The Boys (Amazon Prime) is a superhero series for people who hate superheroes. That’s me all over, which is probably why I’ve loved every moment of four episodes I’ve seen so far.
It’s based on a comic book by Garth Ennis (Preacher; Punisher) who also hates superheroes. ‘Personally, not having grown up with superheroes, I find them completely moronic,’ he said in a recent interview I could only access by having to use a VPN hider to pretend I wasn’t in the EU (seriously we can’t leave that overregulated dump soon enough). And: ‘The notion that the medium I work in is dominated (and, sadly, defined) by such a stupid genre is not one that feeds my sense of idealism.’
Ennis claims to object to superheroes on moral grounds: they are glibly escapist and ignore the world’s real problems. I, on the other hand, hate them because they don’t die easily enough. My idea of hell is sitting through one of those three-hour movies where superteams of superheroes, whose every trait and backstory you’re expected already to know intimately, bash each other up endlessly, like those characters on the New Order ‘True Faith’ video.
But anyway, The Boys – whose gloriously dark opening episode I recommend you watch before reading any further because I’m about to ruin some of the best bits with spoilers…
…right. Now we can go straight to the defining moment of the series, the one that so perfectly encapsulates the cynicism, shockingness and blackest of black humor which will either put you off completely or keep you hooked to the end. It’s the scene where our ordinary Joe hero Hughie Campbell (Jack Quaid) is walking home with his girlfriend Robin from his humdrum job in an A/V store discussing their future together.
‘Oh God. Here we go…’ you think. ‘Another of these movie stereotype wise young women who steer their generic, useless, beta male partner towards maturity and career enhancement.’ Except she isn’t. Rather, her job is to die suddenly and horribly there and then in a slo-mo explosion of gore and ribs. Robin, it turns out, has been obliterated in a collision with a superfast superhero called A-Train.
Like most of the superheroes in The Boys, A-Train is spoilt, selfish and morally defective. This is what happens when you are virtually indestructible, when everyone wants to pose for a selfie with you or sleep with you, when you have special skills – invisibility, laser eyes, flying – more impressive than any major league sporting stars. We overhear A-Train in the exclusive club where superheroes go to indulge their depraved, decadent whims (sex with multiple girls while dangling from the ceiling, etc) making light of Robin’s death with one of his mates.
Enter Billy Butcher (Karl Urban) who, apart from having the least convincing accent since Dick Van Dyke’s Cockney chimney sweep – Antipodes meets bad impersonation of a gangster from a Guy Ritchie movie – specializes in killing errant superheroes. You root for him and his team (which naturally includes new recruit Hughie) because though his accent is terrible, the superheroes – especially the most prominent ones in a group called The Seven – are even worse. Worst of the lot is Homelander (Antony Starr), whose carefully cultivated public image of decency, magnanimity and wholesomeness masks venality and cowardice so despicable that after you’ve seen what he does in episode four you’ll be rooting for him to be destroyed horribly.
Though it’s extremely dark and violent it’s also very funny. Hughie is haunted by the hideous thought that the very last words his late girlfriend heard was his exhortation not to dismiss lightly the lyrics of Billy Joel; the cartoonish deaths – by analingus, by explosives up the rectum, etc. – are inventively puerile; and there’s a great running joke about the crap superpower of The Deep (Chace Crawford), whose talent for swimming deep underwater and communicating with dolphins leaves him feeling inadequate and unwanted.
Like Watchmen, Deadpool and Kick-Ass before it and like Mark Millar’s forthcoming Netflix series Jupiter’s Legacy, The Boys is a refreshingly post-modern take on the superhero genre. But though it can be silly and sick, it’s never so tongue-in-cheek that you’re not invested in the characters and their narrative arcs. And, though it’s deliciously dumb and crass, it’s also a sublimely intelligent satire on celebrity culture, on the power of corporations, on post #MeToo sexual politics. Apparently it ends very awkwardly and leaves you dangling expectantly for Season Two. But that’s a small quibble. This series is a must-watch.