Saturday, 24 August 2019

The Boys: Never meet your superheroes



Firstly, a confession. I’m suffering from small screen superhero fatigue and am not alone. This may sound disingenuous from a self-confessed comic book geek, but the proliferation of franchises, from virtually every competing Hollywood studio, has become exhausting! So much so, I’ve stopped following most of The CW’s Arrowverse - annual crossover event notwithstanding - and quickly abandoned the defunct Marvel Netflix spin-off series before Disney did.

However, Amazon Prime's The Boys came out of left field. Here is a darkly visceral deconstruction of the superhero trope as chilling commodity with a protagonist/antagonist suffering from PTSD.

Worthy of comparison to Watchmen?

Guest post by Nick Smith.

We human beings are advanced. Like, really advanced. We can reach for the stars, share pictures of ourselves worldwide in the blink of an eye, and twiddle knobs like nobody’s business. Ever see a turtle crank up the volume on a boombox? Didn’t think so. Despite all our abilities and achievements, we still dream of being greater. Stronger. Faster. Less visible in a world where our anonymity is dwindling. It’s part of our evolutionary survival instinct, to be extraordinary.

Our fascination with superpowers has accelerated over the past century. No longer the province of gods, special abilities can be owned by the boy or girl next door – at least in fiction. Millions flock to see such miracles in Hollywood blockbusters. V for Vendetta and The Dark Knight, graphic deconstructions of these high-flying guys and the comic books that spawned them, are regarded by some as literature.

The super-obsession has trickled down to TV and streaming services, with dozens of adaptations vying for our attention. A mere ten years after the movie version, HBO is launching a lavish-looking series based on Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen comic book. But before those capes have had a chance to unfurl, way out of left field comes The Boys, currently the darling of fanboys, housewives and Amazon-and-chillers alike. There are similarities with Moore’s work as well as Grant Morrison’s Zenith (superheroes as pop stars), John Smith’s New Statesmen (superheroes as political pawns) and Mark Millar’s Kick-Ass (superheroes boosted by social media), inevitable considering the cross-pollination of comics and the popular central question, "what if these larger-than-life characters existed in real life?"

In the case of The Boys, the answer would be: a disaster! Imagine a rock star terrorizing a hotel room, give him the powers of a deity and make the hotel room the entire planet. You’d better bring him some red M&Ms real quick before he throws a heat vision tantrum or undresses the housemaid with his X-ray vision. The death of wrong-doers is justifiable to this kind of supreme being, as is exploitation of women and religious faith.

Sound cynical? Welcome to the world according to Garth Ennis, writer of Preacher, another sceptical look at the shock-and-aw-shucks land of the USA, co-developed for the small screen by Ennis fan Seth Rogen. Rogen and Supernatural guru Eric Kripke help to keep The Boys palatable and entertaining, although the show yaws from comedy to dark drama and back again. Like Shazam!, this adaptation works best when focused on comedy – but this humour is sometimes crass and pitch dark.

The Boys tells the tale of a team (one could almost say a league) called the Seven, owned by the Vought International company. The Seven are led by Homelander (Antony Starr), an aloof figurehead with mommy issues who considers himself above the law. "I'm the world's greatest superhero," he boasts, "I can do whatever the *@!* I want." He’s accompanied by The Deep (Chace Crawford), an amphibian HR nightmare; Queen Maeve (Dominique McElligott), whose powers and disregard for human life almost match Homelander’s; Black Noir (Nathan Mitchell), who speaks only with his fists; A-Train (Jessie T. Usher), fast as lightning and a little bit frightening; Translucent (Alex Hassell), who uses his invisibility for some peeping Tomfoolery; and Starlight (Erin Moriarty), a wide-eyed newcomer who helps the audience navigate this arena in time-honoured TV pilot fashion. It’s Starlight who adds a ray of optimism to the cynical proceedings. She asks, "since when did hopeful and naive become the same thing?"

Vought wants the Seven to become part of the American military, increasing the company’s controlling political interests. When Hughie Campbell witnesses a tragic A-Train accident and Vought tries to buy his silence, he’s enlisted by Billy Butcher (Karl Urban) and a motley, barely-CIA-sanctioned group called “The Boys.” They exist, as Butcher puts it, to "spank the bastards when they get out of line."

Twists, turns, hijinks and laser-eyed babies ensue. But the show stands out from its sea of super friends for many reasons – it’s jaw-dropping and jawbreaking, the acting is spot-on, the cinematography captures the DC murkiness we’re used to, inspired by pulp printing and reused ink, and the special effects are excellent. As one friend put it, "the physics are right."

The performances certainly help give this show its cinematic quality. Karl Urban is always entertaining to watch as the bruiser Billy Butcher; he’s also entertaining to listen to, as his accent wavers from Aussie to Cockney. Hughie is brought to life by Jack Quaid, son of Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan, although from some angles he looks like a young Bill Hader, running around with a big ol’ Haderface, and his comic timing is perfect. Other stand-outs include Elisabeth Shue as a horrible boss and Simon Pegg who gets the opportunity to act for a change instead of just goofing around as comic relief.

More than anything, though, The Boys succeeds because it reflects our times. Comic book creators have always sought fresh ways to tell their stories, from social interest to soap opera, tapping into cultural mores, becoming more visually sophisticated along with the audience, aping and spawning movies. This time around, the ‘heroes’ are charismatic bullies and corporate pawns portrayed with a modern sensibility. As the Seven flex their muscles, Ennis and Kripke explore contemporary fears (conglomerate power and political interference, smartphone-fueled narcissism). Spider-Man was a swingin’ teen with high school hang-ups and campus riots to deal with; Superman had identity issues as an immigrant living the American Way. For heroes in 2019, their kryptonite is their reputation.

Despite attempts through the years to make comic books more mature or relevant, they still examine hope in many forms. We hope to get fitter and faster, or at least prolong our lives. We hope to be better as we gain emotional experience. We hope for excitement and escapism. We hope that the bad guys – even the ones disguised as smiley-face heroes – are defeated, and fairness shines through. Even in this dark take on funny books, the hope that comes with capes prevails.

Sign up for a free trial of Prime Video (affiliate link) and stream The Boys now.

Have you seen The Boys? What did you think? Let me know in the comments below.

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