Based on a series published by Wildstorm/Dynamite, The Boys features a storyline in which a group of normal humans set about to try to kill and/or socially neutralize the superheroes who have appeared in the midst of US civilization. The small group who band together to do their utmost to take down the “supers” are various guys whose lives have been negatively influenced by their interactions with the hyper-powered people who exist like gods and actors/rock stars amidst all of us who are just normal people.
But how does one go about destroying that which is invulnerable? Therein lies the brilliance in the comic book and the TV series.
I have to admit that I have never read the comic. I only became aware of it some time after the publication of my superhero novel, WORKING CLASS HERO. The comic was conceived and written by long-time writer Garth Ennis. My previous exposure to his work was based solely on PREACHER which I found to be rather more nihilistic than I like, but oddly funny for all of the gross shit he tossed about in that particular book. The guy is very talented and is a skilled storyteller. Now that I have seen (and enjoyed) the TV series I will have to seek out the collected comic book series and give it a go.
Thus, all of my comments here concern themselves with the TV series and only that.
Okay, first of all it is based on the now-silly premise of what the world would be like if superheroes were real. As if no superhero comic that appeared between 1938 and today was about that same thing. As with titles like Miller’s Dark Knight and Moore’s Watchmen, we deal with the minute details of how the presence of god-like humans walking around lowly mortals might play out. I can dig it, and the theme has been used to decent effect in some past attempts.
The supes in The Boys are treated as extreme celebrities, generally based on the level and importance of their abilities. At the top of the heap is a super-powered team called “The Seven” who work out of a vast skyscraper in an urban area (New York? I can’t recall that it’s ever mentioned where the story takes place.). The Seven act kind of like the Justice League or The Avengers in that way. They scan the city looking for crime to bust, and do so on a pretty much daily basis.
If you’re looking for a model for these seven heroes, I would assume that they’re based on DC Comics JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA. At the top of the pyramid is a particularly scary fellow called Homelander. He is, for all practical purposes, Superman. He can fly at supersonic speed, is invulnerable, strong beyond all reason, and has laser-vision eyes, can see through walls (except for zinc), has super-hearing, etc. He’s Superman. Next is Queen Maeve who has all of the basic powers of Wonder Woman. Then The Deep who can breathe underwater and talk to fish–yeah, Aquaman. There is A-Train who acts as The Flash, able to run at speeds exceeding 1,000 mph. Translucent is a man who can become invisible and, while in that state, is invulnerable. A character called Black Noir (yeah, I know) who never speaks, wears an all-encompassing suit of solid black and whose powers are never spelled out (but we do see super-strength and blinding agility). And Starlighter, a young woman who is nearly invulnerable (she is hit with high-caliber bullets and is merely knocked to the ground), heightened strength (she can punch through brick walls) and can generate extremely powerful beams of light accompanied by shock waves. So there is some minor originality with the supers who don’t actually correspond to familiar comic book super characters.
The series opens with a young couple in love whose lives intersect briefly with that of A-Train who, moving at better than 1,000 mph, runs into the young woman, reducing her to errant bits of scattered flesh and bits of bone and gallons of blood. He paused to briefly acknowledge what he has done, and then speeds on his way. Left psychically scarred is Hughie Campbell, her surviving boyfriend who has to deal with the fact that A-Train’s killing of his love is considered mere “collateral damage”.
After that, we soon discover that the supers–especially those who are members of The Seven–are immune to prosecution and don’t even have to deal with negative press. Everyone is supposed to adore them and anyone who is terminally caught in their wake are just supposed to take it in stride and go away to let the superheroes do their jobs.
Hughie Campbell is soon approached by a man named Billy Butcher who has an insane hatred of superheroes and who talks Campbell into helping him place a spy device inside the hq of The Seven. And thus the adventure begins.
There are a number of things that I quite liked about The Boys. First and foremost, I enjoy fiction that is socially and politically subversive. The Boys is certainly that. Superficially, the supers seem to be just more silly damned comic book superheroes. But Ennis and/or the show writers have used them to stand in as foils for police officers and soldiers. Both police and soldiers routinely get away with mass murder and, as we are shown vividly, so do the superheroes. If you accidentally get killed by them, or even if they intentionally kill you, that’s just part of the price we pay to bask in their glory. Each time I watched a super slaughter a human being I thought of the innocent people murdered by police officers, or shot and napalmed by our brave soldier boys. Just as with the cops and the soldiers, superheroes never have to face the music for their war crimes and brutality.
So there was that.
I also liked the commentary on the slavish devotion to the supers by the public at large. For every Billy Butcher or Hughie Campbell who hates superheroes, there are tens of millions of people who adore them and absolutely refuse to hear anything negative about them. Kind of like supporting the police or honoring the troops and fuck you if you don’t.
From what I have gathered, the TV writers have pared down the comic book series considerably and hacked away quite a bit of extraneous plot and have focused on a more narrow storyline. There are actually things that you can get away with in a comic book that you just can’t do on a screen, even the TV screen. But the writers here seem to have made excellent choices (from plot differences that I’ve read) to create an exceptional story based on the original yarn.
The writing is, frankly, excellent. Even the dialogue is wonderful. So my hat’s off to the writers, even if I don’t know who any of them are (other than Ennis). Additionally, the direction is very good, the cinematography exceptional, and the special effects are pretty much the equal to what I would expect in a theatrical film.
But the best thing about the series are the acting performances. Everyone seems perfectly cast and I cannot complain–at all–about the jobs any of the actors have done in creating the various personas. This is some major-league great acting. Especially considering that it’s all just a silly superhero movie.
Karl Urban, Jack Quaid, Elizabeth Shue, Colby Minifie, Chace Crawford, Simon Pegg…damn…everyone does it right. But to me, two of the actors stand out. First, there’s Laz Alonzo, who is a man named Mother’s Milk, one of The Boys. He just has a great presence and I appreciate good timing when it comes to delivering lines–and he’s really good at that. The other performance that rises above most of the others is by Anthony Starr who plays Homelander. He is Superman as he probably would be if such a person existed–completely fucking insane and drunk with unlimited power. The guy can do anything he wants to do, and almost everyone else on Earth is just a flimsy bag of blood to him. I always thought of Superman that way, and it’s what we get with Starr.
“Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Homelander! (Oh, please, God. Don’t let him notice us!! PLEASE!!!)
Anyway, it’s really good. If you’re too sick of superhero shit to watch it, I understand and that’s cool. But if you’re not sick to death of superhero crap, give it a look. It’s really cool.
Oh. And the last scene in the final episode of the first season (yes, there’s going to be a second season): it’s freaking great. I did not see that one coming.