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What if superheroes where assholes? As a premise for a tv show, The Boys feels a little behind the curve when we've already had Watchmen, Hancock, Kick Ass, Super and even Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog asking that same question. But The Boys shows us a specific kind of asshole superhero we haven't had too much of yet. With that, we've got something that is not quite fresh, not quite stale.
In The Boys, we are shown a satirical version of the Justice League, "The Seven", with superheroes living as celebrities in a heavily commercialised do-gooding industry. Their image is meticulously managed by corporate types and camera crews, their life carefully scripted to maintain the company brand. Joining The Seven is Annie, a superhero pageant winner who quickly discovers the secretive, ugly side of the business. That's one half of the story. The other half follows salesman and nobody, Hughie. Hughie joins up with some shady characters to get revenge for his dead girlfriend, who was obliterated by a careless passing superhero. Hughie is one of the few, ordinary people getting a peep behind the curtain, seeing first hand the kind of collateral damage superheroes shrug off.
So super heroes are assholes. As a I said, we've seen that. To spice it up, The Boys tries to be as contemporary in its satire as possible. We see a boss discuss the cross demographic appeal of her employee, "Nubian Prince", a Black Panther copy. There's a strong #metoo reference built into the plot early on, and a couple of episodes in I'm curious to see if it pays off. The danger with this kind of strategy of baking in these modern issues is that they risk getting cross-contaminated with Garth Ennis's own peculiar writing quirks, such as his fondness for writing bad guys as perverts and his focus on sexualised violence towards women.There's a danger of undermining the banal reality of #metoo by presenting its perpetrators as cartoonishly evil characters or Freudian headcases. His other Amazon Prime adaption, Preacher, had to write out or compensate for a lot of Ennis' creative decisions, and I expect there is a ton of that going on in The Boys too.
At this point I'm only a couple of episodes in to The Boys. I am interested enough in the characters and plot to wonder where it is going, but I'm wary about the haphazard comic satire and the show's ability to handle its mature themes. I remember the film Watchmen having a similar excess of lurid violence and grim darkness, and that ultimately undermined a lot of the cleverer points it had to make. The Boys is a mercifully lighter, but I'm not yet convinced it will be able to balance its tone or justify it going to such dark places.
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