Superhero stories have come a long way from being relegated to comic books for children. Franchises like the record-breaking Avengers movies bring crowds of all ages and interests to theaters. And now more than ever, these stories are getting gritty adaptations onscreen for strictly adult audiences: think Deadpool, Jessica Jones, Brightburn and Logan.
In The Boys, based on the comic series by Garth Ennis (the mastermind behind dark comics like Punisher, Preacher and Judge Dredd), superheroes exist not so much in the shadows, but as corrupt celebrities. Not your average masked do-gooders, these heroes are commodities, owned by an evil corporation, Vought International, that monetizes, markets and weaponizes powerful people. And the most powerful group of all Vought’s “supes” is The Seven.
This superstar superhero team includes leader Homelander (Antony Starr), whose patriotic Superman persona belies his true nefarious nature; Queen Maeve (Dominique McElligott), a once-benevolent Wonder Woman type who’s been worn down by Vought; super-human speed demon A-Train (Jessie T. Usher); The Deep (Chace Crawford), a combo of Harvey Weinstein and Aquaman; Black Noir (Nathan Mitchell), a perpetually silent, masked ninja; and Translucent (Alex Hassell), who can turn invisible. As the series opens, the crew is looking for a seventh member to replace the retiring Lamplighter.
Annie January (Erin Moriarty) auditions for the role, possessing the power to emit blinding light. Symbolically, it’s a fitting power to have — she truly is a good person who wants to save the world with her abilities. Annie gets a superhero starter kit: a catchy moniker — Starlight — a flashy costume…and a brand management team.
Shielded from The Seven’s sinister reality, Starlight is eager to prove herself worthy of joining the ranks of supes she’s idolized for years. Unfortunately, that includes harassment, sexual coercion and being forced to promote a pseudo-Christian agenda. The Boys takes “never meet your heroes” to another level.
The public worships The Seven like many do athletes or actresses — there’s merch, media, meet-and-greets. The commentary on the corruption of celebrity is supreme. With heroes like these, who needs supervillains?
Oftentimes when The Seven come to “save the day,” they’re cleaning up a mess that they themselves made. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have nemeses. Enter the titular Boys, a group of supe-hating vigilantes, with good reason behind their feelings. Billy Butcher (Karl Urban) leads the pack, distrusting anyone with superpowers after a particularly unsavory experience with Homelander.
There are folks who have been burned by supes, and casualties that go unseen. When you can travel faster than a bullet and are controlled by corporate interests there’s bound to be collateral damage.
That fallout is especially personal for Hughie Campbell (Jack Quaid, son of Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan, FYI), who quite literally has his life ripped apart, albeit accidentally, by one of The Seven. Justly unsatisfied with a Vought lawyer’s offer for compensation in return for silence about the incident, Hughie meets Butcher and is pulled into the crosshairs of a war between dangerous supes and the people who will take violent steps to expose them. Further complicating matters, Hughie’s loyalties are truly tested when he meets Annie, aka Starlight, and unknowingly begins falling for a supe.
The best part of The Boys is that all of its gory, uninching action-packed drama is packaged as a dark comedy. For as disturbing as the plot can get, there are always laughs — often twisted and sardonic — around the corner. The show doesn’t take itself too seriously, yet features enough winks and nudges to the real world that it feels like this is exactly what would happen if superheroes existed. (For what it’s worth, I think Kris Jenner would be involved.)
It’s kind of amazing how many societal issues can be worked into a fast-paced superhero show, from the #MeToo movement and all-powerful corporations to celebrity worship and performance-enhancing drugs. These topics are not always handled with delicate care, but they make for an unsettling funhouse-mirror-image of our world today.