Amazon Prime’s the Boys benefits on better timing than Warner Brothers had with the Watchmen. The 2009 Warner Brothers movie came out prior to superhero movies becoming the almost quarterly huge box office events that they are today. When the movie, based on a 1985 comic book of the same name by DC comics, came out it was flipping a genre on its head before the general public knew enough about the genre to know what was happening. Now with the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) movies running at full stride with hit after hit, the general public now knows enough to be in on the premises being flipped over in the Boys.
For those wanting to read more of this column, there are two things that I feel obliged to tell you:
There will be spoilers in this column. I’ll try to keep them to a minimum, but they will be present.
If you’re not a fan of some fairly over the top violence, have an extreme distaste for poor language, or are offended by some not racy but sometimes bizarre sex scenes – this is not the series for you. Stop reading now, because this show will offend your sensibilities.
This show really seems to attack two main targets that are mirrored in today’s world:
Corporations – in this world, superheroes are produced, managed, and used to make massive brand-based profits in a variety of product lines including (but not limited to): toys, movies, pay for geographical protection, various branding opportunities etc. The company is more worried about the “spin” they can put on a situation than heroes actually behaving like heroes.
The celebrity worshipping world of our modern era is largely a world where money and influence can allow one to do and say things that no one in the rest of 99.7% of the population could ever get away with. Today’s world of celebrities, the uber-wealthy, the high-paid athletes, and also the influential politicians is mirrored by this reality. In this world, super heroes (approximately 250 across the country all working for Vought American) sit atop the celebrity pyramid. They secretly act out in the form of crazy excesses that are only achievable by those with super powers. The consequences of these actions are hidden by the Vought American (the company that “owns” the super heroes). This corporation will do everything possible to make sure that the public only sees what the corporation wants them to see in order to accomplish every increasing corporate profits.
Billy Butcher a man that is tortured by the knowledge that 8 years ago, his wife was raped by the Homelander (this world’s twisted version of Superman) and she subsequently either killed herself or was killed by the Homelander. He attempts to put together a team of operatives (the Boys) that will “police” the superheroes. As the series progresses, it is clear that the Butcher is willing to do anything necessary to make this happen. He’s willing to lie and to him, even those close to him are as dispensable as facial tissue would be to most of us. While the Butcher’s single-mindedness is gradually shown to morph from admirable to obsessive, the writers wisely use this to make Billy very hard to like, despite an intense and gritty performance from Karl Urban (Star Trek’s Dr. McCoy from the Kelvin Timeline of JJ Abrams and Eomer in the Lord of the Rings). Urban brings the character to life in a manner similar to the comic book. You want to see what he does next, but at times it scares you to think what that action might be.
The Boys had two other teammates that were compelling.
Hughie Campbell – Jack Quaid plays the everyman character who serves as the touchpoint allowing viewers to identify with one member of the Boys. He’s not been a spy, doesn’t know how to reload a gun, can’t kick any ass, and is constantly baffled by the behavior he sees from both superheroes and the Butcher. Hughie’s loss of his girlfriend when she is killed inadvertently by a member of the Seven (the most powerful superhero team, led by the Homelander) begins the show’s journey. The more Hughie learns about his girlfriend’s death, the more it becomes evident that the killer (A-Train, a super speedster) was hiding something. This untimely death is the moment that the world of the superheroes would change forever. Hughie is an everyman with a good heart. While viewers feel sorry for his loss, they also cheer for his chances with his new superhero girlfriend (Annie/Starlight) as the story progresses.
Mother’s Milk – played by Laz Alonzo (of Avatar and Fast and Furious fame), is the character who is forced to be the “adult in the room” of the show. He consistently gives good advice to others (though he doesn’t always apply that to his own life situations) and is the person who tries to counsel for restraint and thoughtful responses versus surrendering to anger or getting even in the short term. Alonzo plays this role very well and brings an emotional stability to the role that is unexpected for a hard man in such a tough spot. It would be easy after seeing Alonzo demonstrate such a wide range of acting chops to see him in demand from directors and producers needing an actor who can do hard action and demonstrate emotional vulnerability. Mother’s Milk played the similar role of being a role model for friends of lesser experience. His role is similar to what Denzel Washington has done in his Equalizer films. Mother’s Milk was very interesting when he was on the screen, though his time in front of the camera is far less than the Butcher or Hughie.
