‘The Boys’ Review: A Bleak Yet Funny Exploration of Power and Trauma
The Boys, adapted from the Garth Ennis comic of the same name, is a darkly humorous examination of “the superhero” and the tropes associated with the genre. Exploring similar themes to Alan Moore’s classic The Watchmen (though in this case with a lot more jokes about dolphin f*cking), the quintessential question of “Who watches the Watchmen?” has an answer: “The Boys,” a group of non-superpowered vigilantes who have tasked themselves with bringing down the corrupt “supes” known as “The Seven” (*cough cough* The Justice League *cough cough*) that have wreaked havoc on their lives and avoided being brought to justice.
HELLO, THIS IS YOUR FRIENDLY NEIGHBORHOOD WARNING: Spoilers and some triggering content below.
We follow Hughie Campbell (played by Jack Quaid), a young man who, having watched his girlfriend literally explode in front of his eyes/in his arms because the super speedy superhero A-Train ran through her, seeks vengeance by joining forces with Billy Butcher (Karl Urban). Billy, who is dressed like Tyler Durden and has the bloodthirsty attitude to match, has assembled a group of aggrieved misfits hellbent on getting the justice that society has denied them — namely, murdering the superheroes that have killed or assaulted their loved ones. The group is made up of Billy, Hughie, Frenchie (Tomer Capon), and later The Female (Karen Fukuhara), a traumatized and feral superpowered woman that they rescue from a lab. On the supes side of things, we follow the journey of Annie January (Erin Moriarty), aka Starlight, and the consequences of her induction into The Seven, the world’s most famous league of superheroes (who are owned and managed by the ominous corporation Vought International.)
On a superficial level, The Boys is a violent (read: extreme amounts of blood and gore) and often funny twist on the superhero archetypes we have come to know and love. Queen Maeve (Dominique McElligott) is Wonder Woman but also a closeted drunk. A-Train (Jessie T. Usher) is The Flash — if The Flash were addicted to steroids. The Deep (Chace Crawford) is Aquaman, but an Aquaman who knows he is a laughing stock and who also actually has sex with aquatic animals. And finally we have Homelander (Antony Starr), a cross between Captain America and Superman, the all-powerful embodiment of American imperialism and patriotism but without any conscience or empathy: he is fascism wrapped up in red, white and blue. (Also funnily enough, Homelander bears a striking resemblance to both the comic and film versions of The Watchmen’s Ozymandias, who was also Moore’s vision of the havoc a true “super man” could wreak on the world.) And, while it is fun to see Wonder Woman get wasted and make out with her girlfriend, or to see the disastrous results of Aquaman trying to rescue one of his many dolphin lovers, The Boys is also an extremely bleak examination of power dynamics and the rippling effects of trauma.
What does it mean to have a world where power is manifested both systemically (i.e., gender politics, capitalism, corporations, etc) and superhumanly? How do those with power traumatize those without? Even unintentionally? A-Train didn’t mean to kill Hughie’s girlfriend — she was in his path and he couldn’t stop in time, but he was also able to avoid real justice because Vought International stepped in and paid off both her family and attempted to pay off Hughie. And even though it was unintentional, the trauma still exists and the effects of that violence extend far past that specific moment and the people directly involved. However, when Annie joins The Seven (as Starlight) as both the youngest, newest, and the only other female member of the group, The Deep very much intentionally uses his power over her to inflict some of the suffering that he has long been enduring. In a scene that felt all too familiar to many women, The Deep threatens and extorts oral sex from Annie on her very first day as part of The Seven. These two actions — the murder and the rape — are the catalysts for the entire season. The audience follows the carnage that unfolds as those without power try to grasp for some measure of control, and those who already have power try to keep it.
And what are the repercussions of trauma? How do people cope with it? One tactic is compartmentalization. We see this specifically with Queen Maeve. In order to exist as one of The Seven, and specifically to survive her abusive relationship with Homelander, Maeve becomes the “Queen” of compartmentalizing. She hides her relationship with her ex-girlfriend (after watching a scene where Homelander ominously threatens her with what could happen if he ever learned she had been with someone else, I don’t blame her). She hides her sexual identity from the rest of The Seven and the world. But this cognitive dissonance takes a toll, and she turns to booze to cope and eventually becomes an alcoholic. We also watch A-Train and his “B level” superhero girlfriend Popclaw succumb to addiction as their coping mechanism as well. They both are hooked on “Compound V” — a superhero steroid that gives their fading powers a boost, but has damaging and drastic side effects. They are both so desperate, A-Train to maintain his position of power and Popclaw to regain what she has lost, that they are willing to inject this illegal and addictive drug. In fact, racing to get more of this drug is what caused A-Train to run through/kill Hughie’s girlfriend in the first place. As I said before, trauma ripples.
On the other end of the scale, we watch our vigilantes become so consumed by their trauma that it becomes their entire motivating force. Billy Butcher’s wife was sexually assaulted by Homelander and later (he is convinced) committed suicide. Unable to bring the world’s most powerful human to justice via legal means, he is trained by a woman who was also the victim of Vought International (the corporation behind the supes), and assembles a team to take him down the old fashioned way: murder. Billy is so engulfed by his pain and hatred that his world becomes black and white: good and bad, human and supe, with him or against him. Hughie is on a similar path: he abandons his dad (played by Simon Pegg) for wanting to accept Vought’s hush money, until he meets Starlight. What starts out as an undercover mission to try and get insider information blossoms into a real relationship as Hughie struggles with his own grief and loss. He longs for the clarity of purpose that Billy has, but can’t bring himself to ignore Starlight’s humanity or the attraction he feels towards her.
