While the Marvel Cinematic Universe occasionally delves into what the real world might actually look like with superheroes in – Tom Holland’s Spider-Man series is good at showing street-level reactions, and the canned Netflix series dabbled in it as well – for the most part, we only get to see the grander, nobler side of superheroics in movies.
Which is where The Boys, Amazon’s viciously fun new series based on Garth Ennis’ comic of the same name (and brought to screen by Preacher’s Eric Kripke, Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen) comes in.
Set in a world where superheroes are not only real, but also corporate-backed narcissists, perverts and drug addicts, it’s a slightly bracing tonic to the blockbuster domination of caped crusaders in recent years.
We enter the action with Jack Quaid’s character Hughie, a fan of heroes who realises their darker side when he becomes an unlucky victim of their careless attitude. An incredibly unpleasant and grisly moment (that we won’t spoil here, but fans of the comic will immediately recognise it) at the hands of a supe eventually propels him into the arms of Billy Butcher (Karl Urban) a slightly oddly-accented Englishman on a mission to take down, or “spank,” Earth’s mightiest heroes.
The heroes they’re facing? The Seven, a gang of all-mighty delinquents including spotless All-American leader the Homelander (Antony Starr), Amazon warrior Queen Maeve (Dominique) super-fast A-Train (Jessie T Usher) and underwater hero The Deep (Chace Crawford) – and if any of those character descriptions sound a little familiar, that’s entirely the point.
Each of the Seven is a gossamer-thin veiled take on the iconic Justice League, specifically the likes of Superman, Wonder Woman, The Flash and Aquaman, and in some ways these heroes reflect the comic-book origins of the story more than they do the current superhero landscape.
When Ennis wrote the comics back in the early noughties, Superman, Batman and the like were unquestionably top dog when it came to people’s perception of superheroes, and the Marvel movies were barely a glint in Kevin Feige’s eye. But as The Boys comes to Amazon the Avengers reign supreme at the box office and in the perception of popular culture, leaving DC’s stable of heroes in the dust and making The Boys’ satire a little less sharp than it once was.
Though this isn’t to say that The Boys has completely lost what made it shocking in the first place. While there are some pretty big changes made to the storyline – some characters and events are placed later in the story, and a lot of the extra superheroes beyond the Seven are streamlined to focus on the core teams – the series also holds on to the gore, dark humour and truly startling iconic moments of the comic. You definitely can’t accuse the adaptation of going soft.
With that said, the story’s gentler moments – including a romance between Hughie and new Seven recruit Starlight, played by Jessica Jones’ Erin Moriarty – do play slightly better onscreen, divorced from Ennis’ cynicism.
Not that this is always a show with great emotional depth. For the most part, The Boys is happy being a romp through caped orgies, grisly murders, corporate manoeuvring and low-hanging jokes at the expense of Aquaman analog The Deep, whose fish-friendly powers are of little use to the real world.
But at other times, its themes of irresponsible power, loss and betrayal hit hard. One sequence involving a plane rescue by the arrogant Homelander is genuinely unpleasant to watch, and puts a very different spin on similar scenes we’ve seen in real superhero movies over the years.
Obviously, superhero movies aren’t going anywhere. Even some of The Boys’ cast – notably Karl Urban, Erin Moriarty and Karen Fukuhara – have appeared in big-budget superhero adaptations before, and it’s more than likely that Marvel and their rivals will continue their box office dominance for years to come.
But amongst all that, it’s nice to have a palate-cleanser like The Boys to present a darker, more screwed-up version of superheroes. If nothing else, you’ll never look at Clark Kent the same way again…
The Boys streams on Amazon Prime Video from Friday 26th July