“Diabolical.” What a super, super word.
by Thom Yee
In a lot of ways, the history of our work here at GOO Reviews can be directly mapped against the emergence (and eventual domination) of superhero movies over the last decade. The very first movie review ever written for this site and the very first review ever published on this site was an Avengers review. We’ve reviewed every single Marvel Cinematic Universe movie and every other major superhero movie released since then, and sometimes it seems like the only thing that keeps us going is superhero movie reviews. We’ve watched and reviewed superhero movies good and bad, waxed lyrical and philosophical over their beauty and place in society, and pontificated on the powerful message and principles they have for us in the world we live in today.
All of which is to say that… we’ve probably wasted a lot of time.
Our time and yours.
But here we are anyway. Still. Writing about superheroes. Again. And this time it’s The Boys’ turn. Since time immemorial, the invention of the wheel, the first fables, the foundations of everything we knew and all that we ever will know, once a concept becomes well known, it will very soon after be deconstructed. At least that’s the way it should be. At least if that concept is at all interesting. And that’s the easiest way to classify the first season of The Boys, as a deconstruction of superheroes, uncovering their secret origins, examining their deeply entrenched tropes, and decoding their hidden meanings, and while that’s a fair and easy label to apply to what The Boys is all about, it’s about a lot more than superheroes once you get into it.
The Boys is about power and greed and fame and how our constant, insatiable pursuit of those sorts of celebrations and exultations (or is it exaltations?) keep us from finding the kinds of freedoms, truths, and justices that we believe to be central to our existence. It’s about how truly preposterous it is to conflate those sorts of noble ideals along with the pursuit of happiness. It’s a rumination on how the very natures of power and control are both cyclical and paradoxical and yet somehow also the hoped-for endpoint of all of our intended trajectories as well as the longer arc of our moral universe.
But in a lot of ways The Boys is also about a lot less than that too, because in spite of all of those grander themes and in the face of the sort of civilizational artifice that would lead to someone writing a paragraph like the last one and somehow thinking they’re saying something deep or meaningful instead of just revealing their own vacuous pomposity and need for attention, The Boys is strikingly straightforward and overtly crass, and, to be honest, the easiest way to enjoy The Boys is as one big, sick joke.
It’s sort of like life that way.
What’s it about?
In a world where superheroes are celebrities, owned and operated by powerful corporations, The Boys is the “F*CK YOU!” we deserve and the “F*CK YOU!” we need right now. Starring that guy who played Bones (Karl Urban), Dennis Quaid’s son (Jack), and Haley Joel Osment as himself or some stupid a**hole or something.
Debuting in 2006 from writer Garth Ennis and artist Darick Robertson, The Boys comicbook launched as a clear takeoff on the Justice League, with stand-ins for Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, et al. Technically it was published by DC Comics, but it was approved and ran through one of their separately run imprints, Wildstorm Studios. It lasted six issues. Then it was cancelled. But it found new life through comics publisher Dynamite Entertainment where it ran for 66 more issues as well as three different mini-series that illuminated its characters and expanded the series’ lore. And that’s all pretty good for a creator-owned comicbook (i.e., neither DC nor Dynamite owned the rights to the characters or concepts) considering that many such series never make it past ten issues and often end abruptly and without resolution. In comparison, The Boys had a clear beginning, middle, and end; it was a series given time and space to build a backstory with depth, and that actually led somewhere satisfying by its end. And like most modern superhero-related properties being adapted into TVs and movies, of course I read it during its original run. Because that’s the kind of superior being/tragic nerd I am/we are.
Now the main thing you have to understand when it comes to a comicbook writer like Garth Ennis is that he pretty much hates superheroes, the closest he’s ever come to writing them being mostly gritty interpretations of characters like the Punisher in limited series runs noted most for their violence and depravity. He’s a writer whose works hewed very much towards the mature, with many of his most celebrated books coming through independent comicbook companies and adult imprints. Which isn’t to say that there’s anything pornographic about his work. Not exactly anyway. Though now that I’m thinking about it, I wouldn’t quite call his stuff unpornographic either. It’s just that the things we usually associate with pornography aren’t the point of what he’s writing. Not the main point anyway.
When it comes to Ennis’ books on television, The Boys is actually the second of his original writings adapted to TV by producers Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen (yes, that Seth Rogen) after AMC’s Preacher. In comparison, I think The Boys shows just how far Rogen and Goldberg have come as producers — finding the right studio and distribution platform (Amazon), making appropriate changes that still maintain the essentials of the concept, and even finding a point to the series that may have sometimes eluded the property in its original comicbook form. Because there’s no way in hell I would ever tell anyone to watch AMC’s Preacher. If nothing else, that should be your takeaway from this review: Don’t watch Preacher.
But you should probably make some time for The Boys.
Is it any Good?
But it’s not gooood. To listen to most people describe it, you’d think it’s gooood, but it’s not.
It’s just good.
It could be great though. And it got pretty close to great by the end of the season.
