'The Boys' Review: The Nihilistic, Cruel, Heartless Superhero Show We Probably Deserve

The Boys, Amazon's new anti-superhero series, is so nihilistic and cruel that it's either unbearable, or the perfect show for the current era we're in. There's a longstanding argument about whether or not entertainment loaded with unlikable characters can be enjoyed. It can – as long as the characters are well drawn, and there's at least some specter of empathy lurking beneath it all. The Boys is not a show like that. It is void of hope, and void of heart. But that's also the point. In the end, it's a conflicting show – I'm horrified by what it's selling, but I'm supposed to be. I walked away feeling utterly miserable. So...mission accomplished, I guess?

Based on the comic book series by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson, The Boys presents us with a world where superheroes are very real, and not very heroic. If "power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely," as John Dalberg-Action once wrote, then it stands to reason that superpower would super corrupt. So it goes in The Boys, where every superhero is either debauched, drugged-up, or downright deranged. Corporations have gotten involved, specifically the all-powerful company Vought, which micromanages nearly every aspect of superhero life. The supes are told what to do and when to do it by executives. Their "heroics" are little more than PR stunts. Their faces appear everywhere, hocking products and advertising locations. And, for the most part, they're beloved celebrities. The general public has no idea these heroes have a dark side.

Hughie Campbell (Jack Quaid) learns that the hard way when A-Train (Jessie Usher), a super-fast hero modeled on the Flash, zooms straight through Hughie's girlfriend, exploding her into little more than a mess of blood and gore. A-Train is a member of The Seven, a super-elite group of supes obviously inspired by the Justice League. There's the Wonder Woman-like Queen Maeve (Dominique McElligott); Aquaman-like fish-talker The Deep (Chace Crawford); the somewhat Batman-ish Black Noir (Nathan Mitchell); Translucent (Alex Hassell), who has the power to turn invisible; and so on. The leader of the group is the Superman/Captain America hybrid Homelander (Antony Starr). On the surface, all of these heroes seem, well...heroic. But there's a new member of the group – Annie, aka Starlight (Erin Moriarty). Young and idealistic, she's recruited to join the Seven and thrilled at the prospect. As she gets to know her new teammates, though, she discovers they're all depraved, damaged jerks, with the squeaky-clean-seeming Homelander being the worst of the bunch – a full-blown sociopath who gets off on murdering petty crooks.

The superheroes aren't the real stars of The Boys, though. The series is primarily focused on a group of vigilantes who work off-the-books for the CIA (maybe). Their mission: stop superheroes. The group is lead by the prickly Billy Butcher, played with perfect vulgar swagger by Karl Urban. Butcher uses Hughie's grief and anger at A-Train to recruit him on his mission, and soon they're working with fellow team members Frenchie (Tomer Kapon) and Mother's Milk (Laz Alonso). A mysterious and hyper-violent character known as the Female (Karen Fukuhara) eventually joins the ranks as well.

the boys amazon review

As Butcher and his boys attempt to stop the Seven, Homelander is working behind-the-scenes with scheming Vought exec Madelyn Stillwell (Elisabeth Shue), who is trying to land a lucrative contract to put superheroes in the military. All the while, Starlight grows more and more disenchanted. She also ends up striking up a relationship with Hughie, who is at first using Starlight to get closer to the Seven, but eventually develops actual feelings for her.

All of this unfolds across eight painfully-paced episodes, most of which run a full hour, if not longer. That's a long time to spend with any group of characters. Spending it with the violent sociopaths of The Boys is almost intolerable. Here is a series that milks pain for laughs; embraces misery, cruelty, and fountains of gore all in the name of scoring a cheap joke. It's an aggressively nasty show, and it begins to wear you down, piece by piece, until you're reduced to little more than a numb husk. I wanted it to end, and it wouldn't.

The first episode does a fine job of establishing the world these characters live in, and it's probably the best episode of the bunch. We're introduced to most of the players, and we get an immediate feel for the universe they inhabit. But as episodes tick on, and the body count piles up, you begin to see The Boys for what it really is: a one-note performance that doesn't even play that note very well.

Is there anything to like here? Sure. The always reliable Urban is fun to watch as Butcher. Antony Starr's Homelander is the perfect bleached-blonde grinning psycho. And Karen Fukuhara, saddled with a mute performance, still manages to convey a wealth of emotions without a word. But none of that really matters much as entire planes full of screaming innocents go down, as animals get slaughtered, as heads get lopped off left and right.

You can't fault The Boys for going to such extremes. Art reflects life, and life right now is, to be blunt, a bit of a shit show. One has to only surf Twitter for a half-hour, or turn on CNN or Fox "News", to understand how deeply and irrevocably fucked we are. The Boys understands that, and embraces it. I just wish it had something meaningful to add to the conversation. The Boys is so unrelentingly mean-spirited that sitting through it requires super-strength.


The Boys premieres July 26, 2019.