“It is, without a doubt, a good time to be in the superhero business.” This is a knowing line from early in season one of the new show The Boys; it could also open any number of state-of-the-industry thinkpieces explaining how both film and TV have been flooded with superhero content. The Boys is Amazon’s latest addition to the genre, and like its previous (and recently canceled) series The Tick, it positions itself as an irreverent alternative superhero narrative—a superhero story that satirizes the genre and the world’s obsession with it.
Comic books, where superheroes have reigned for much longer than their film or TV counterparts, have plenty of self-satirizing stories, even beyond standard-bearers like Watchmen (which, appropriately, was turned into a Zack Snyder movie that took the material seriously without necessarily understanding what it was saying in the first place). The Boys is based on one such comic, penned by Garth Ennis (Preacher), following a team of rough-and-tumble agents who monitor (and often violently punish) corruption and law-breaking among corporate-sponsored, ill-behaved superpowered beings—which is to say, almost all superpowered beings.
On paper, it makes sense to move some of these less classical stories over to a new medium. Superheroes are typically more profitable in movies and TV than in comic books, which can’t seem to goose sales numbers no matter how many hit movies they inspire. TV outlets have become particularly dependent on superhero shows to build buzz, as MCU-affiliated shows helped draw attention to original programming on Netflix, and will do the same for Disney+ later this year. Similarly, DC superheroes currently dominate The CW, and will probably figure into HBO Max when it launches next year. Amazon has been conspicuously lacking its own flagship superhero property, and while two seasons of The Tick and (at least) two seasons of The Boys don’t exactly comprise a strategy, they’re clearly more interested in potentially satirizing conventional superheroes than scrounging up whatever third-tier heroes remain unadapted. This direction also stands out because despite the onscreen ubiquity of superheroes and the wealth of source material, not many shows or movies have successfully sustained a mockery of these types of stories.
There have been some attempts, of course: The very funny Mystery Men remains a cult favorite. But it also just turned 20 this week, and while its spoofery still plays well in purely comic turns, it’s very much rooted in the outlandishness (garish costumes, ridiculous henchmen, silly gimmicks) of the ’90s Batman movies. The imitation-Zucker Superhero Movie, mostly a beat-by-beat spoof of the first Spider-Man, didn’t make much impact. The most successful moving-picture superhero spoofs tend to come from the inside: Teen Titans Go! or Deadpool certainly deflate the self-seriousness of the genre, but they feel more like superhero comedies with heavy doses of in-jokes. For that matter, these kinds of jokes are pretty common in “straight” superhero pictures, too; self-deprecation or self-awareness in something like Shazam! or Ant-Man barely qualifies as parody, let alone satire.
The TV version of The Boys, produced by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (who also worked on the about-to-conclude adaptation of Preacher), isn’t as unrelentingly nasty as its source material. The restraint isn’t necessarily a sign of compromise, and can even be a blessing; Ennis sometimes feels distracted by figuring out how far he can push the envelope on the page. The TV version follows Hughie (Jack Quaid), a regular underachiever whose girlfriend is killed by a high-profile superhero in a careless, drug-addled accident. Hughie joins up with Billy Butcher (Karl Urban), the shady leader of The Boys, who are desperate to bring down The Seven, a premier superhero team funded by Vought International, a menacing conglomerate. The newest member of The Seven is Starlight (Erin Moriarty), a sweet-natured young superhero called up to the majors, who is appalled to realize the extent of The Seven’s misdeeds.
Textually and visually, there’s plenty in The Boys to distinguish it from the lighter joshing of something like Deadpool. The close involvement of Vought offers a canny satire of how so many superhero movies and TV shows peddle idealism and inspiration as part of a multi-pronged marketing plan. In the world of The Boys, superheroics are inseparable from brand management; negotiations for, say, a superhero installed to defend Baltimore play like backroom angling for a sports franchise. The show uses clear analogs to familiar figures like Superman, Wonder Woman, and Aquaman to suggest that if superheroes were real, corporations would have to work overtime to convince the public that they’re looking up to gods among men. The costume designs and color timing, heavily saturated but dark in tone, very much resemble the biggest DC movies, while the dialogue makes reference to Marvel-like concepts: The Seven are “Earth’s most mighty” heroes, and there are glimpses of superhero movies in production for the “VCU” (the Vought Cinematic Universe, naturally).
Despite all of that, The Boys still doesn’t consistently land as a satire of superhero narratives. To some degree, this is because it has more ambitious aims than just poking fun at superhero saturation; it wants to give its characters more depth and shading than a vicious caricature. This pays off with the show’s most refreshing element: the beginnings of a romance between newly promoted superhero Starlight and newly anti-superhero mercenary Hughie, tentative and deceptive and yet unavoidably charming, especially given the weirdly chaste, mostly-business treatment Marvel movies give to romantic storylines. It’s reminiscent of how Amazon’s version of The Tick was sometimes more affecting in its relationships than effective as a full-on absurd comedy (the latter of which was slightly diluted by the two more overtly comedic Tick series that preceded it). Both shows offer a reminder of just how many story avenues go unexplored in so many superhero projects.
