Saturday, June 04, 2022

"The Boys, Episodes 1.1 to 3.3": review

"The Boys" is an Amazon Prime Video TV series that first aired in 2019. Its third season only just started, with three episodes having been released by Amazon and, from what I hear, more episodes appearing until sometime in July. It is based on a 2006 graphic-novel series by Garth Ennis and Darick Robinson, and the series showrunner is Eric Kripke.

Who are the eponymous Boys? The Boys are a group of vigilantes who take down "supes," i.e., superheroes. They are led by William Butcher (Karl Urban with a Cockney accent), a hard-bitten operative with plenty of blood in his past. Eventually working with him are Frenchie (Tomer Capon, who obviously isn't a native French-speaker), an arms dealer/expert; the hulking Mother's Milk (Laz Alonso); Kimiko (Karen Fukuhara), a Wolverine-like supe who joins the boys; and perhaps most importantly, Hughie Campbell (Jack Quaid, son of Dennis), a nebbishy regular Joe whose girlfriend is horribly killed by a speedster supe who randomly runs right through her as if she were nothing.

The general public doesn't immediately learn about Hughie's girlfriend, so from the public's point of view, why on earth would anyone want to take down superheroes? Aren't supes all do-gooders? Well, it's because in this universe, most superheroes are corporate shills sponsored and promoted by the Vought Corporation, a pharmaceutical entity that contracts with the federal government. Vought produces Compound V, a substance that, when given to human beings (usually children), turns them into superhumans with superpowers. These kids are taken in and groomed to become "superheroes" who occasionally use their drug-induced gifts to help humanity, but they are also roped into performing on TV shows, in movies, and in commercials. Occasionally, Compound V produces extremely powerful beings like Homelander (Anthony Starr), this universe's Superman analogue. Homelander leads a team of supes called The Seven, whose membership occasionally rotates as circumstances change. Also on The Seven are heroes like Queen Maeve (Wonder Woman analogue played by Dominique McElligott), the Deep (hilarious Aquaman analogue, Chace Crawford), A-train (a speedster analogue of The Flash, Jessie T. Usher), and Black Noir (a superninja with other, difficult-to-pinpoint powers—Nathan Mitchell). Queen Maeve is a good soul deep down, but she has been part of Vought's corruption for a long time, and on some level, she wants to retain the fame and fortune her current status has given her. Black Noir, who never speaks, perversely enjoys the wet work he does for the team, and A-train is a raging egomaniac who abuses Compound V to the point of developing heart problems that impede his ability to speed-run. Worst of all is Homelander, a pathological megalomaniac overly concerned with how the public perceives him while simultaneously chafing under the restraints put upon him by Vought, headed by the sinister Stan Edgar (Giancarlo Esposito, once again in an evil-big-cheese role).

The first season sets up the situation. Hughie is on the street, engaging in lovey-dovey conversation with his girlfriend, when A-train—who is on some desperate errand—literally runs right through her, producing a grisly shower of blood, guts, and bone that rains all over Hughie, whose only memento of his girlfriend is her hands, which he happens to be holding the moment she dies. Hughie eventually ends up working with Butcher and his team, but one day, he meets a new girl named Annie (Erin Moriarty) while in a park. Annie and Hughie bond, but Hughie doesn't know that Annie is actually a superhero named Starlight, gifted by Compound V with the ability to harness photons to produce bursts of energy that she can shape according to her will. Eventually, this seemingly simple situation becomes a tangled mess once Butcher, who deeply hates all supes, discovers Hughie's relationship with Annie. Annie, for her part, is a kind soul who hates the corporatized humiliations she has to endure as she works her way upward to becoming a new member of The Seven, but once she and Hughie clear the air about who they are, she proves willing to help the Boys, in the manner of Kimiko, to undermine Vought and the Seven.

