Amazon Prime makes a television show based off of the famously exploitative comic book by Garth Ennis and manages to make it stronger by toning it down.
In this world, Superheroes are real and they pretty much all have sold the hell out. The most powerful heroes are The Seven: The Superman-esque Homelander (Antony Starr), Amazon Queen Maeve (Dominique McElligott), Speedster A-Train (Jessie Usher), Sea King The Deep (Chace Crawford), Mysterious Black Noir (Nathan Mitchell), Invisible and Invulnerable Translucent (Alex Hassell), and new girl Starlight (Erin Moriarity). The team works for Vought-American, a company that makes films depicting the fictional exploits of their real heroes and is attempting to militarize superheroes, under Madelyn Stillwell (Elisabeth Shue). However, with great power comes the great likelihood that you’re going to abuse it, which most of the superheroes do liberally, often at the cost of the lives of the citizens. When a supe goes too far, that’s when The Boys come in.
The Boys are a team of vigilantes loosely associated with the CIA who take down the superheroes who go too far. The Boys had been disbanded for a while before the series starts, until Hughie Campbell (Jack Quaid) loses his girlfriend Robin (Jess Salguerio) to a Superhero and is dragged into the world of anti-heroics by Billy Butcher (Karl Urban), the former leader of the Boys. Together with The Frenchman (Tomer Kapon), Mother’s Milk (Laz Alonso), and the Female (Karen Fukuhara), the Boys work to take down superheroes, using just their wits, guts, and occasionally powerful explosives.
The Boys was Garth Ennis’s attempt to, and this is a quote, “Out-Preacher Preacher.” This is a reference to the series Preacher’s famously over-the-top violence and sexuality which The Boys took to literally insane levels. There are things in The Boys that are clearly designed to disturb even those who were already pretty disturbed and no, I’m not going to mention the worst of them here. Let’s just say that in the TV show they put a rape warning that is well-deserved on the first episode, but the scene is still SIGNIFICANTLY less horrifying than the same events from the comic book.
Actually, that’s something that happens in general throughout this adaptation. This show has some horrifyingly graphic deaths and other traumatic images, but all of it has been extremely sanitized in order to operate within the medium. See, in an exaggerated comic book where some things can just be referenced with a reaction panel, it can be somewhat ignored that your main characters curb-stomp someone to death or, as above, a bunch of heads explode. It’s so far removed from reality, that it’s like a Tom and Jerry cartoon: Yes, it’s hyper-violent, but it’s also not real and therefore more amusing or easily processed. Hell, some shows like SuperJail or Metalocalypse basically made that the source of their humor. But once you move that to live action, your audience (hopefully) cannot enjoy hyperviolence in the same way because they’re naturally going to feel the pain of the victims more. Similarly, the fact that SO MUCH of the comic also relies on similar hyperbolic exaggeration of rape, drug use, racism, and sexism means that if they shifted those elements to the live-action show, people would probably be vomiting with rage at every episode. And probably just vomiting at the thought of the realities of some of the things that the comic depicts, come to think of it. I’d also say that it helps that the show feels like the sex and violence actually tends to serve the plot and the themes, rather than just being there for gags, but there’s still a bunch of gratuitous elements.
However, that’s not to say that this show is tame. Even though it’s restrained when compared to the source material, the show pushes a ton of boundaries, but, by reducing the ridiculous violence and over-the-top conduct of the characters somewhat, the villainous superheroes actually become more relatable and therefore more detestable. A genocidal maniac with a god complex isn’t someone you’re likely to run into, but you probably have met a guy who would use his position at a company to try and coerce a woman into sex. Rather than just being amoral psychopaths, many of the heroes are more common figures: The athlete who uses performance enhancing drugs because he’s worried of slowing, the hypocritical evangelical preacher, the alcoholic who used to be a dreamer, etc. There’s a reason people hate Dolores Umbridge more than Voldemort – You probably don’t know Hitler, but you probably know a teacher who picks on kids to make herself feel bigger.
The key thing that the show does have in common with the source material is the themes: Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. Or, as Butcher puts it, “with great power comes the total f*ckin’ certainty that you’re gonna turn into a c**t.” The show explores how power affects people and it picks a number of sources of power, ranging from Money (Vought-American), Emotional Manipulation (Stillwell), Political Power (various politicians and Vought-American), and finally good-old-fashioned violence (The Seven). Vought’s political and financial influence tends to make them just as immune to consequences as Homelander’s invulnerability and their immorality grows as they find that they can do more and more without it coming back to bite them. The purpose of The Boys is to try and remind these entities that they can actually be punished for their bad conduct, because that’s the only way to keep them in check. They attack Vought with bad publicity and they attack the Seven by finding ways to actually hurt or kill them, something that’s much more impressive because in this version the Boys don’t have superpowers.
The performances in the show are, for the most part, excellent, though Karl Urban’s Billy Butcher does tend to overshadow others when in a scene with them just due to the nature of the actor and the character. Elisabeth Shue, likewise, manages to be simultaneously more human than her comic counterpart James Stillwell and also much more cruel and manipulative, making for a great character that you can believe puts a Man of Steel in his place. A lot of the plot additions are great and serve to flesh out the world that they can afford to build. The female characters have been fleshed out quite a bit compared to Ennis’s versions of them. While his versions were supposed to be pastiches and grotesque parodies of female superheroes, that tended to make many of them weak characterizations in some ways.
Overall, the show’s not going to be for everyone, but if you can get past the visceral elements, it does have some great performances and themes. Still, I wouldn’t blame anyone for not making it past them.
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