Metatextual superhero stories are sort of having a moment. Watchmen has a TV reboot on HBO, ‘Joker’ is an ambitious and transgressive remix of one of DC’s most beloved stories, and a third Deadpool movie seems all but guaranteed.
Why do modern audiences have such an appetite for stories showing the flaws in superhero stories? To be sure, it’s partially because of how over-saturated the market is with superhero movies and shows. DC and Marvel have released 30 films in their cinematic universes since 2007, and certain tropes — like the big blue laser beam of death, the team of plucky, quirky heroes, and the vaguely sympathetic lonely genocidal villain — bubble to the top.
I can’t really get into superhero shows and movies, but those I like tend to be on the outskirts of the big releases, such as Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (which I think is the best Spider-Man film made so far) or Logan (which I think is the best X-Men film made so far).
So I was pleasantly excited to hear about Amazon’s TV adaption of The Boys, a late 2000’s comic series about a Justice League-esque team of sadistic, careless, and often simply evil superheroes.
Like its source material, season 1 of ‘The Boys’ is violent, offensive, and soaked in a 110-gallon steel drum of dark humor. The show’s first episode opens with a member of The Seven, the world’s greatest superheroes, accidentally blasting a civilian into a mess of blood and gore. Another member of the group manipulates and rapes a different member of the main cast, and a third member murders scores of innocent civilians to protect a political secret.
To its credit, I think the show does a great job portraying how awful these actions are while still deriving comedy from them. But that’s just my experience — you should be prepared for pretty upsetting material going in.
The superheroes are, for the most part, our antagonists, along with the mega corporation that controls them. The show’s best moments come when they tussle with ‘The Boys’ — a rough group of military agents, mercenaries, superheroes-turned-actual-heroes and Hughie, a mild-mannered guy whose girlfriend was killed by a superhero.
Karl Urban and Jack Quaid are great as the show’s dual leads, but the show falters at times when it starts to dwell on Mother’s Milk, Frenchie and Kimiko, the other members of The Boys. Those three especially feel like characters written by consulting TV Tropes. Their relationships are interesting, but not what makes the show fun to me, and the season spends a lot of time with them near its end.
But the main crew of superheroes is consistently delightful — whether it’s The Deep being an insecure asshole, Homelander and Queen Maeve fighting through painful moral quandaries and personal trauma, or Black Noir just hanging out in the background.
Starlight, the moral conscious of The 7, is performed splendidly by Erin Moriarty. She’s one of the few people in the series whose goals start and end with making the world a better place. While her story is built on surviving trauma and abuse, I hope that next season pushes her into more of a decision-making and plot driving role.
It’s one of the bigger weaknesses of the season that most of the female characters’ stories involve enduring lifetimes of abuse and manipulation, and it mires the season in a bit of predictability. Kimiko gets the worst of it — although the seemingly obvious stereotypes her character falls into might be intentional. It’s hard to tell.
The later episodes also strain the protagonists’ luck a bit far — it’s hard to imagine ‘The Boys’ surviving as long as they do against ‘The Seven’ without the aid of Compound V, which they use in the comic series.
All that said, ‘The Boys’ is off to a solid start. It pulls off a difficult-to-navigate premise with a couple dozen truly hilarious moments, and I hope to see it grow beyond its missteps and keep being a smart satire of celebrity culture, entertainment, and superhero stories in general.
I give Season 1 a solid B-.