The Seven (which appear to be cast in the image of an out-of-control Justice League) is led by the Homelander. The membership can be daunting for non-super hero comic reading folks. They have one character retiring prior to the start of the show (Lamplighter), a second who dies at the hands of the Boys (Translucent), another who gets demoted (The Deep), along with A-Train who initiates the story and a final member who says nothing (Black Noir). The three remaining heroes were the ones that attracted my attention.
The Homelander – played by Antony Starr (of the Banshee series) this leader of the superheroes is the nightmare that Lex Luthor sees when he imagines Superman. The Homelander is unstoppable and he knows it. He can cut anyone apart with his laser vision and he’s more than happy to do so when he deems necessary. His character is so callous that he sentences a hijacked airliner’s passengers to death when it becomes too challenging to save the entire plane. He’d rather have everyone die than have someone get saved who’s eyewitness account might open the superheroes up to the public’s questioning of their actions. We’re led to believe he’s a mountain of power with a molehill for a brain. Certainly, we find out his childhood has scarred him in bizarre ways, but to underestimate him is foolish. Yet despite his supposed weak intellect, he unravels the mystery of the Butcher’s wife (and it’s a big one). One has to wonder if Butcher’s wife was raped or if she actually came on to Homelander, which was the story as Homelander told it. Homelander is the ultimate threat to this world. He’s a superhero with no limits. He is truly beyond the actions of the conventional military or even other super heroes. Worse, he doesn’t feel anything resembling the emotions of a normal human and he has no scruples when it comes to achieving his goals. Anthony Starr does a great job of projecting an overwhelmingly intense feeling of dread when he’s on the screen as the Homelander. His instantaneous switches from one emotion to the diametric opposite emotion are truly inspired. As he moves as the Homelander, the viewers feel those around him are one wrong word away from tripping the wire that will set this killing machine off. Well done by Mr. Starr.
Starlight/Annie – played by Erin Moriarty. Annie is the newest member of the team. She brings a Midwest naiveté (think shades of Radar O’Reilly of MASH fame) to the show. She wants to do what is right and finds out very quickly that the super hero world is not what she expected, not what anyone knows about, and is broken beyond repair. She struggles from becoming a victim of this world to standing up on her own for what she believes to be right. She has to balance her decisions and play a dangerous game of tight rope walking while under the psychotic watch of Homelander. All this is going on as she’s unwittingly dating a member of the Boys (Hughie). The choices she has to make define her as possibly the only human being that isn’t handicapped by a major character flaw. Ironically, when she is tempted to take up the ways of the rest of the Seven, Queen Maeve saves her. Erin plays this role believably and one can envision her having the morals that made Superman so famous a generation before.
Queen Maeve – played by Dominique McElligott (recently in the House of Cards) adds an interesting emotional touch to the show. She is the Wonder Woman equivalent of the Seven who debuts as a fighting machine. She is also heartless to the debauchery that goes on around her and apparently uses alcohol to keep her this way. She shlowly is won over by Starlight and eventually reaches out as a friend to Starlight. She is even surprisingly willing to stand up to Homelander to keep him from harassing Starlight as the relationship with Hughie is revealed. This is a nuanced performance and it was interesting to see the detached Queen find herself as she watches Starlight display the upright and tight morals that the Queen quit fighting for long ago.
Viewers who want to see a complex plot will enjoy this show. The origin of super heroes, the corporate machinations going on to cover up super heroes excesses, the evolution of several key characters, and the development of multiple plots leading to a big and surprisingly payoff is well worth it.
The show has excellent special effects, a solid cast and a willingness to push the limits of depravity that make it worth watching. While gratuitous violence and sex are certainly out-of-bounds, this story is dependent upon the shock value of the behaviors that super heroes regularly get away with in this world. Without demonstrating this behavior the whole plot would fall flat – but at times it can be hard to watch. Walking this fine line well elevates this show above a lot of shlock that one can find on today’s internet and video world.
This show is a very strong B+/A- effort. Those enjoying super heroes and wanting to stretch past the black and white world of Marvel and DC will appreciate this effort. In this world, the super villains really don’t exist yet. They appear to be hidden in plain sight by a corporate public relations machine.