TV Series Review
Heroes can fail us. Even superheroes. Especially superheroes.
Hughie Campbell knows this better than most. One afternoon, he and his girlfriend were talking about moving in together and the next—well, his girlfriend had become a pair of disembodied hands and a bunch of blood spattered on the street. That’s what happens, apparently, when a super-fast hero like A-Train plows into a flesh-and-blood person. And while A-Train said he was sorry and all, Hughie still harbors some ill will … and a well-founded suspicion or two about just how super these superheroes really are.
He’s not alone. Hughie—an unassuming tech geek whose favorite musician is James Taylor—is now a member of The Boys, a rough-hewn squad of vigilantes dedicated to exposing society’s most hypocritical heroes: Do-gooders fighting other do-gooders, if you will. Only the latter are do-badders and the former do bad things to make good on their …
Never mind. Let’s just get on with the review.
Far From Homelander
Hughie and his crew don’t have a lot of advantages in this fight. Led by the mysterious Billy Butcher, The Boys (at least one of whom is female and nicknamed as such) don’t have super powers at their disposal. They don’t even have any official backing, Butcher’s fake FBI badge notwithstanding.
In contrast, their adversaries are seriously supercharged—particularly the members of the so-called Seven. A-Train’s a card-carrying member, as is The Deep, the self-proclaimed King of the Sea. He’s also a creep who sexually assaulted the team’s newest member—sweet, idealistic Iowan Annie January—during her first day on the job.
The Seven’s leader, Homelander, is the group's exclamation point: A Superman-like hero in a star-spangled cape, Homelander can fly, knock down buildings without getting short of breath and zap anyone he’d like with his heat-ray vision. And while he would seem to be the cleanest, most idealistic of the bunch, his All-American persona hides some far darker inclinations.
And if all that wasn’t enough, The Boys must deal with Vought International, the brand behind the superhero business. Vought now has more than 200 superheroes under contract, and vice president Madelyn Stillwell makes sure that none of her talents have to moonlight as Daily Planet reporters.
Lucrative deals with superhero-starved cities fill Vought’s coffers. Vought’s movie division churns out hit after hit. And that’s to say nothing of the merchandise rights. You can’t take a step down the street without seeing Homelander shilling insurance on a billboard or a cardboard cutout of A-Train swilling a Red Bull.
You think these supes are tough? Just try taking on Vought’s phalanx of lawyers.
Men of Heels
Based on a 2006-08 comic series of the same name, Amazon’s The Boys is all about deconstructing the American superhero myth—cutting a few caped crusaders (and the love that fans feel for them) down to size.
It’s a natural impulse. Not every cat with superpowers, after all, necessarily has super-great character to go along with them. And even if a hero starts out with the best of intentions, how can we be sure that he or she will follow through on them?
This is not exactly unexplored territory. DC’s Watchmen (getting its own show on HBO later this year) is perhaps the most famous example, but there have been others. Even legitimate superhero narratives in Marvel and DC have poked around the dangers of unchecked superhuman beings. Captain America: Civil War explored the theme of how a world would deal with, essentially, god-like vigilantes (well-meaning tho’ they might be).
But The Boys feels bleeding-edge relevant, too—an exploration of hypocrisy and dubious authority that contains feints toward everything from police brutality to the #MeToo movement to corporate oligarchy. Power corrupts people, The Boys suggests, be they superheroes or business syndicates. And it’s an uphill battle to bring the corrupt to justice.
But The Boys itself may corrupt in a different sort of way.
The Amazon show is billed as a dark comedy. And it is indeed as bleak, cynical and brutal as they come. The superheroes here engage in the worst acts you can imagine, from sexual assault to murder, and we see most of those crimes. Bodies explode before our eyes. Sex and nudity oozes across the screen. Even many of the less-heinous heroes come across as rather vile human beings. (One do-gooder wants The Seven to do less on-the-street crimefighting and focus their energies on cinematic piracy. He’s sick of bootlegged superhero movies hurting his take-home pay.) And the language—well, let’s just say we’re a long way from Robin shouting, “Holy hand grenades, Batman!”
And if these so-called superheroes don’t deserve the title, the show’s actual heroes aren’t always a lot better. In the very first episode, they kill a supe and then spend much of the next two episodes trying to dispose of the body.
All this would be of serious concern no matter what, of course. But these content concerns come with a big ol’ extra exclamation point: This is a superhero show, and as such many kids may stream this thing believing it’s—well, a superhero show. Amazon does preface the program with a strong content warning, but I often wonder how effective those are.
The Boys offers a lively, culture-current take on the misuse of power. But ultimately, the power is yours. And perhaps the best use of that power would be to avoid this streaming show like kryptonite.
Crude or Profane Language
Drug and Alcohol Content
Other Negative Elements
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Karl Urban as Billy Butcher; Jack Quaid as Hughie Campbell; Antony Starr as Homelander; Erin Moriarty as Annie January; Dominique McElligott as Queen Maeve; Jessie T. Usher as A-Train; Chace Crawford as The Deep; Tomer Capon as Frenchie; Karen Fukuhara as The Female; Nathan Mitchell as Black Noir; Elisabeth Shue as Madelyn Stillwell; Laz Alonso as Mother's Milk