'The Boys' Review: Amazon Makes the Gritty Superhero Show Netflix Never Did
Read our spoiler-free review.
If you’re sick of superhero movies (and TV shows, and video games) then The Boys is the show for you. The new Amazon series from director Eric Kripke (Supernatural), Seth Rogen, and Evan Goldberg drops viewers into a world where superheroes not only exist, they’re corrupt scumbags who abuse their powers, hide behind corporate slogans, and spend their free time in seedy underground clubs.
In short, it’s the gritty superhero send-up we’ve been waiting for. Forget Deadpool and its comedic ultraviolence. Forget Netflix and the failed “gritty” Defenders saga that mostly just imagined how superheroes could be bent to the rules of the regular world. The Boys throws superheroes (or “supes” as they’re called) into the corruption and chaos of 2019 and bends that world around their oversized egos. The result is equal parts horrifying and entertaining.
The Boys features an expansive cast that breaks down into two main camps. The Boys themselves are a loosely associated group of non-supes (aka, regular humans) who’ve all been wronged by superheroes and team up to fight back.
“They’re all basically the little guy,” Kripke said at a Comic-Con panel attended by Inverse. “The blue collar 99 percent. In one way or another they’ve been ground under the wheel. These guys all suffered personally at the hands of Vought or superheroes, but they decided to fight back against the 1 percent of the 1 percent.”
On the other side are the Seven, a corporate superhero team that sells its services to the highest bidder, lobbies the government for military contracts, and covers up the misdeeds of its member by whatever means necessary (that includes killing politicians and shipping misbehaving heroes off to Ohio where they can’t do any damage).
At the heart of the story is a budding romance between new Boys recruit Hughie (Jakc Quaid) and the latest addition to the Seven: Starlight (Erin Moriarty). After meeting by chance, the two start dating while both sides scheme against each other. It’s a bit like Romeo and Juliet, if Romeo was also using Juliet to steal corporate secrets from the Capulets.
Where The Boys is most engaging is when it explores how the existence of superheroes warps the worst parts of society. What does the Christian right and its crusade against homosexuality and abortions look like when it’s enhanced by super-powered believers? What about corporate corruption? Politics? Or even the military-industrial complex? In every case, the answer is: Somehow even worse.
There’s also a big plotline focused on workplace harassment that’s introduced in Episode 1 and comes back in a big way later on.
“I think a lot of young women are going to be able to relate to it,” Moriarty says of the harassment her character faces. “She doesn’t deal with it in the morally good route, but it ends up empowering her.”
The most fascinating part of The Boys might actually be the corporate behemoth that funds the Seven and milks their merchandising rights for profit. Vought is like if Disney, Amazon, Halliburton, and Lockheed Martin were all rolled into one. Leading Vought is Madelyn Stillwell (Elisabeth Shue), who brings an extra level of intensity to a role originally played by a man in the comics the show is based on. I could watch an entire show of just Stillwell leading boardroom meetings about superhero ad sales and movie tickets.
Her character is cold and calculating. She might not have any powers, but she’s the most powerful person at Vought, capable of killing with the stroke of a pen. “Stillwell is drunk with power,” Shue says of the role.
The rest of the cast is great too, particularly Karl Urban as Billy Butcher, an unhinged brawler with a vendetta against supes, a love for the Spice Girls, and a tragic backstory that’s slowly unspooled. On the other side of the divide, Jessie Usher gives a powerful performance as A Train, the fastest man on Earth who’s also dealing with some serious personal issues, while Chace Crawford plays The Deep, who’s basically a season-long parody of Aquaman.
But ultimately, it’s not any one performance that makes The Boys shine, it’s the world that this show manages to create that’s the true star. Amazon’s latest original feels like an important step in the superhero genre. Here is a series that promises to take on our superhero obsession and actually succeeds, even if it means showing plenty of blood and guts along the way.
You shouldn’t expect Disney/Marvel to offer up anything like The Boys any time soon (if ever), but the show’s mere existence may be enough to nudge the Marvel Cinematic Universe into grittier territory. Or maybe this just proves that in the golden age of superhero storytelling, there’s enough room for Avengers: Endgame and a story where a girl explodes because a superhero ran through her.
And yes, that’s a thing that happens in The Boys. In the very first episode. Enjoy.
**The Boys hits Amazon on July 26.