Amazon’s The Boys Tests the Limits of Superhero Fatigue

Less than a week ago, 33 people posed for a photo at Marvel Studios' Comic-Con panel, most of them actors who would be appearing in the studio's upcoming film and television projects. While some were veterans, many were newcomers to Marvel's ever-broadening paracosm—a narrative web that already crammed more than 60 heroes into May's Avengers: Endgame, and will continue its combinatorial creep over at least the next three years. As for the logistics of bringing nearly three dozen working actors into the same room on a Saturday afternoon in July: Marvel and its parent company, Disney, control the largest film brand on the planet. They want you there? You'll be there.

It's into this supersaturated entertainment age that Amazon's The Boys enters, sleeves rolled up and looking for a bit of the old ultraviolence. The 10-episode show, adapted from Garth Ennis' comic book, has scant regard for capital-H Heroes, or for the corporate empires that have managed to turn them into movie stars. This isn't the first time Ennis' work has come to the small screen; Preacher is about to head into its fourth and final season on AMC. As with that comically gory show, Seth Rogen and his writing partner Evan Goldberg are cocreators here.

True to its source material and its shepherds, The Boys enters not with a whimper, or even a bang, but with a gout of viscera. Young lovebirds Hughie (Jack Quaid) and Robin (Jess Salgueiro) are trying to decide where to go for dinner when Robyn vaporizes into a cloud of blood and offal—run through, literally, by ultrafast superhero A-Train (Jessie T. Usher) moving at top speed. A-Train is one of the Seven, the apex predators of the celebri-hero industry. Most of the country's 300 "supes" are small-time, but the Seven is funded and marketed by corporate behemoth Vought International. The septet's members aren't just heroes; they're movie stars, endorsement machines, global icons.

They're also not all that heroic. Homelander (Antony Starr) is an Aryan fever-dream version of Superman wrapped in an American flag; aquatic specialist the Deep (Chace Crawford) is an insecure idiot who sexually coerces budding heroes. The lone voice of reason belongs to new recruit Starlight (Erin Moriarity), an actual do-gooder who chafes at Vought's corporatized kayfabe. When Hughie links up with Billy Butcher (Karl Urban), a supe-despising mercenary, they and their cohort discover that A-Train is strung out on a mysterious compound that may have contributed to his collision with Robin.

Such is the reality The Boys reveals behind the idolatry: greed and grift and outright homicide, all the while preaching exceptionalism and sanctimony to the outside world. As one Amazon user wrote in a review of the comic's first collected edition, "Picture Civil War mixed with Game of Thrones and this is what you get." The best of the palace intrigue comes by way of Madelyn Stillwell (Elisabeth Shue), a Vought executive who manages by manipulation, subterfuging, and strong-arming her charges in deference to Vought's finances and agenda. Shue turns in a revelatory performance, especially in Stillwell's psychologically fraught relationship with Homelander—by turn steely and seductive, a Cersei Lannister of superpowers.

Even casual comic-book readers will see the Seven as an obvious analogue of DC's Justice League. A-Train has the foot speed of the Flash, and the Deep is Aquaman down to his friendships with dolphins; Queen Maeve (Dominique McElligott) and Black Noir (Nathan Mitchell) are able stand-ins for Wonder Woman and Batman. This mapping highlights The Boys' true challenge: How many superheroes do you have room for?

When The Boys first hit comic-book shops in 2006, popular culture at large hadn't been quite so overrun by capes and costumes. Superman and Batman had gotten franchises, as had Marvel heroes like Hulk and Spider-Man, but comics had yet to become the one-stop shop for film and TV development execs. The X-Men movies were the only ones that even toyed with a larger connected universe.

Since then, we’ve seen not just superheroes but superhero meta-commentary enter the Hollywood pipeline. Heroes became assholes in a series of book-to-screen projects, from Watchmen and Kick-Ass to Wanted and Powers. In most cases, the results left viewers wanting. Comic books playing with comic-book tropes have always spoken to an in-crowd, complicating the already formidable degree of difficulty in bringing comics to the screen. In book form, Watchmen and Powers were packed with Easter eggs and subtext that delighted longtime readers. In film and TV form, respectively, the attempts to replicate that layering weighed down the result.

Now that HBO is readapting Watchmen into an episodic series, it seems to be doing so with caution, skirting the original entirely. Not so for The Boys, which is so hopped up on its own frenetic energy that it dares you not to buy in. Yes, those who read the comic will appreciate that Simon Pegg, the original inspiration for Hughie, plays Hughie's father. Yes, those who love comics will thrill to the throwaway gags. But there are a lot of other people out there—the ones already awash in superheroes, the ones who look ahead at Marvel's Phase Four and the Arrowverse and Netflix's Millarverse and every other large-scale comic-book IP push out there and can't help but feel fatigue setting in.

That effectively makes The Boys a niche project, an leeringly uncouth cousin to The Handmaid's Tale and Catastrophe and Amazon's other award-winning series. And thank Jor-El for that—not only because it makes for a liberating, all-id meditation on power and hypocrisy, but because I don't know how many more cinematic universes I can take.

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