How much inflection do you have to put on “that’s some pretty twisted, sick s***” to mean it in the best possible way?
That’s Prime Video’s new streaming series The Boys in a nutshell.
Despite its abundance of excesses and exaggerated situations, it is more an ingenious subversion of the superhero genre than a parody.
Sure, it has plenty of coarse language, scary moments, gross-out scenes involving (separately, thank goodness) rectal explosives and lethal babies.
Yet it is savvy enough to keep from going off the rails completely, by grounding itself with humour, warmth generated by believable relationships, and a surprising amount of heart.
Based on the comics by Garth Ennis (Preacher) and Darick Robertson – who serve as co-producers here – and developed by Supernatural creator Eric Kripke, The Boys certainly has off-kilter DNA.
It is set in a world where super-powered beings (or “Supes”) are not only commonplace but also corporatised.
Celebrity endorsements, merchandising, huge paydays and more illicit forms of compensation go hand-in-spandex-glove with saving the day.
Veteran comics fans will recognise the core members of the first season’s central super-team, The Seven, as a dark mirror of the Justice League: patriotic superman Homelander (an excellent Antony Starr), warrior woman Queen Maeve (Dominique McElligott), speedster A-Train (Jesse T. Usher), fish guy The Deep (Chace Crawford), grim black-clad beatdown specialist Black Noir (Nathan Mitchell).
The Boys does not refer to them, however, but a ragged group of determined, desperate individuals out to bring down the heroes and their corporate puppet-master Vought International for their own disparate reasons.
Led by the gruff, shady Bill Butcher (a terrific Karl Urban), The Boys make up for their lack of superpowers with skills, charm and sometimes, blind luck.
Frenchie (Tomer Capon) is a multitalented mercenary, Mother’s Milk (Laz Alonso) is its moral compass, and Hughie (Jack Quaid) is … a tech salesman who really, really hates A-Train (for reasons best left to you to discover).
(A later inductee, Kimiko, played by Suicide Squad’s Karen Fukuhara, lends some much-needed Supes muscle and additional motivation to the group.)
Linking the Boys to The Seven is Annie January (Erin Moriarty), a.k.a. Starlight, a new recruit to the super-team who meets Hughie in a park and hits it off with him.
Their conflicted relationship, sweet as it is but bound to be tainted by the antagonism between their respective groups, is what gives the show a hook and line to reel in viewers and keep them invested as The Seven, Vought and The Boys execute their respective (and often, individualised) agendas.
Everyone’s working an angle here, you see. From very early on in the show, we realise that The Seven are anything but good guys.
And that’s where The Boys works its subversion so well, up-ending familiar and comforting superhero genre staples.
In its course, it expands those statements to make us question the reverence and celebrity we shower upon our idols: from entertainers to politicians to influenzas … sorry, influencers (well, something viral, anyway).
Any lingering hope that the Supes of The Boys have some decency in their bones flies right out of a depressurised airliner cabin in the fourth episode which features, quite simply, the most casually cruel and horrifying sequence ever in a superhero show.
But that is the genius of The Boys. Like the second go-around of The Tick (now unfortunately cancelled, boo!), it could only play well in these superhero-saturated times of mass entertainment.
It sets us up with familiar, comfortable scenes and reassuringly leads us by the hand before suddenly thrusting said appendage in a blender.
The simple question it smacks us with in the face throughout its easily-bingeable debut season is: did you honestly think human beings, given all that power, wouldn’t use it for indulgent and self-serving ends?
And which human beings, then believing themselves above reproach, would not consequently be corrupted by that power?
Even for those fortunate enough to have had an Uncle Ben Parker in their lives, how far would altruism actually take them before harsh reality and the wickedness of the world hammered them into submission?
These are not new questions, for sure. But every now and then, they need to be asked, especially in times when attention spans and memories seem to have been insidiously shortened.
Also in step with the times, it features a #MeToo moment where a victim of sexual harassment re-establishes control of her situation in an unexpected and quite powerful moment.
Rather than just stop there and pander to the Social Justice Warrior movement, however, the show then looks at the flip side of things – where the victimiser himself experiences an assault on his own person and then undergoes a period of intense shame and frustration.
Are we meant to sympathise with him? I doubt it. But like all functioning mirrors, The Boys just reminds us to pause and consider the reflection – warped as it may be.