Image: Amazon Prime
Showrunner: Eric Kripke
Starring: Jack Quaid, Karl Urban, Erin Moriarty, Anthony Starr
Celebrity worship, rape culture, performance-enhancing drugs, and the military industrial complex are just some of the targets at which The Boys, Amazon Prime’s latest offering, takes aim. And I’m happy to report that, for the most part, the show hits its marks. Over its eight-episode first series, The Boys presents us with a world where morally bankrupt, not-so-superheroes loom large, appearing more like spoiled celebs than public servants. Bolstered by some excellent performances, The Boys is an irreverent, ultraviolent romp. However, labouring under the weight of multiple plotlines, themes, and characters, the show can’t help but buckle slightly as it progresses.
Adapted from Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson’s comic series of the same name, The Boys takes place in a dystopic present analogous to our own, wherein costumed crime fighters – or ‘Supes’ – operate under the jurisdiction of the villainous Vought corporation. Our window into this strange new world is the unassuming Hughie (Jack Quaid), whose life is turned inside out when his girlfriend is quite literally turned inside out by the callous actions of a Supe. Hughie’s plight soon attracts the attention of the gruff Billy Butcher (Karl Urban), the former leader of a band of vigilantes – the titular ‘Boys’ – all of whom harbour a deep-seated hatred for the Supes. Getting the band back together, the Boys soon discover a sinister plot involving a mysterious drug, the revelation of which could bring down Vought and its empire for good.
The series’ primary strength lies in the compelling world which it creates; one which, despite being inhabited by fantastical god-like beings, still manages to feel eerily familiar. Just as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with its pantheon of colourful heroes, pervades much of our culture, the presence of Supes in The Boys is absolute, with their likenesses plastered across billboards, televisions, and social media. The presentation of superheroes throughout the series draws parallels with our society’s current obsession with celebrity culture, making for some enjoyable social commentary.
Alongside its excellent world building, The Boys also features a plethora of razor-sharp performances. Jack Quaid makes for a charming fish-out-of-water protagonist, Chase Crawford and Jessie T. Usher are appropriately pathetic as low-ranking members of ‘The Seven’ – the series’ stand-in for the Justice League – and Elisabeth Shue is quietly menacing as Madelyn Stillwell, the vice-president of Vought. Other performances aren’t quite as strong. Erin Moriarty as Starlight, the Seven’s wide-eyed new recruit, never comes into her own; Urban’s turn as Billy Butcher is also about as uneven as his wonky British accent, channelling Vinnie Jones by way of Captain Jack Sparrow. However, special mention must be made for Anthony Starr as Homelander, a sociopathic Superman analogue, whose nail-biting performance throughout the series proves endlessly compelling.
Where the series begins to falter slightly is in its plotting. Stuffed with B-plots and a large array of characters, the series cannot help but feel a little overstuffed. As a result, entire plotlines and characters disappear from episode to episode. Worst of all, Hughie, the audience surrogate and main protagonist of the series, begins to disappear into the background of his own story. Hughie’s motivation also gets lost in the shuffle, necessitating the use of visual hallucinations as a reminder of his motives, a tired, none-too-interesting trope. Other plotlines also suffer, with each forced to jockey for space within the narrative. Starlight’s story takes a little too long to become relevant to the overarching plot, and other narrative threads fail to receive any resolution by the series’ end (looking at you, the Deep). The overabundance of storylines impacts the overall pace of The Boys, with the series unable to maintain the frenetic energy of its excellent first episode.
Tonally, the series occasionally missteps. The overall feel of the series lands somewhere between Kick-Ass and Watchmen; it’s occasionally goofy, occasionally sincere, occasionally self-serious and heady, and always profoundly violent. A few set pieces overstep the mark however, descending into more farcical territory, which feel like remnants of the more overtly-silly comic book series upon which the show is based. The show is also let down by a lack of style. The series looks about as good as any other prime time offering, but lacks a definitive visual flair to complement its zany premise. The series could have taken more cues from the aforementioned Kick-Ass and Watchmen in this department.
There’s so much more that could be said about The Boys. I could talk at length about the series’ thundering soundtrack, its wealth of contemporary themes, or its ultraviolent set pieces. However, you’d be better off experiencing the series with minimal expectations. Although it perhaps tackles a few too many characters and storylines across its eight episodes, you have to applaud The Boys for its ambition. It’s certainly not for everyone, but you’ll likely be hooked – or repulsed – within the first ten minutes, depending on your tolerance for humans bursting into crimson clouds of blood and entrails. It’s not always smooth, but it is an unabashedly fun ride throughout; one which packs in enough commentary and wit to keep you thinking long after the credits roll.