Finally, on the very extreme end of this spectrum of the aggrieved we have The Female. Aside from Queen Maeve, Starlight, and Madelyn Stillwell (Elizabeth Shue), she is the only other main female character on the show. And she doesn’t speak a word. (Also interesting to note that the female characters, aside from Stillwell, who is the human in charge of The Seven, are all superpowered.) The Female is a deadly and completely feral woman that is sprung from her cage in an underground lab during a break-in planned by The Boys. After brutally slaughtering her captors, she escapes, pursued by Frenchie and Billy, who eventually calm her and have her join their team. (I mean, “join” as much as anyone who has lost the power of speech can consent to join something, but I digress.) The Female was captured by a terrorist group in her home country and then tortured and injected with Compound V in an attempt to turn her into a superpowered terrorist. The brutality and suffering that she endured reduced her to an animalistic state, violent and mistrustful of everyone and everything, until she feels safe enough to leave survival mode and reclaim some of her humanity. (Also, this is mostly depicted by the coaxing and love shown to her by Frenchie… essentially saying that what a woman needs to feel safe and human is the love of a “good man” and to which I give some major side-eye.)
Conversely, The Boys also delves into the ways that those in power/with power cope with their own trauma. The Deep, unable to handle the hazing and emasculation, in turn inflicts pain upon the next weakest in the group, Starlight. Homelander, the all powerful Ubermensch, copes with his traumatic upbringing (we learn near the end of the series that all supes were created by injecting babies with Compound V) in a sterile lab, by needing to control every aspect of not just his life, but all lives. He controls Maeve, he controls his mommy figure Stillwell (while she in turn, tries to control him), he controls The Seven, and eventually he sets things in motion to help him control Vought International and the entire world. (Spoiler alert: he is the one that has been sending Compound V to terrorist cells in order to create supervillains for him to fight.) Starlight copes with her assault at the hands of The Deep by trying to seek justice and restitution. When Vought refuses to help (and tries to exploit her further by sexing up her persona), she goes public with what happened and forces their hand. This in itself is an excellent jab at how major corporations react to and attempt to mitigate/control the narrative when their CEOs or public figures are outed as predators.
And this leads me to my one major (and possibly controversial) complaint about the show. Also, trigger warning, in the next two paragraphs I will be recounting plot elements of sexual assault. Please skip ahead if you need.
The Boys walks a delicate tightrope trying to balance heavy themes like sexual assault, trauma, and violence with interjections of absurdity and humor. And overall, it manages to do a pretty good job of finding this “gallows humor,” this comedy of the grotesque, without diving headfirst into exploitation. But then we get to the The Deep. Following Starlight’s public statement, The Deep is removed from The Seven and, in a move straight out of The Vatican’s handbook, is reassigned to be a supe for landlocked Sandusky, Ohio. Depressed and lonely, he brings home a one-night stand. At her request, he takes off his shirt to reveal that he has giant gills along his rib cage and torso. She straddles him on the couch and they begin to have sex, but then forces her fingers into his gills. He tells her to stop because he can’t breathe, but she ignores him. In a very graphic close up, she forces her whole hand into his gills, essentially fisting them, while he begs her to stop because it is not only extremely painful, but also he is suffocating.
Now imagine this scene played for laughs. And imagine the following scene with him, where he is examining his tender, bruised body in front of the mirror, but with “Hello Darkness My Old Friend” played over it, again for laughs. I say imagine, but you don’t have to because that is how it was actually done. And that is my big problem. It is one thing to have the victim of sexual assault pursue her own justice and revenge on her attacker and achieve it. (The 2017 horror film Revenge is an excellent example of this.) It is quite another to, after that cathartic event (Starlight does get to publicly name The Deep and he is punished/exiled), have another person graphically assault the former attacker and to stage it as a farce. It becomes gratuitous and, frankly, obscene — especially a scene that loosely mirrors the real life alleged event that so recently made national headlines around the latest Supreme Court Judge (specifically the choking and smothering), presenting it in a comedic light, even with the genders reversed, feels especially tone deaf. (There is also a deeper conversation about how/when/if depictions of rape need to be presented on screen that should happen, and Angelica Jade Bastien writes a beautifully nuanced piece about this topic that everyone should read.)
This is disappointing, because overall the series does a good job of finding the nuance while maintaining a thrilling, and sometimes shocking, “in your face” feel. It is a show that pulls no punches (literally and metaphorically). It manages to find humor and hope amongst the dark depravities of human nature as it exists in our late-capitalist society without flinching. In fact, it stares directly into that black abyss and laughs at it. Because there is humor to be found as we explore our trauma and attempt to fight back against the powers that be. There is something fun about wading into, and reveling in, the grotesqueries of what humans are capable of when they have too much power and when they have none. But, as I said before, it’s a fine line to walk — that line between exploration and exploitation — and The Boys almost makes it. Until it trips at the finish line.
Season one of The Boys is streaming in its entirety on Amazon Prime.