A satirical, dark examination into the consequences of irresponsible power reveals that the true enemy is far more realistic than what first impressions suggest.
Starring Karl Urban, Jack Quaid, Antony Starr, Erin Moriarty, Dominique McElligott, Jessie T. Usher, Laz Alonso, Chace Crawford, Tomer Kapon, Karen Fukuhara, Nathan Mitchell and Elisabeth Shue
As the saying goes, “Never meet your heroes”. That is the bedrock upon which Amazon Prime’s The Boys rests. In a post-Avengers existence, in which Hollywood is enjoying a sudden superhero resurgence, Amazon Prime keeps the genre fresh and unpredictable by presenting the darker side of superhumanity. Superheroes are presented as beings as nuanced and as damaged as humans themselves, showing that it’s truly not the powers that make a being “super”, unlike the image that is presented by many other superhero outings.
The darker side of superhero existence is nothing new, though would have been more groundbreaking at the time that Garth Ennis started the comicbook series in 2006. This particular spin on the superhero tale went down like a lead balloon in the form of DC’s releases Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman and Justice League all completely failing to hit the mark due to going too far in the wrong direction. We also saw this moderately tapped into with the Marvel Netflix series, with Jessica Jones exploring similar themes of the line between what makes someone super-powered compared to a superhero – a distinction that Jessica continually resisted, and the difference became particularly marked in the final season.
What The Boys possesses that these other instalments lack is the fact that it does not take itself too seriously. It is not taking familiar characters and attempting to mould them into stoic and broody mannequins, like the DC films have attempted (sorry, DC, but Superman is always going to be that guy that wears his underwear over his tights; and Batman is always going to be a rich kid who gets very upset over his lack of parents. Nobody takes them seriously anymore – neither should you). Instead, it uses its overfamiliarity to its advantage and manages to push the superheroes in bizarre directions that would not work in a film or in a family-friendly setting.
The Boys allows us to peek behind the curtain at the life of superheroes away from the media perception. While the news and the films present the image of superheroes performing noble deeds, The Boys uncovers the reality beyond the glamorised public consciousness.
Our oversaturation with the superhero genre is somewhat of a prerequisite for enjoying The Boys. The characters themselves are clear imitations of hugely popular superheroes: caped patriot Homelander (Antony Starr), warrior Queen Maeve (Dominique McElligott), speedster A-Train (Jessie T. Usher) and aquatic saviour The Deep (Chace Crawford) are mirrors of Justice League members Superman, Wonder Woman, The Flash and Aquaman. It’s upon the shoulders of this intimacy that The Boys thrives, as this is the world that it too inhabits. We are presented a world in which these superheroes are being paraded in front of the public in a hugely similar way to the current population. Not only are the superheroes real within this universe, but they are also being featured within films and dominating the box office just as they pervade media currently.
The Boys continues the exploration by showing that even though superheroes are superpowered, it does not mean that they are superhuman – and, if they are, it’s just an even more messed up humanity that everybody else experiences. The difference comes through the consequences of their actions being so much more dire than the rest of us due to their heightened abilities. We are presented to these flawed, self-absorbed and, in some ways, arrogant superheroes almost immediately, as A-Train entirely obliterates a woman, leaving her nothing but sprayed body parts and a puddle of blood. This careless event is what embroils Hughie Campbell (Jack Quaid) in the world of fighting Supes, while being an event so inconsequential to A-Train that he jokes about it with a friend in the bar as if it is a mere inconvenience (likened to a bug on the windshield). He acts confused and irritated by having to face Hughie to apologise and shake his hand for the event, seemingly viewing himself as above reproach for his superhero status.