It might sound kind of reductive to start out with a point like this, but the first thing I think that really works in The Boys’ favour in its first season is its eight-episode length. It’s roughly eight hours of your time, and I think the mere eight hours that streaming shows like The Boys are asking for is the just the right amount. Eight hours, right in that meaty part of the curve — not asking too much, not so short that it can’t make a point. It’s one of the big reasons why it’s not a surprise when people watch all of a new season of Stranger Things in its first weekend of release whereas 13-episode series like the Marvel Netflix shows can really drag and wind up taking months to finish watching. Thirteen episodes just leaves too much room for a big lull in the middle, and as much as I’m not trying to suggest that it’s the eight hours alone that makes or breaks The Boys season one, it is a big part of why I’d recommend watching the show to almost anyone even remotely interested.
As I said earlier, The Boys as a concept is about the deconstruction of superheroes, but the main thing I would say it is is flamboyantly mean. Almost everyone on this show is at least a bit of a bastard and almost everyone we follow can be unspeakably horrible, whether it’s a lack of remorse on the part of heroes whose conflicts result in significant collateral damage, important and powerful figures callously letting innocent people die, or the straight-up murder of people who don’t always deserve it. The show’s most striking feature, to me, is a really mean spirit, a really hard and devastating tone, and a strong sense of the downtrodden being constantly stepped on, often literally when it comes to people whose lightest footfalls can easily crush human skulls with casual ease. It’s to the point that I wouldn’t blame you if you were turned off by the whole thing.
It’s lucky, then, that it’s also a pretty smart show, smart enough at least to have more than a little fun with the idea of how superpowered beings would affect our world:
The Boys is a strikingly stunning show in those sorts of ways, immediately confident in what it’s doing and well aware that, after years of Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, we’re all ready for this kind of thing. It starts off a little unevenly though, with a pace I found a little too leisurely, no one episode standing out from another, and especially towards the beginning I couldn’t quite shake how derivative it felt. For me, nothing exemplified that sense more than the musical choices, with songs like the Runaways’ “Cherry Bomb”, Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine”, and The Damned’s “Neat Neat Neat”, all chosen specifically to punctuate major scenes and moments. While all of those songs have a strong place, every one of them a once-popular piece brought back to the forefront by their use in a major new franchise, every one of them is something I very specifically remember hearing in very recently in other similarly off-kilter movies like Guardians of the Galaxy and Baby Driver. They all got there first and The Boys sometimes feels late to the party in those ways.
It picks up really quickly from those first few episodes though (which really aren’t bad, they just aren’t doing much new), and as I said earlier, The Boys is a smart show and its producers are smart enough to figure out what they have to do to make this show count, and that’s character work. The rigidity with which The Boys’ Billy Butcher, played by Karl Urban, believes that all supes are evil seens at first closed minded, but we immediately understand why he can’t let go of his convictions once we learn how he got that way. Hughie (Jack Quaid), our point-of-view character who experiences a significant loss as a result of a superhero’s indiscretions, is initially set on a path of revenge but comes to learn how narrowly following that path leads nowhere good. Starlight (Erin Moriarty), one of the few superheroes who comes across as human, has to cope with the cost of becoming the hero she thinks she’s always wanted to be rather than the one she should be. Even side characters like The Female, The Deep, or Queen Maeve get enough time and thought put into who they are that you can’t paint any one of these characters as exclusively good or bad, completely hard or warmly sympathetic. A character like Frenchie is introduced early on so passively that I thought he might just be more of a one-episode cameo, but by the end he wound up being one of my favourites because of how much more seems to be going on inside. You can just feel things coming from him that aren’t all spelled out.
And that all leads us to the real breakout star of the show, Homelander (Antony Starr), The Boys’ all-American take-off on Superman. The archetype of Superman, even amongst other superheroes, has always been one who’s set apart from others simply because of the scale of his power. He’s faster and tougher than everyone, including other heroes, strong enough to change the course of several fundamental aspects of our world through sheer might, he can see and hear you wherever you are and destroy you just by looking in your direction. That’s a terrifying combination of abilities, especially in the wrong hands, but what really sets Homelander apart, even from the comicbook version of the character, is that he’s completely aware of who he is, he knows exactly what buttons to push to get what he wants with nothing but his words alone, and there’s nothing that can truly control him. He’s calculating and manipulative, and you get the sense that he would be a formidable opponent even without his powers.
So should I see it?
I think there are people out there who would say something like The Boys is necessary or real or the show that we need right now, that this is the realistic take on superheroes someone like Zack Snyder should have explored through a different property instead of ruining Superman in Man of Steel. I would disagree with that thought quite vigorously though, because I still find Man of Steel to be an incredibly compelling work that has something to say about our world, whereas The Boys is merely a good, almost great show that’s, in a sense, more realistic in examining what superheroes could be like in a world like ours but is more often than not much more unhinged from reality in its overall tone.
That’s a little bit of an indictment of The Boys in its first season, but notice I did call it good verging on great, because for the meaner, more cynical side of our collective thinking, The Boys is exactly the kind of no-bullsh*t show we’ve been looking for after more than a decade of rabid superhero worship. It’s harsh and hard, destruct, debaucherous, and diabolical, but it’s still ultimately wrapped up in enough thought and humanity for you to care about what’s happening and who these people are. I would wager to say that, at least at its strongest, it’s better than the comic it’s based on in those ways, more story driven and truer to real life, and not quite as focused on superheroes being completely self-centred a**holes. But if anyone tells you The Boys season one is gooood, don’t listen to them. It’s not there yet. But it could be very soon. And I can’t wait for season two.
Thom’s The Boys season one final score
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