The sincere strengths of The Boys also serve as a reminder that for much of its first eight hours, the show is a superhero project—that as much as it turns superheroes into selfish, amoral creeps, it also takes its superhero-saturated world seriously. Again, this is not a bad thing on its own; in the case of the romantic subplot (introduced more gradually in the comics), what makes the show weaker as satire also makes it more involving. But it’s difficult to attribute the show’s satirical limitations entirely to artistic ambitions, because one of its most ambitious ideas goes underdeveloped. By turning movie-like heroes into “real” people who still star in movies, strike endorsement deals, and so on, The Boys creates a world where fans are free to treat their obsessions with real-life intensity. For the regular humans of The Boys, superheroes aren’t just central to their cultural diet; they’re central to everyone’s actual lives, whether they’re wanted or not—and Butcher’s team is, at least as far as the show ever illustrates, the only meaningful resistance the superheroes ever seem to encounter.
It’s a provocative idea—one that the show treats as background color, rather than an issue to address head-on. Though its comics co-creator (Ennis developed the series with Darick Robertson) still gives interviews lamenting the public appetite for superhero comics, The Boys is careful not to indict its audience, and even treats fandom sympathetically. Hughie is positioned, rather unconvincingly and in large part after the fact, as a longtime fan of The Seven, in an attempt to make his disillusionment with the group sting further. It’s broadly believable in the sense that The Boys imagines a much-expanded version of our current cultural interest in superheroes; Hughie’s supposed superhero fandom is probably supposed to read as normcore as his Billy Joel T-shirt. But some posters and action figures for set dressing don’t succeed in turning this into a crucial part of his character; they feel like an attempt to reassure the audience that superhero appreciation is a default setting.
That The Boys doesn’t want to point a finger at its audience and is more suspicious of corporate interests than of superhero narratives themselves is understandable. At the same time, it does want to subvert those narratives to some degree, and clearly gets a charge from showing superheroes misbehaving. Superpowered sex stuff in film and TV used to be limited to speculative Kevin Smith dialogue; now it can be depicted in some detail, and sometimes with a gory punchline, like the amped-up C-list superhero who accidentally bursts open a human male’s head while receiving oral sex. Like the comic, The Boys often (though not always) plays this material for dark comedy. It revels in the mischievous incongruity of Homelander, a guy who looks a bit like a cross between Captain America and Superman, swearing, harassing, and even threatening to kill victims of an impending plane crash that he can’t figure out how to stop.
That scene, in the show’s fourth episode (and also adapted, though slightly toned down, from the comics), is a harrowing example of a what-if scenario that most superhero movies and TV shows would rather not touch: What if a superhero didn’t give his all to save as many people as possible, and instead advocated for expedient self-preservation when he screwed up—all while advocating for being allowed to join military conflicts? Depicting the superpowered as fascists in training, usually on a spectrum between feckless and bloodthirsty, is a meaty (if not exactly boldly original) idea. But The Boys, despite being less outré than its source material, is so eager to advertise its transgressions that those proto-fascists can’t even feign likability; Homelander is insultingly unconvincing as the clean-cut Superman/Captain America type he’s clearly supposed to evoke.
Because of this, he never seems particularly insidious; mostly, he raises logistical questions about how he’s been apparently able to fake it all these years when he barely seems capable of concealing his disgust with humanity for longer than five minutes at a time. The super-transgressions become tedious relatively quickly, subject to the same this-is-an-eight-hour-movie pacing of other streaming shows. When one of the morally compromised heroes does something halfway sympathetic, it feels like warmed over cable-antihero material, and not much like satire.
The tendency to opt out of cutting satire also reveals (or rather, reiterates) some weaknesses of Peak Streaming TV. In comics, plenty of successful titles produce around 22 pages a month. This creates stories that are both more drawn out (in that chapters are doled out monthly) and more concise (in that a year’s worth of material can usually be consumed in less than eight hours). Some streaming shows, including The Boys and the Netflix Marvel series, have a way of converting a similar timeframe into frustration: Plots are drawn out enough to feel formless, yet concise enough to feel underdeveloped, and it’s probably tricky to zero in on certain elements with satirical precision when all eyes are supposed to be on the master plot. Ennis-penned comics in particular have plenty of traditional story arcs, but he’s also embraced the occasional single-issue or two-issue story in between the major stuff—something that many streaming comics adaptations seem to actively avoid.
There’s also the fact that superhero deconstructions have been a staple for decades, to the point where debauched superheroes are their own flavor of cliché. TV and movies don’t have that level of history, which should theoretically make the material feel fresher, or at least re-targeted toward the particular quirks of how these stories are translated into other media. But without either the richness of comics history or the insularity of fan knowledge that can inform deconstructionist comics, superhero satire often must stick to familiar, easily digestible terms: The big, strong-looking heroes are actually dumb, or bad, or ideologically questionable. These characterizations, even with some ultraviolent exclamations, threaten to become as easy as toothless as the fairy-tale parodies suggesting that, get this, the handsome prince is actually a preening moron.
The nastiness of the Boys comic is often equally unsophisticated. But it’s clearly written by someone who has actual, palpable disdain for the whole idea of superheroes, and while Ennis’ views start to feel reductive in bulk (especially compared to his more nuanced envelope-pushing in Preacher), its bile levels make it more distinctive than its TV counterpart. Sustaining that kind of ire toward superheroes, or really any satirical conceit, is clearly a challenge in a medium that demands both long-form storytelling and, now, instant-binge hookiness. That challenge may not even prove worth meeting. But right now, it’s hard to tell, because superhero satire outside of comics is just barely distinguishable from the real thing.