Where Spider-Man’s guiding principle became “With great power comes great responsibility,” “The Boys” – a deliciously dark new Amazon series – works more from the premise “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The result is a compulsively entertaining and dark satire that sets a high bar for HBO’s upcoming “Watchmen” adaptation.
Like “Watchmen,” “The Boys” is based on a graphic novel, and uses the conventions of familiar superheroes to take a dark leap into an alternative universe. The combination of those two shows and Netflix’s “The Umbrella Academy” suggests we are near the peak of such revisionist leaps, although if you had to pick just one, this wouldn’t be a bad place to start.
The main conceit of the series (adapted by “Supernatural” showrunner Eric Kripke, part of a producing team that includes Seth Rogen, from Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson’s comic) is the transformation of superheroes into a corporate concern, cashing in on their exploits in everything from movies to peddling their heroism to the highest bidders.
Their corporate overseer (Elisabeth Shue) – or “senior VP of hero management” for a conglomerate known as Vought – is responsible for preserving their squeaky-clean image; still, peeking behind the curtain – or under the capes – reveals utter ruthlessness, with a core group of heroes known as The Seven whose powers roughly approximate those of the Justice League.
What would it be like, in other words, if Superman – or Homelander (Antony Starr), as he’s known here – flashed the same winning smile, which obscured a needy psychopath with deep-seated emotional issues?
Forced to grapple with that question, and others, is Hughie (Jack Quaid), an ordinary guy who experiences the collateral damage the Seven can inflict first hand; and Starlight (Erin Moriarty), a newly minted superhero who yearns to gain admission to the select club, only to discover life on the other side of that rainbow isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Hughie, meanwhile, gets recruited by Billy Butcher (Karl Urban), a shadowy figure nursing a longstanding grudge against the heroes – for reasons eventually explained – who, lacking the resources to wage a straight-up fight, must use his brains to counter their brawn.
Consistently surprising, and definitely not for the squeamish, “The Boys” works on multiple levels. Smartly cast, it operates as a mystery, a satire, a battle of wits and perhaps foremost, a provocative consideration of the dangers of hero worship, and the way media manipulation can be used to seduce a gullible public.
The narrative moves briskly through the eight episodes, telling a coherent, multifaceted story, while still leaving plenty of material for an already ordered second season.
Granted, those feeling inundated by superheroes might not be eager to see more of them, even in a vehicle that skewers the genre’s conventions. But looking beyond the blood and body count, “The Boys” explores what could happen if those held up as icons fighting for truth and justice actually serve the corporate bottom line and their own unsavory appetites.
A signature line from that other upcoming series asks, “Who watches the Watchmen?” The answer’s not entirely clear, but those with a taste for such fare should find time for “The Boys.”
“The Boys” premieres July 26 on Amazon.