Film & TV

The Brilliant, Scabrous Satire of The Boys

Queen Maeve (Dominique McElligott) and Homelander (Antony Starr) in The Boys. (Jan Thijs/Amazon)
Amazon’s dystopian superhero show skewers a gallery of cultural icons who richly deserve the treatment.

Mega-corporations are the new Nazis: Everybody hates them. The Left deplores them for exploiting workers; the Right despises them for injecting woke politics into everything. The cracked superhero series The Boys capitalizes on the unifying potential of this enmity, and what’s more, it’s being brought to us by two gigantic corporations — Amazon and Sony — winking at themselves. Everybody wins.

Since the second of the two seasons of The Boys wrapped up on Amazon Prime Video nearly two months ago, I’ll just assume you’ve already watched all 16 episodes, so if you don’t want plot details spoiled, read no further. It’s more interesting to consider a story when you don’t have to withhold discussion of its most important elements, the ones that have in this case just emerged in the last few hours of the show.

The Boys is a very left-wing work that nevertheless gives right-wingers much to feast upon. The comic book on which it is based, launched in 2006 by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson, reflects the mid-2000s Daily Kos-style paranoid fury about George W. Bush, Iraq, and the War on Terror. But in its second season, it gradually morphs into an unhinged allegory of white supremacism, anti-immigration sentiment, and, by implication, the popularity of Donald Trump. I generally find such veiled polemics to be boring in the extreme — hectoring, shrill, monomaniacal, bonkers, and ultimately hate-fueled in their underlying assumptions. Yet The Boys is one of the most amusing shows going, a satiric machine-gun attack on a gallery of cultural icons that have richly earned their drubbing.

The opening episodes of the first season, for instance, are a reminder that in 2018-2019, lots of previously interesting TV series became airless and rote as their teams of writers decided we wanted, say, Bojack Horseman to offer us a boring take on #MeToo. Remember when every ’80s TV sitcom had to offer us a Very Special Episode on the dangers of drugs? After the Harvey Weinstein revelations of 2017, TV lurched in that direction, only with an added air of self-righteousness. I made it a rule to stop watching every series that I sensed was browbeating me, which was most of them. Instead of taking the opportunity to contemplate their own sins, showbiz types collectively decided that this was a time to lecture everyone else, mistaking themselves for Solons to whom we look for guidance and wisdom.

Those early episodes of The Boys, though, offer a much more acerbic (and more accurate) take on the Caligulas of showbiz: They’re an extended allegorical account of how Hollywood creeps got away with everything, because phalanxes of publicists and other corporate centurions kept the truth under wraps. Everyone in Hollywood knew what the Weinsteins and Moonveses were up to; the men, the women, the potted plants. They were all part of a conspiracy of silence, if not a sex-grooming gang. When the stories of depravity were finally published, everyone in La-La Land became so many Captain Renaults: shocked, shocked to find out sexual harassment was going on. The Boys has a fine time rubbishing the hypocrisy within Vought International, the mega-corporation that owns and operates all the superheroes and rules the culture by devising phony stories about their derring-do.

The Superman-like Homelander (Antony Starr), the Aquaman type The Deep (Chace Crawford), and the Flash parody A-Train (Jessie T. Usher) are all, unknown to the public, horrible people. In charge of covering up their many crimes is a woman, Vought’s cynical head of Hero Management, Madelyn Stilwell (played by 1980s cinema sweetheart Elisabeth Shue in one of the series’ many clever against-type casting decisions). When the corporation can’t keep a lid on the Deep’s sexual harassment, it turns on a dime and creates an equally phony female-empowerment narrative about such women characters as its own darling Supergirl, Starlight (Erin Moriarty). Meanwhile, the Deep gets a rehabilitation narrative, complete with a star search to find him a publicity-appropriate wife that recalls the stories of how Tom Cruise auditioned Katie Holmes, a woman he barely knew, to be his bride. Few movies or TV shows can compete with The Boys for illuminating just how completely Hollywood is defined by what The New York Times used to call barnyard epithet. It’s a vicious, delicious beat down.