The story and acting in "The Boys" are both top-notch. There's nothing here to insult the viewer's intelligence, and all the actors give 110% to their roles. Jack Quaid is a skinny, wimpy shadow of his father, and he usually can be found in roles where he has to be quiet, shy, and weak. His Hughie can be a bit of a self-pitying sad sack, but he also possesses a moral compass. Hughie is arguably the center of the show, the main point-of-view character, although the show does diverge to follow other plot lines. Anthony Starr, as the powerful, dangerous Homelander, is by turns hilarious and scary. A prisoner of his own twisted urges and emotions, he is nevertheless much more cunning than one might think. Karl Urban steals the show as the supe-hating Butcher, driven by his animus and only barely remembering his humanity. Erin Moriarty, as Starlight, brings a winsome compassion in her role as an ingénue superhero who quickly comes to understand the dirty realities of working for Vought. One of her major problems is convincing Butcher that she's a supe devoted to the anti-supe cause. The series is peopled with plenty of minor characters, good and bad, who all round out the show and make this feel like a plausible world.

The visual effects indicate the series has a fairly high budget—perhaps not on the scale of a feature-length movie, but still pretty impressive. Much of this budget is used to show us plenty of gore, so if you're at all squeamish, "The Boys" isn't for you. Expect to see heads and bodies sliced in half by eye-lasers, guts decorating a room, and artful blood spatter—both human and animal—everywhere. At one point, a speedboat rams a beached whale. At another point, Butcher runs into a lab and kills enemy agents by grabbing a baby that shoots lasers from its eyes. The third season begins with gay sex gone very wrong when a supe who can shrink, Ant-Man-style, enters another man's dick hole, crawls toward the man's bladder, then accidentally re-enlarges when he sneezes. The result is a gory parody of the much-theorized "Thanus" method for killing Thanos in the Marvel movies: by having Ant-Man crawl up Thanos's butt and then returning to normal size to explode the Mad Titan.

Parody and satire are good descriptors for "The Boys." As horrific as some of the series's moments are, the show is, at heart, a comedy that lampoons the very notion of superheroes and, well, everything else. With some of this comes the standard leftie message that corporations are soulless and evil (I don't exactly disagree), but the show revels so much in its own goriness that it doesn't really offer an alternative solution. Rightie stereotypes appear in the show, especially during the third season, but the left is satirized as well, with its fanatical (and very commodified) focus on diversity, inclusion, and political correctness. Even when racism is treated as a serious topic in the show, it is often connected less with individuals and more with systemic entities like the US government, which ought to send mixed messages to government-loving leftie viewers. Does the show have a particular moral message? As far as I can tell, it doesn't, unless that message is cynicism—the idea that humanity does a very good job of crawling up its own ass. The supes were all a human creation, not beings coming from other worlds to help humanity. They are a manmade problem: we did this to ourselves. There is, in fact, a sense in which "The Boys" can be seen as a modern take on Greek mythology: the Greeks imagined their gods as being flawed and human, given to lying, betrayal, rape, and infighting. Much the same can be said for the supes, some of whom, like Kimiko and Annie/Starlight, are good eggs, but most of whom are not. There's also more than a hint of Shelley's Frankenstein in the idea that people tend to create monsters that surpass their control. The series shares DNA with movies like "Aliens," "Robocop," and "Minority Report," showing us a world in which corporations control every aspect of our lives. Even more, the show takes some of its cues from Quentin Tarantino, as when it deals with sexuality: sometimes, it's hard to know whether a sexual scene is meant to be funny or horrific, which is the same sort of confusion Tarantino likes to sow among his audiences.

Although "The Boys" belongs to a by-now-well-populated subgenre of superhero parody or superhero alternative takes, it is very much its own thing, and I appreciate it for the fact that it is willing to go there, to take certain nasty premises right to their ridiculous, disgusting conclusions. It's very tempting to group "The Boys" with a seeming kindred spirit like "Invincible" (reviewed here), but at the level of themes, while there may be some overlap, each show is fundamentally different. "Invincible" is set in the context of multiple universes, demon realms, and galactic empires, whereas "The Boys" is set in something more approaching our own universe—a slightly more grounded reality.

Whatever "The Boys" may be, it's entertaining as long as you have a strong stomach. I'm more amused than grossed out by all the gore, but that's probably because the show hasn't yet portrayed the particular things that truly gross/freak me out (think: thousands of little, wet parasites eagerly growing out of my eye sockets and other bodily orifices... I'm not a fan of invasive body horror). So watch "The Boys" with my enthusiastic blessing, and be happy we don't live in such a twisted world.

Or do we?

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