A Hidden Life
It’s one of the year’s best and most distinctive movies, though sure to be divisive, even alienating for some viewers, in the manner of nearly…
As much as we exalt superheroes in comic books, movies, and TV, it would suck if they were real. Capitalism, misogyny, and the corruptive nature of absolute power would undoubtedly consume any super individual, creating untouchable demagogues and not genuine heroes. Amazon’s new series “The Boys” (based on the comic book by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson) is inspired by that hard truth, and depicts a world where superheroes aren’t just blockbuster figures but worldwide dignitaries, albeit part of a very tangible cynical enterprise. With a filthy mouth and a penchant for exploding people into puddles of blood, “The Boys” has some dark fun with this premise, until it starts to feel like a missed opportunity—the series pilot is a helluva hook, in that it can grab you and then drag you through the next less spirited seven hours, always hoping that something will seem as clever as its great premise.
It’s an exciting world to be dropped into, with its bracingly honest take on the superhero constructed out of criticism against the likes of Marvel and DC Comics, and making it real by showing just how superficial it would be: the PR stunts, the stock points, the movie deals. And it presents compelling off-the-wall scenarios too, like what would happen if a superhero killed someone you love in the supposed line of duty. That’s the case with Jack Quaid’s Hughie, who watches his girlfriend Robin (Jess Salgueiro) burst into a splash of guts when a “supe” named A-Train (Jessie T. Usher) blitzes through her on the street. The corporation behind A-Train and other heroes, Vought Industries, want to chalk it up to collateral damage, and give the traumatized Hughie a settlement package, which his father (Simon Pegg) encourages him to take. But Hughie wants something more—he wants justice. For the history of how many villains have been inspired to fight superheroes based on personal grudges, it’s a compelling flip, as the caped crusaders are mostly the douchebag villains, and the ones trying to kill the heroes are the good guys.
But “The Boys” visibly struggles to have a personality outside of its concept, which is best embodied by Karl Urban’s character Billy Butcher, who enters into Hughie’s life offering a way to get payback against all supes. At first you think this is more Hughie’s story, especially as Quaid’s performance is effectively twitchy and scared, but it’s more about the machinations set in place by Billy. Once Billy’s plot to hunt heroes takes off by about episode three, each episode practically starts with him sending Hughie on a type of mission, while he speaks in half-slang and a Cockney accent. All this to say that he looks like a parody of a tough guy, and that this series takes him seriously to a dangerous fault, shedding him of his dynamic qualities. In spite of his abrasive entrance into Hughie’s life Billy is just another scowling mug, leading a group of other gritty anti-superhero men like Laz Alonso's Mother's Milk and Tomer Capon's Frenchie. That the series is named after Billy's group isn’t the statement of a show with an encouraging bluntness, but a revelation of the boring side that "The Boys" struggles to conceal.
And within this tantalizing idea of our superhero fantasies meeting the hellish reality of human nature, there of course has to be a Superman. In the world of "The Boys," that's the almighty Homelander, the most powerful, untouchable, and therefore most dangerous of them all. With his blonde hair neatly coiffed in a certain way, speaking shallowly about his impenetrable power while wearing the American flag as a cape, he’s like a vision of Trump that's jumped out of a Ben Garrison political cartoon, a timely context that this series thankfully only winks at. Homelander is depicted with an effectively creepy fascistic nature by Antony Starr, who makes an eerie habit out of Homelander stating “You’re the real heroes” to any group that applauds his latest act, and then following it up with a condescending, venomous sneer. It’s wonderfully grotesque, like in an episode when Homelander hovers over a massive religious festival crowd in a Christ-like position, paralleling a speech about the supremacy of America with his own godlike spectacle.
Homelander is certainly not the only monster here: there’s also The Deep (Chace Crawford), an Aquaman-like bro with gills who sexually assaults a woman in an opening episode, and a celebrity hero named Translucent (Alex Hassell), who uses his invisibility to spy on women in the bathroom. These guys are all surely terrible, but are enabled by a brand, which itself is seeking more control of the world, as Madeline Stillwell (Elisabeth Shue) pursues a game-changing military defense contract. More so than the idea behind Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' grounded saga “Watchmen,” these heroes recall this past May’s “Brightburn,” which declared through its young superhero horror story that only our faith in humanity makes us believe that those with super powers would actually use their abilities for good.
The super non-jerks in this story are, not so surprisingly, the two women. Queen Maeve (Dominique McElligott) is a Wonder Woman-knockoff with a rare integrity, but is well versed in the toxic ways of the fraternity, and resigned to it. But "The Boys" kicks off with new blood, as a woman named Annie (Erin Moriarty) enters into Vought Industries as the light-shooting Starlight, transplanted from a small town and totally naive to the biz. “The Boys” largely follows her awakening through the process, as she sees how her heroism is scheduled, or that her actions all seem to be decided by focus group. She falls into a narrative for Vought, and “The Boys” depicts her breaking away from it, especially as she starts an emotional connection with a non-super guy who's none other than Hughie.
But as the story trudges on without any heavy emotional stakes, spreading itself thin to so many characters portrayed by an albeit strong cast, "The Boys" loses its super appeal. It’s not enough that the story essentially imagines the disintegration of the superhero fantasy, as dark secrets about Vought and its supes are revealed, and more and more scarred characters enter the picture. Even the sporadic moments of cruel violence, which offer the series' gratuitous blood and butter, can be too sloppy in their editing to be fully enjoyed. This series is nasty if not creative with its deaths in ways that are surprising (including how one man's gets his skull crushed), but it struggles to be edgy where it matters most.
“The Boys” has too little emotional momentum, and trouble with its construction throughout—it’s too obviously taped together by conversations where one person tells another of a past incident solely so that we can learn about it, a cheap way to push the plot forward and cover exposition. “The Boys” also shows that it can handle its characters in a tiresome fashion—along with two characters being motivated by vengeance for dead women in their lives (known as “fridging” in the comic book industry), it has no problem using Arabic characters for one-dimensional terrorists, especially for a fitfully disturbing plane hijacking sequence in a middle episode. Add that to the show’s hit-and-miss attempts at feminism, and "The Boys" fails to be truly subversive in ways that count more than just wagging a middle finger at Marvel CEO Kevin Feige.
All episodes of season one screened for review.
The best films of 2019, as chosen by the staff of RogerEbert.com.
A review of three premieres from Telluride.
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...
The top 50 shows of the 2010s.