In ‘The Boys,’ there’s no saving these narcissistic superheroes
We’re lousy with superheroes here in America. Perhaps we’re extra hungry for help from the supernatural community, as our criminal justice system struggles to keep up and fumbles on a regular basis. Maybe Aquaman or Batman or Captain America can get it done? We love them, we admire them, and we can’t seem to learn enough about their origin stories. We’re also willing to spend our money on them, to the tune of billions of dollars a year, flocking to see their movies and TV series and buy their merchandise. Our fantasies of safety feed the coffers of many giant businesses.
“The Boys” poses a rich question, geared to our current era of social media and fame-a-holism. What if superheroes — “supes,” as they’re called on the show — weren’t necessarily super people? What if, beneath their heroic exteriors and beyond their paranormal powers, they are more like reality TV stars hungry for clicks and likes, or corporate toadies who value bottom lines over morality? Fame and power usually corrupt the villains on these shows, but on “The Boys,” which is adapted by Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, and Eric Kripke from the comic series by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson, the idols have succumbed as well.
The premise of the Amazon black comedy, available on Friday, is never not fun, and the more we learn about this bizarro world, as the supes go on the late-night talk shows and stage team-up photo ops on various crimes, the better. We enter the superhero population through the story of Starlight (Erin Moriarty), an idealistic new member of the world’s most famous superhero team, The Seven (think Avengers), which is under contract to a corporation called Vought. She is quickly disappointed when The Deep (Chace Crawford), one of The Seven, pulls a Harvey Weinstein on her on her first day as he tries to pressure her into a sexual encounter. The rest of The Seven — including the silent Black Noir (Nathan Mitchell), the invisible Translucent (Alex Hassell), the speedy A-Train (Jessie Usher), and the leader, Homelander (Antony Starr) — also reveal deep flaws. Their branding as saviors masks a lot of narcissism.
Meanwhile, we follow an ordinary human electronics salesman named Hughie Campbell (Jack Quaid) into superhero hell, as he hooks up with secret superhero hunter Billy Butcher (Karl Urban) and vigilantes called “the boys” to get vengeance on A-Train. One day, Hughie was holding his girlfriend’s hands when she suddenly popped like a blood bubble; it turns out A-Train was speeding recklessly and ran right through her. In such cases, the supes are protected by Vought, whose vast resources include a large PR department and a ruthless manager (Elisabeth Shue). They are also protected by the millions of people who forgive their mistakes in light of their good works. But as Billy knows, and as Hughie is discovering, the supes make far more mistakes than is generally known. There is an enormous amount of collateral damage in the world of The Seven, deaths like that of Hughie’s girlfriend that go unprosecuted.
The cast is fine, particularly Shue, who is icily effective; Quaid, whose neurotic but brave fumblings are endearing; and Urban, who is Hughie’s gonzo guide. But the real star of “The Boys” is the situation itself, with selfie-loving supes flying from red carpet to red carpet, stopping by the hospital to fulfill a dying kid’s dreams before zooming off to make blather on “The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon.”
Starring: Jack Quaid, Karl Urban, Chace Crawford, Erin Moriarty, Elisabeth Shue, Antony Starr, Jennifer Esposito, Jessie T. Usher, Alex Hassell, Nathan Mitchell, Laz Alonso, Dominique McElligott
On Amazon, available Friday