The rose-tinted image presented by the media is similarly deconstructed through the introduction of wide-eyed idealistic Starlight (Erin Moriarty), otherwise known as Annie, who is genuinely motivated to help the public and make a difference like the heroes she has grown up seeing on screen. Starlight is introduced to the Seven as their newest member, and is immediately congratulated for her “angle” by the publicist. She wanders through the headquarters of her new home, having been presented to the public, like she is in a daze. Giddily emboldened, you can see the childlike innocence and hope behind her eyes, eager and ready to start making a palpable difference and change within the community and to be revered as she had revered these heroes who she is now shoulder to shoulder with. The glow in her eyes, that is present even when not using her enhanced abilities, is soon dulled by the revelation that the childhood hero that she most admired – The Deep – is a sexual predator and threatens to have her kicked out of the Seven unless she performs sexual acts upon him. Vought International also focus their efforts upon Starlight’s “story”, uninterested in the reality of the situation. They redesign her costume, to make her look more sexy, as well as carefully selecting the crimes that she should tackle so that they get the best camera angles and media coverage, despite Annie’s proven ability to tackle crime more effectively. The focus is clearly not upon the superheroes actually dealing with criminal activity, but rather the act of it being seen. When Annie does indeed right a perceived wrong within the community, that of another woman being sexually assaulted, she is chastised for the videos of it that appear online. The takeaway message is: even superheroes are dicks. In fact, they are even more dangerous, as they have superpowers.
Each of the superheroes has been highly damaged through their position. Queen Maeve is a mirror to Annie’s future. Beaten down, disillusioned, she is unable to connect with other beings and unable to have true autonomy within her life, despite her super strength. Her longings are at odds with the huge constraints that are put upon her by Vought International, who push to have her presented in highly particular ways. Truly, Maeve has no ownership over the image of Queen Maeve. The fact that her superhero moniker is no different from her civilian name is just another way that she is truly unable to separate herself from the life that she is pigeon holed into by Vought.
A-Train’s self esteem is hugely hit by his title as the fastest man, truly believing that he is nothing without his super strength. He pushes his body to massive extremes in order to prove himself as the fastest, else believing that his entire worth will be nothing. His entire sense of self is based within the Seven and, should that crumble, so too will his purpose and value.
The Deep is similarly constrained by his role within the Seven and is ridiculed both by the public and also by his teammates, as “the fish guy”. So starved of attention, he longs to find somebody who truly sees him and believes that he can only find this within the sea creatures who are able to understand him. While not excusing his behaviour towards Annie, it is interesting to dive into the psyche of Kevin, who clearly thinks that he is otherwise undeserving of affection and romantic attention if not for flaunting his status as “The Deep”. In the case of Annie, it involved forcing her and misinterpreting her adoration of him as an indication of interest. When she refused, he used her desire to be a member of the Seven as a way to gain that attention. Later in the series, when he similarly receives attention from a different woman, his insecurity is revealed to be the result of gills on his stomach.
Homelander is perhaps the toughest to crack. Arrogant, untouchable and sadistic, Homelander is the most powerful of the Seven. While publicly perceived as the epitome of a hero, Homelander gets his way through bullying and intimidation, and holds very little value in human life, especially if it is not beneficial to him. He frequently eliminates enemies with few qualms, including children, and appears deaf and immune to their cries. His true vulnerability shows through in his relationship with Madelyn (Elisabeth Shue), the vice-president of Vought International. He reveals himself to be incredibly paranoid, but also thrives off her mothering of him. After all, what can be longed for more by the most powerful man than being looked after?
So, if there’s any takeaway message from The Boys, it’s that superheroes are not immune to human problems, but rather suffer from them tenfold.
But it’s more than that.
Superheroes with corrupt motives are nothing new. Mostly, it’s the origin story of a supervillain. Superpowers do not a superhero make. So who is the true villain at play here? The answer is simple, and far too close to home. Corporations are the evil force behind The Boys, and the constant battle and focus upon money and “points” is what drives Vought International. The amoral and cruel, calculated actions of Vought, made with very little regard to the wellbeing of others, playing with human life as if they are chess pieces on a board, is the more worrying issue in effect. It is all too familiar, and all too possible. While superheroes may not grace our world, companies and powers like Vought that seek to control and dominate industries driven by self-interest are the true danger that needs to be feared.