That wife-auditioning sequence, and many others, call to mind the Church of Scientology’s influence over the industry; in the show, the “Church of the Collective” is deeply ingrained in the workings of Vought International just as Scientology exercises influence in Hollywood. On the surface it seems harmless, but behind the scenes it deploys weird control techniques and keeps files on the dirty secrets of its members. Some viewers seem to read these scenes as spoofing the Evangelical movement, but that institution, unlike Scientology, is about as far removed from Hollywood as Zanzibar. Moreover, a political figure who in the comics was meant to evoke George W. Bush is in the show a clear parody of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She turns out to be a sort of reverse Manchurian Candidate who under the cover of railing against Vought is secretly working to advance the corporation’s evils, as we learn in the closing moments of season two. Lefty critics who thought the show was on their side were notably aghast at seeing their precious AOC in the satiric crosshairs. One writer disapprovingly compared The Boys to South Park for skewering both sides. As I say: The show gives conservatives a lot to cheer.

Late in season two, as Vought is revealed to be a front for Nazism, the real-world parallel breaks down — Hollywood was largely built by Jewish showmen, many of them refugees from the Nazis, not the Führer-loving Aryans of The Boys — and the show indulges lazy tropes about immigration restrictionism as a front for racism. Yet at the same time, The Boys points to the ease with which malicious giant corporations (in Silicon Valley even more so than in Hollywood) can control a narrative and hide their true motives. A century-old Nazi named Stormfront (played by Aya Cash as a sort of evil Ellen Page type) blithely explains how easy it is for five guys she pays to create memes to steer the cultural conversation in her chosen direction, and she might as well be a Twitter executive talking.

On top of having plenty of allegorical weight, The Boys is also tremendously entertaining, roaring along from one complicated caper to the next on the force of three terrific lead performances that maintain the human element amid an insane number of super-powered fights.

Karl Urban, a journeyman who has drifted along in Hollywood in secondary parts for many years and was probably best known before now for his utterly thankless role as Bones McCoy in the most recent Star Trek movies, is a force of nature as Billy Butcher, the ruthless assassin leading a band of upstarts who seek to uncover the truth about the superheroes and murder as many of them as possible. Urban has a brutish physical presence and a way of tilting his head menacingly that never fails, especially when he unloads with one of his innumerable filthy insults and jaded one-liners. He’s a lively hero for those who are disinclined to believe the official story about anything. (“Congress? Please! What a bunch of corrupt fu**ing c***s they are!” he says, in one of many indisputable observations.)

The perfect counterpoint to Butcher is his reluctant co-assassin, a beta male named Hughie who is blasted out of his harmless life as an A/V store geek and into the world of supercombat after his girlfriend gets killed by a negligent superhero. Hughie is winningly played by Jack Quaid, who doesn’t look like a star despite being the son of two of them (Dennis Quaid, Meg Ryan). Quaid’s Hughie has a disarming Everyman quality. He’s a surrogate for every comic-book nerd in the audience who imagines himself getting caught up in intrigue, and the show’s running gag about how he is constantly getting splattered with the bloody guts of the many people and sea creatures who come to explosive ends around him is amusingly demented. (Itchy and Scratchyland must now bow in acknowledgment that The Boys has seized the title of the violentest place on Earth, although the violence, grotesque as it is, is so comical that it’s never actually disturbing.)

Opposing Hughie and Billy is one of the most intensely despicable characters ever to appear on TV: the evil supe Homelander, played so brilliantly by Antony Starr that every sentence out of his mouth sounds like a lie. Starr makes you hate this guy so much that I fear for his future; the fellow who played Eddie Haskell (Ken Osmond, R.I.P.) was so good at his job that he couldn’t plausibly take on successor roles and wound up joining the L.A.P.D. In some future episode, Homelander is going to get his just deserts, and I pray and expect it’ll be a spectacle worthy of the unbelievable wickedness of the character. That prospect alone would be enough to keep me watching, but everything about the show has me hooked. Season 3 of The Boys can’t come soon enough.

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