Warning: Spoilers for “The Boys” below.
“The Boys” is Amazon Prime Video’s latest contribution to the behemoth that is the superhero genre, a slightly grunge, antihero story that turns what audiences have come to know and expect from action on its head. Based on a comic book series of the same name, the show strikes a balance of amusing and serious critical portrayals of a massive corporation breeding celebrity superheroes.
The corporation, Vought International, capitalizes upon the seemingly God-given talents that a number of regular Americans are apparently born with. If talented and charismatic enough, these “supes” are given instant celebrity status complete with press appearances, mandated philanthropy work and no shortage of self-starring action films. Vought turns all of the superheroes it represents into money-making machines, and producer Eric Kripke ensures that the dark underbelly of this operation is not overlooked. The series has no shortage of violence, depravity and intrigue (as well as questionable performance-enhancing drug abuse). Through this, it also criticizes the entertainment and advertising industries of viewers’ reality.
Viewers witness the secret degenerative lives of The Seven, Vought’s most elite superhero squad, through the eyes of Starlight (Erin Moriarty), the team’s newest addition. A sweet and unassuming girl from the Midwest, Starlight is crucial not only to the show’s exposure of the degradation within the Vought company but also to its criticism of the media-driven United States.
While much of the behavior exhibited by the superheroes are not overwhelmingly fresh or new, the setting makes it so. Upon her arrival at Vought’s headquarters where the superheroes live and work, Starlight meets The Deep (Chace Crawford), a member of The Seven who immediately coerces her into performing a sexual favor. Viewers are then later exposed to superheroes partying, using drugs including steroids and engaging in prostitution. Each time one of these scenes came across my screen, however, the initial surprise wore off quickly as I realized that the dissonance comes simply from the stereotypically-uniformed superhero portraying these celebrity tendencies.
The antihero complex enters when we are introduced to The Boys, the vigilante group determined to expose the superhero industry for the violence it promotes. Jack Quaid’s Hughie, arguably the main protagonist — though any protagonist at all quickly becomes difficult to identify — meets The Boys after his girlfriend Robin (Jess Salgueiro) is run over and killed in broad daylight by A-Train (Jessie T. Usher), a member of The Seven and the fastest superhero alive. Understandably, Hughie is not satisfied by the corporate condolence and hush money offered by Vought and struggles to grieve while being bombarded with The Seven’s presence in the media. We soon learn that while The Boys do offer some opportunity for revenge, they do not avoid contributing to the same destructive behaviors that they wish to stop.
The Boys’ ringleader Billy Butcher (Karl Urban) is a foil to The Seven’s Superman-Captain America hybrid Homelander (Antony Starr), and it eventually becomes difficult to tell the superhero from the supposed villain. Driven by a personal vendetta against Homelander more than anything else, Butcher is determined to bring about as much destruction as possible for any and all superheroes associated with Vought. He and Hughie successfully add a human dimension to the gore, as they both seek retribution for the loss of their significant others at the hands of those who are meant to save lives rather than destroy them. That being said, at times the sheer violence is much more engrossing than Hughie moping about his girlfriend.
The mammoth Vought International lurks underneath these characters’ turmoils, embracing characteristics of almost every evil corporate environment. To Vought vice president Madelyn Stillwell (Elisabeth Shue), image is everything. Viciously manipulative in a way that is almost funny, Stillwell uses and abuses all of her superheroes and spends the majority of the series attempting to blackmail politicians as she seeks a contract with the United States Department of Defense. The true evil nature of the corporation is eventually revealed, as The Boys learn that the superhero industry is entirely manufactured. Essentially, everything that the public knows and believes about their heroes is a lie that has been carefully woven by talented and devious minds.
After initially taking in this revelation, I appreciated the criticism of a media obsessed with heroic acts, but I wondered what that criticism meant coming from one of the largest corporations in the world. There is an irony even in the show’s streaming platform, as Amazon is a giant that breaks records daily and continues to grow. Vought International mirrors the mega-corporations that control innumerable facets of our daily lives, including the media that we are battered with both voluntarily and unwittingly. Despite what seems like an almost direct call-out to its competitors (such as Disney), I’m not sure that Amazon can carry this message as though it does not exist in that category. To its credit, “The Boys” is satisfyingly gruesome, engrossing and thought-provoking, but even in its criticism, it isn’t able to shed the skin of the genre that it sits within.
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