Binge or Purge?: The Boys.
Amazon’s version of Garth Ennis’ dystopian super hero dark comedy captures the best bits of the book while sanding down the rough edges.
The super hero craze hit its zenith this year with Avengers Endgame becoming the biggest film of all time. It’s only natural that 2019 would also feature a reaction to that hype, in the form of Amazon’s adaptation of The Boys. Based on Garth Ennis’ subversive comic book series, The Boys questions the ideas and biases implicit in super hero media, and in a society eager to consume as much of that media as possible. It also turns a jaundiced eye towards the state of the world in general…and 2019 sure is in a state to give anyone jaundice.
Beyond being a reaction and critique, The Boys is wildly engaging. The cast does a fantastic job of bringing this world to life, and the director and cinematographer do an equally excellent job of creating a visually thrilling world worth exploring.
The Boys (Amazon Prime)
In this world, super heroes are a known commodity. Vought International manages all of the super-powered “supes” like movie celebrities, and leases their services to the highest bidder. Hughie (Jack Quaid) is drawn into a secret cabal of anti-“supes” vigilantes after his girlfriend is murdered in front of him by a super hero. At the same time, Annie/Starlight (Erin Moriarty) lands her dream job of joining the world’s most famous super team, The Seven, only to discover that many of its members are corrupt or callous. As Hughie and Annie both ascend the ranks in their opposing organizations, they wrestle with how this covert war is destroying their former beliefs.
The Garth Ennis Factor.
Garth Ennis’ work is polarizing. It’s subversive, satirical, and loaded with sex and violence. Done well, it packs a visceral punch. Done poorly, it come across as puerile misanthropy. Even within the same series, the needle wavers between the highs and lows. Some issues of Preacher and his run on Hellblazer were thought provoking. Others were odious. It’s really hard to get a handle on where his work is coming from. A danger of being provocative is coming across as a troll.
I know folks familiar with Ennis’ work who don’t want to touch the TV adaptations of his stuff. I was considerably surprised by how good AMC’s take on his Preacher series was, as I wound up loving it despite not loving the books. Apparently adaptation is good for the soul, as The Boys is terrifically engaging under Amazon’s supervision. The series manages to jettison the questionable or objectionable material from the source while still getting many of the themes and ideas right.
The casting for The Boys is fantastic. Jack Quaid and Erin Moriarty are the ethical and emotional core of the show and do fantastic work. Supporting roles are roundly wonderful. Simon Pegg was the inspiration for Hughie’s art work in the comic and plays Hughie’s father in the series with aplomb, and pulls off a credible New York accent. Karl Urban, conversely, adopts a brogue for his anti-hero character of Billy Butcher, and is a delight throughout. The “supes” have all been memorably portrayed; even when they are being super-powered jerks they are engaging. Some members of The Boys team are underdeveloped, but I get the sense from early episodes that they are being set up to have their stories revealed as the plot.
One of the things that stand out front and center in The Boys are all of the challenging themes. Much like Watchmen or V for Vendetta, The Boys central concern is in examining and challenging the established order, both in its fictional world and in the real world it reflects. We’ve had a lot of satirical examinations of super heroes and dark reimaginings of characters like Superman and the Justice League since this book came out in 2006. I was interested in if the Boys could differentiate itself from the crowd.
It does…mostly. There are some unsubtle bits; The Seven are dead-ringers for the Justice League, and those heroes have been scrutinized/lampooned extensively in media. The Boys strength is that it uses its premise to examine everything. The “supes” allegorically represent so many issues: police violence, government control, cultural elites, pro athletes, and the celebrity cult around the super hero movie genre itself. Vought International is very…Disney-esque, while also touching on separate issues of corporate corruption and privatization. From social justice to PTSD, there’s hardly a current hot-button topic The Boys doesn’t foreground.
Binge or Purge?
On paper, I did not think The Boys would work. Punching the super hero craze is a bit obvious in 2019. Garth Ennis’ works are volatile and problematic in many ways. There wasn’t really a big name attached to the project (I say despite my love of Karl Urban’s ever changing repertoire.) The episodes are also an hour each, which strains the binge-ability of a show. In spite of all of that, I enjoyed nearly every minute I spent watching The Boys. It has a great cast, interesting characters, a solid mix of intrigue and action, and does some really nice things visually. It mostly gets its ideas across deftly, and is willing to stare at uncomfortable things longer than you’d expect a big budget show to be willing to. Despite having sat for three hours, I was just as anxious to start the fourth episode as I was the first. Binge.