Pym seem like a very bad guy (also made Nick Fury change races, which is probably more reconstructionist).

Writers such as Michael Brian Bendis and Mark Millar continue to explore and expand the genre, using many deconstructionist techniques.

The Boys is based upon the 2006-2012 comic book series of the same name by Garth Ennis and artist Darick Robertson. Prior to watching this season of the Amazon Prime television series, I hadn’t read any of the comic books, although I had the first trade volume on my bookshelf.

look familiar?

One assumed quality of desconstruction is that it can be a cynical and deeply critical commentary on the superhero genre itself. I’m not certain this applies to all examples of deconstructionist superhero literature, but it certainly applies to a lot. I’m thinking Geoff Johns’ Flashpoint here, Alan Moore’s Watchmen (of course), and—if the entire comic series is anything like the streaming series—Garth Ennis’ The Boys.

Showrunner Eric Kripke—the man who created the CW’s Supernatural—adapts the comic book series as an ultra-violent, profanity-laden superhero drama that asks the question: What would it be like if superheroes existed in the real world?

The series quickly goes dark and pretty much remains there throughout the season. The “Supes,” as powered individuals are known, are not necessarily heroes, and much of the season revolves around a group of non-powered humans (well . . . mostly) who believe that the supes are all villainous and should be killed. The usual comic book tropes are subverted. The heroes as villains. A group which would normally be characterized as villains, the heroes.

The viewer’s personal avatar in this story is Hughie Campbell. A milquetoast non-supe who works in an electronics store. As an equally milquetoast non-supe who used to work at Radio Shack during college, I could relate to Hughie, who is portrayed by Jack Quaid, the son of Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan. Quaid was in The Hunger Games, which I’ve never seen. He was also in Steven Soderbergh’s heist comedy Logan Lucky, which I believe I watched on a cruise ship, although I didn’t recognize him from that performance. Only recently, I experienced his voice acting work on the CBS All Access animated series Star Trek: Lower Decks (he voices Ensign Brad Boimler). Hugie’s dad in this series is played by Simon Pegg.

Like most Americans in the series, prior to the beginning of his story Hughie idolized supes, who are marketed not unlike their real-life counterparts in the MCU and DCEU. The supes are all controlled by Vought International, a globe-spanning corporation that rents its heroes out to major cities, but makes its real money from the media and merchandising that the consumers demand. Films, video games, comic books, clothing . . . you name it. Not unlike our world. Think of Vought as a fictional Disney.

Hughie’s worldview changes the moment a speedster supe known as A-Train (Jesse T. Usher) runs through Hughie’s girlfriend Robin (Jess Salgueiro) at supersonic speed, leaving Hughie standing on the sidewalk holding her arms, in shock and splattered with gore. It appears supes have some sort of diplomatic immunity that protects them from prosecution, although Vought does attempt to throw some money at Hughie for his pain and suffering. The grieving Hughie is easy pickings for a mercenary named Billy Butcher (Karl Urban), who convinces Hughie to join his anti-supe band of mercenaries known as The Boys. Butcher contends that the collateral damage caused by the supes is out of control, and they they have to do something about it.

I admired Karl Urban’s portrayal of Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek movie series. I never even knew he was a Kiwi until he showed up on this show (I don’t know that his accent on the show is Kiwi: I found out he was from New Zealand when I looked him up). He’s been in other things that I’ve seen, including The Lord of the Rings as Éomer. Still, Urban’s performance in this show as Butcher has made me an even bigger fan.

Urban has profane alpha-dog swagger as Billy Butcher, who doesn’t recruit Hughie so much as shanghai him. Butcher has his own personal reasons to hate the supes, as we find out later in the season. Other members of this anti-supe mercenary squad include munitions expert Frenchie (Tomer Capon) and ops manager Mother’s Milk (Laz Alonso). As the season progresses, the Boys end up adopting their own supe, the mute young Asian woman known as The Female (Karen Fukuhara).

If Hughie Campbell is the male lead in this series, the female lead is Annie January AKA Starlight (Erin Moriarty). She becomes a stand-in for the viewer in the realm of the supes, Vought International. It seems that there are smaller supe groups that act as sort of a farm system for Vought’s premier super-group, known as The Seven.

Annie has been called up to the majors as the series opens. She is a fresh-faced young lady from Iowa with a squeaky-clean Christian image. Her youthful idealism and admiration for the members of The Seven are soon dashed as the reality of being a part of Vought’s premiere team sink in. The supes are marketed, and even the crimes they thwart are staged. Plus, Annie’s introduction to the team itself kicks off with sexual molestation.

Throughout the season, the viewer will see supes who could be an analog for several well-known superheros at DC Comics and Marvel. But, I don’t think there can be any doubt that the supe team The Seven is an analog for (primarily) the Justice League of America, as found in the DC comic books.

Homelander (Antony Starr) is the leader of the team. He wears a US flag as a cape, has blond hair, and can fly and shoot laser beams from his eyes. The obvious analog is Superman, of course, but I’d also throw in a touch of Captain America, with all the patriotic wrappings. Queen Maeve (Dominique McElligott) is our Wonder Woman analog, a warrior woman who also happens to be a closeted lesbian. Black Noir (Nathan Mitchell) is our silent Batman analog. The Deep (Chance Crawford) is Aquaman, a self-loathing supe who can breath under water and talk to fish. A-Train we’ve talked about already, our Flash analog. Our invisibility supe, Translucent (Alex Hassell) doesn’t have a direct JLA analog, but invisibility is a common super-power.

The corporate entity is represented in this first season primarily by Vought vice president Madelyn Stillwell (Elisabeth Shue). She is a calculating, possibly evil woman who is attempting to control Homelander using the tools available to her. She has a baby whom Homelander seems very jealous of, revealing a dangerous immature streak. Soon, it seems that Butcher’s characterization of supes as monsters is mostly an apt one.

The Seven are all seriously narcissistic and damaged in some way. Except for Starlight. At least, not yet, though she is on her way as Vought designs a sexier uniform for her to wear.

Being no stranger to stories, you might guess that there is a romantic subplot in the series. Who better to pair up than our male and female leads? That’s the way it’s done. Hughie and Annie become an item. When you consider that she is a supe and he is a member of an anti-supe group, the potential stories almost write themselves.

A lot of story is packed into these eight episodes. If you’re a fan of superhero media, you’ll find something to like in this series as well. If you’re not too keen on superheroes in general, that’s okay, too. Because this series tracks well as a revenge drama as well. In fact, although well-done, the super powers represented in this series are nothing new or overly impressive. Like any good story, the focus is on characters and individual motivations. I believe the creators of this series have nailed it.

I can’t say how it compares to the comic book series, but, regardless, this is a good story.

Firewater’s You’ve-Done-a-Murder/ Comparatively-Speaking-This-will-be-a-Piece-of-Cake Report Card: A

If this was a ploy to make me read the graphic novel, it has failed. Okay, I’ll read the first volume, since I already own it. But, I don’t want any of the rest of the story to be ruined for me. I plan to watch this series as long as it’s on. Then, maybe, I’ll read the books.

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