At the beginning of every episode of “The Boys,” an eight-part superhero black comedy from Amazon, there’s a screen warning viewers of content that is not suitable for certain audiences. The list of potentially problematic issues includes adult content, graphic language, graphic violence, nudity, strong sexual content and rape.
What follows does not disappoint. It is a wild, bloody and bloody funny ride, with just the right blend of cynical social commentary, black humor and cartoonish violence to deliver the goods. So much so, in fact, that the show was renewed for a second season even before it aired on Amazon.
Loosely based on the comic book series of the same name, by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson, “The Boys” is set in a universe in which superheroes not only exist, but are controlled and heavily monetized by Vought International, a powerful and corrupt corporation.
While there are superheroes everywhere – some have minor powers, others have retired – Vought’s premier superhero team is The Seven, led by a psychopathic Captain America-style hero called Homelander – a not-so-subtle reference to the controversial U.S. cabinet department established in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
The eponymous heroes of “The Boys,” however, are a group of disparate vigilantes, led by Billy Butcher (played by Karl Urban). Along with Frenchie, a mercenary played by Israeli actor Tomer Kapon, and Marvin (Laz Alonso), The Boys attempt to expose the illegal and immoral activities of Vought and The Seven.
They are joined by Hughie Campbell (played by Jack Quaid, son of Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid) whose girlfriend was killed by A-Train, a drugged-up superhero who simply ran through her while delivering a package of Compound-V, the superheroes’ drug of choice.
If power corrupts and absolutely power corrupts absolutely, then possessing a superpower must be the ultimate corrupting influence. And Homelander, played to creepy perfection by Antony Starr, is the epitome of corruption. He’s modeled on Captain America, but, rather than reflecting the values with which Marvel Comics sought to imbue its flagship superhero, he is infected with all of the iniquities of modern society. He’s an invincible bully. He’s a sexual predator. He is, in short, the perfect superhero for Trump’s America.
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“The Boys” does not shy away from addressing some of the hot-button issues of the day. In the first episode, Starlight – the newest member of The Seven, played by Erin Moriarty – is blackmailed into performing oral sex on a fellow superhero. It turns out that the offender, a superhero who possesses the ability to communicate with aquatic life, has a history of such behavior, and the show’s creators make sure he gets his comeuppance in later episodes.
Indeed, there are several depictions of sexual violence in “The Boys” that are graphic and disturbing. But while the entire show has a tongue-in-cheek feel to it, these moments are handled with sensitivity and do not feel exploitative. There’s also a scene in which Starlight intervenes to prevent a rape, only to be chastised by her bosses at Vought for doing so while out of costume. Given the current climate, it was brave of “The Boys” to tackle the issue of sexual assault and predatory behavior at all. The show manages to portray such crimes without sensationalizing them and without betraying its subversive style. This is testament to the work of Eric Kripke, who – along with long-time collaborators Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen – adapted the original material for television.
The same cannot be said of the rather silly narrative arc that accompanies this first season. In order to increase profits even further, Vought’s vice president, played by Elisabeth Shue, seeks to bribe, blackmail and bully her company’s way into the U.S. military. Other themes explored in “The Boys” – toxic masculinity, sexual assault, hypocrisy, racism and homophobia – are more or less current and relevant, but as an element of the plot, the military aspect yields poor dividends.
“The Boys” is, for the most part, clever, crass and comical. The acting – with the notable exception of Urban’s awful English accent – is suitably overstated when called for. The hour-long episodes flash by, propelled by pacey directing, outlandish plot twists and – frankly – some seriously WTF moments.