Superheroes — they’re so like us! We kid. Mere mortals can’t stop bullets and leap buildings in a single bound, or use our vast wealth to construct secret lairs and Batmobiles, or command the denizens of the seven seas, or run faster than the speed of light. But let’s say they were as petty and horrible as us. What if the Justice League’s headquarters was filled with as much with toxic masculinity and sexual harassment as your average workplace? What if caped crusaders preached anti-gay sentiments at Christian gatherings and then got caught screwing around in same-sex after-hours clubs? What if, like their celebrity counterparts, they could literally get away with murder thanks to some corporate cover-ups? Who would hold them accountable? Who watches the…never mind, sorry, we were thinking of something else. If they’re not using their extraordinary gifts for truth, justice and the American way but in the name of power, corruption and lies, you need some sort of checks-and-balances system to counteract them, right?
Created by writer Garth Ennis and artist Darick Robertson, The Boys was a comic with a distinctly anti–cape-and-tights premise: Imagine a world where superheroes actually exist, and because they can do whatever they want, they’re all total and complete assholes. Luckily, there’s a secret, off-the-books C.I.A. group of folks known colloquially as “the Boys” who aren’t afraid to play dirty if these “supes” stepped out of line. It was an excessively violent and nasty series, pitched somewhere between obscene and JFC outrageous; Ennis wanted the book to “out-Preacher” his notorious Vertigo title with Steve Dillon, and the fact that he succeeded in his goal says a lot.
And given that Amazon’s The Boys, the eight-episode adaptation which starts streaming on the service this month, shares a few of the same creatives with the TV version of Preacher (Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen and Neal H. Moritz are producers on both projects; the first two are also listed as co-creators here alongside Supernatural‘s Eric Kripke), you can see how the show might hope to outdo its small-screen counterpart as well. It doesn’t, mind you — not in grossness or weirdness or sheer balls-out Ennisness. That isn’t the point or the problem, however. Really, who cares if one show has more guts, gore and gonzo attitude than the other? No, the issue here is that this take on the book never really gets past the limits of its revisionist premise. Once upon a time, superheroes breaking bad was a unique enough notion on its own. Times have changed.
Meet “The Seven,” the elite group of crimefighters who stand head and broad shoulders above the rest of the world’s costumed do-gooders. Homelander (Antony Starr) flies, has X-ray vision, shoots lasers out of his eyes and rocks a stars-and-stripes cape. Queen Maeve (Dominique McElligott) is an Amazonian princess with super strength. The Deep (Gossip Girl‘s Chace Crawford) can marshal marine life to do his bidding and is a most excellent swimmer. A-Train (Jessie T. Usher) is the world’s fastest man. There’s also the cryptic, possibly psychotic Black Noir (Nathan Mitchell), an invisible man named Translucent (Alex Hassell) and the team’s newest member, Starlight (Erin Moriarty), a young girl-next-door type who’s a cross between Supergirl and Isis. Any resemblance to superheroes you may have grown up reading is, obviously, not coincidental — Ennis had subversively pitched the comic as taking place within the D.C. Universe back in the day and was told no, thank you. Not is the fact that the universe they live in is overrun with endless superhero movie sequels, TV shows, and media saturation, not to mention a corporation named Vought making a mint off the licensing rights.
As for Hughie (Jack Quaid), he as enamored of these larger-than-life figures as much as anybody, at least until A-Train runs into his girlfriend — like, literally runs into her — and turns her into a puddle of plasma. The young man is grief-stricken, which makes him the perfect mark for Billy Butcher (Karl Urban, a.k.a. “Bones” from J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek movies). This bearded, brutish man in black runs the Boys, or least he did when the outfit was slightly more legit — a tragic incident a while ago more or less put the group on the outs. But Butcher wants to get the band back together, and he thinks a tech whiz with a vengeancequest like Hughie can help them. So the kid joins up with him, Frenchie (Tomer Capon), Mother’s Milk (Laz Alonso) and a mute, feral female (Karen Fukuhara) with a killer instinct to take on the Seven. Who, it should be noted, aren’t the squeaky clean heroes everyone thinks they are. And given that the team’s press liason Madelyn Stillwell (Elisabeth Shue, the show’s MVP of moral dubiousness) needs to squash rumors about a mystery “steroid for supes” causing P.R. problems, the squad has a license to do whatever it takes to keep the opposition quiet.
There’s a lot happening around The Boys‘ core concept, from a human-supe romance and a plan to sell superheroes to the U.S. military via Trumpian fear-stoking. There’s some serious Freudian baggage around Homelander and his handler and a number of gleefully absurd side vignettes (what if you could use a super-powered baby with laser-shooting eyes as a weapon? what if an off-brand Aquaman fucked dolphins?). But none of it adds up to much, and there’s a constant sense that the show is treading over too-familiar ground when it’s not simply treading water. Even the impressive set pieces, like a nightmarish attempt to save a hijacked plane that goes spectacularly wrong and knock-down, drag-out fight with a barely visible opponent, feel more like pit stops than plot movers. Some of these bad guys will feel regret, and some of the good guys will realize that they’re just as twisted and tainted as the bad guys. But the sex-violence-and-superheroes vibe here doesn’t have enough to keep you from feeling a little fatigued by it all before the final episode delivers a weak closing wallop. The title may be the name of badasses tasked with taking these mega-human weapons of mass destruction down. What it’s really referring to is its ideal demographic.