The Boys is what you get if superheroes go bad.
In this version of a very familiar tale, the superheroes (“Supes”) are the bad guys – they have movie deals, carefully managed public images, and are paid fat salaries by the Vought Corporation for simply doing their jobs. They are idolised and worshipped by the masses, but in reality, they’re pretty flawed people, who do plenty of harm.
The series begins with our hero Hughie (Jack Quaid), watching his girlfriend get killed by a Supe doing something illegal, which leads him to the band of Boys led by the mysterious Billy Butcher (Karl Urban). Meanwhile, the naïve, wide-eyed superhero Annie January, aka, Starlight (Erin Moriarty), has finally made her way into the Seven, the biggest and most prestigious band of superheroes of them all.
When we left the earnest Hughie at the end of Season 1, A-Train (Jessie T Usher) the drug-using speedster has had a heart attack and Starlight has decided to throw in her lot with the Boys. Deep (Chace Crawford), the amphibious sex pest superhero gets a taste of his own medicine in Sandusky, Ohio, and Homelander (Antony Starr) decides to gloat to Butcher that he had a son with his wife Becca. It’s all very bleak.
It gets bleaker in Season 2. The Boys are wanted fugitives for murdering Supe. Translucent, the invisible superhero, is replaced by the brash, loud-mouthed superhero Stormfront (Aya Cash). Kimiko (Karen Fukuhara), the mute superhero is more and more unpredictable, Deep joins a Scientology-like Church of the Collective and Homelander slowly goes off the rails and murders a few civilians. Our intrepid heroes discover a neo-Nazi white supremacist plot, the growth of the alt-right on the internet, a war on terror, ambitious parents willing to inject their kids with a drug to turn them into Supes and a mental health facility reminiscent of the infamous Tuskegee experiments. People die, heads explode, the sex is ugly and cuss words are thrown around with gay abandon.
If it seems like a lot, that’s because it is. The Boys attempts to be many things – it comments on #MeToo, the current state of American politics, the conflict between business interests and ethical behaviour and how money and power can corrupt, while trying to be a satire on the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
It sometimes succeeds too – watching Starlight grow from wide-eyed, naïve little Annie to the clever, manipulative-but-only-for-the-right-reasons Starlight is curiously satisfying, as are the scenes where Homelander is caught out for the hollow, fame-hungry hypocrite that he is.
Beyond this, it’s hard to stay invested in the characters, or give the faintest flip about them. Stormfront is an immediately unlikeable white supremacist, and it’s hard to see why the Black head of Vought International would care for her. Nor is it clear why anyone thinks Homelander is the bee’s knees except Homelander himself – for a guy who claims to be America’s hero, he can’t even treat his colleagues right.
As for the Boys, well, they really don’t have much going for them except pluck and some extraordinarily good luck.
The simmering Butcher, harbouring a deep hatred for those who wronged him, is very, very hard to like. Here is a chap so intent on seeking revenge for his dead wife, he doesn’t care for his very much alive and present friends. Mother’s Milk (Laz Alonso) and Frenchie (Tomer Capon) receive the faintest whisper of a backstory, certainly not enough to make them interesting, while Kimiko is just there for the cool fight scenes. And Hughie? The dude to whom things happen was cute in Season 1, but he does grate a bit in Season 2. Sure, I don’t like the Supes, but I wasn’t exactly rooting for the Boys either.
That really is The Boys’ weakness – in this imaginary world of Supes and not-Supes, it’s important for someone to be a hero you can believe in. There’s got to be something about them you care for. It’s got to be worth the blood and the gore and the gratuitous sexual violence. It isn’t enough to not be a Nazi.
But here, where the violence and the badness are comically exaggerated – a white man telling a Black CEO about racism and a woman casually dismissing another woman’s sexual assault in the workplace – the heroism falls flat.
Butcher tries to be the gruff chap with a heart of gold, but he comes across as an entitled twerp who happens to be on the right side. Hughie is manipulative and scheming, but he’s against the bad guys. And Starlight is…well, she’s cute and growing up and that’s about it. There’s nothing special about her. Like I said, it’s bleak.
The show is so bleak that it’s a slog to get through. It’s as if The Boys took the cheery, upbeat vibe of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and turned it on its head. Honestly, it’s not worth the exploding heads and disembowelments. Go watch The Sopranos instead.
The Boys is streaming on Amazon Prime Video