I guess superhero TV shows are my niche. There are a lot of them these days; everyone is in on it. You’ve got DC and Marvel shows all over the place, Netflix is staying in the game with Umbrella Academy, and Hulu having Marvel’s Runaways. Like everyone else, Amazon has made its forays into the genre, first with the recently cancelled The Tick, and now with its adaptation of Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson’s The Boys, from Dynamite Comics.
I’ll admit straight up that I am not a fan of The Boys comic. I will also admit I haven’t read a lot of it. I have generally bounced pretty hard off of Garth Ennis’s work and I have never really been interested in forcing myself to acquire a taste for it. He combines some genuinely good observations about human nature with a somewhat cheeky revelry in the most absolute profane imagery or ideas imaginable; I usually end up put off by how gross stuff can get. His approach to superheroes seemed to me to be an extended take on the old “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex” concept. I know people really like his work with The Punisher, but I’ve never really cared for The Punisher in general. I’ve also heard good things about Hitman, but DC hasn’t made that easy to get a hold of these days (If I missed a collection or something, let me know!). What I read of The Boys didn’t do anything for me and I never really felt any need to revisit it.
So I was not exactly excited for The Boys at Amazon. Still, I gave it a shot and I am glad I did. The Boys still displays plenty of the meanness and profanity that turned me off on the comic, but enough has been reimagined here to make it a different story and, in my opinion, a much better story. The bones of the plot remains the same; Hughie’s fiancé is killed by a drugged out superhero in a completely avoidable accident. This leads to Hughie being recruited by Billy Butcher into The Boys, a former CIA team that polices superheroes. In the show, the team is officially no more, but it is unofficially recreated to allow Butcher to seek revenge against the Superman analogue Homelander and against all superheroes in general.
One central level of the satire of The Boys is superheroes as corporate celebrities. It is a direct shot at Marvel and Disney with the MCU. A bold shot from a giant corporation like Amazon, but there is still some truth in it. Most of the “superheroes” operate within this; they are some corporatized failure of the idea of being a hero. It is fine, but nothing particularly new or eye-opening. The same goes for most of The Boys’ story. It is not a familiar tale, but it isn’t a surprising one. Butcher is clearly somewhat unhinged, and the other members are in the group for their own reasons. The show does a good enough job showing how amoral the “heroes” are that most of the awful things that the Boys do feel at least somewhat justified.
The part of the show that worked for me was the relationship between Hughie and Starlight. Mostly it was the character arc of Starlight. It starts off so bad, but by the middle portion of the season has easily become the highlight. Starlight is a young superheroine from Iowa. She had been managed by her mother like a stage mom with a pageant girl. Somehow she had caught the eye of the Vought Corporation and the Seven, the Justice League analogue superhero team. She is called up to replace a departed member. The first thing that happens when she arrives at headquarters is that The Deep, an Aquaman analogue, coerces her into a sexual act. It is a gross way to start things out, but of a piece with the rest of the show. Luckily, things look up from there.
Like Hughie with his girlfriend, Starlight has had her innocence violently shattered. She is the only superhero on the show who is shown to be trying to do good, to actually be a superhero. The other heroes, though, treat her like everyone else, like she is below them and not worth their time. Starlight, with some advice from Hughie, refuses to let that break her. She goes back determined to be a hero. I understand if the start of her story is enough to put someone off; large parts of The Boys seems to exist just to dare the viewer to stop watching. Especially because The Deep goes on to be shown as more of a goof than actually awful like some of his contemporaries. I, however, found sticking with Starlight’s story very rewarding. Because she goes from this sheltered, naive and unsure person to a much stronger one. That journey would be possible without the sexual assault, but that is not the story told. She not only reevaluates her career as a hero, but she also reexamines all aspects of her life, like her relationship with her mother and her religion. For me, it all worked. It also works in tandem with Hughie’s story.
Starlight seems much more focused that Hughie; he doesn’t really have anything to hold on to, personally, after the loss of his girlfriend. So he is more easily swayed by Butcher’s excesses and falls more easily into that quest for revenge.
The show truly won me over near the end, when some characters are forced to make a moral choice, and the show, at least for the moment, rejects the nihilism that had always threatened to run away with the show.
So, The Boys is a show for people who want a cynical look at superheroes that eventually reveals itself to have a sincere heart. I was pleasantly surprised by this show and I’ll be back for season 2.