'The Boys': TV Review | Tribeca 2019
Karl Urban, Elisabeth Shue, Jack Quaid and Chace Crawford lead Amazon's new superhero adaptation, which starts off with a polished pilot and a vein of creeping cynicism.
Amazon's The Boys makes for a sour and cynical take on the deconstructed superhero team-up genre, accentuating a general theme of misanthropy that other similar shows — think Legends of Tomorrow, Doom Patrol and Umbrella Academy — haven't always gone for.
The result is that while The Boys, which premiered its first episode at the Tribeca Film Festival ahead of a July 26 series launch, is flashy, smartly meta, often funny and very solidly cast, the pilot leaves a bit of a bad taste. Part of that is surely intentional and accurately reflects the tone of the source material. Whether that will continue and intensify after the initial hour, the only one available to review for the moment, remains to be seen.
Adapted by Eric Kripke from the Wildstorm-then-Dynamite comic by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson, The Boys is set in a world in which the "super-abled" are a normal part of everyday life. There are hundreds of individuals with powers and the most gifted of their lot are under contract to Vought Industries, a massive conglomerate that manages marketing and deployment with an emphasis on the commodification of altruism. Naturally, this is a world in which with great power comes great abuse of power, and one in which the easy availability of superheroes has left much of the general populace tentative, spineless and complacent hero-worshippers and consumers. The bleakness of your own worldview will probably determine how close this feels to reality.
The pilot, directed with consummate polish and solid comic timing by Dan Trachtenberg, is mostly an introduction to Jack Quaid's Hughie. A generally unassuming employee at an electronics store, Jack becomes a victim of a superhero-perpetrated tragedy, witnessing the sort of collateral damage Vought Industries, fronted by Elisabeth Shue's Madelyn Stillwell, is experienced at making disappear. In this moment of depression, Hughie is approached by the gruff Billy Butcher (Karl Urban), who promises to expose to him the dark underbelly of superhero behavior, which includes buried crimes and dens of iniquity.
At the same time, we're being shown the other side of Vought Industries through aspiring superhero Annie (Erin Moriarty), whose earnest desire to be heroic earns her a place in The Seven, Vought's Avengers-style assemblage of top-tier heroes. Annie, dubbed "Starlight" when she dons her costume, is eager to meet her heroes including Superman-meets-Captain America leader Homelander (Antony Starr), Wonder Woman-esque Queen Maeve (Dominique McElligott) and Aquaman-esque The Deep (Chace Crawford). But she quickly discovers a thoroughly gross patriarchy like any other in which #MeToo abuses are the price to pay for fame, fortune and a share of the merchandizing rights.
This is an entirely different Kripke if you're used to his broadcast credits including Supernatural, Revolution and Timeless. This is crass, bawdy, definitely not-for-kids stuff. He's working with a lot of freedom to step away from the source material, and I enjoyed how he crafts the superhero industry as an extension of the entertainment industry he knows so well, right down to red carpet events, corporate promotional videos and upfronts-style presentations to advertisers. Trachenberg speaks that language well and blends a Madison Avenue slickness with at least as much New York City location grounding as you can get in Toronto. The special effects are top-notch, including some good stunt work and a cheeky approach to the world's ample gore and violence. I also appreciated how much of the pilot was shot in the daytime and outside, the sort of aesthetic contrast to thematic darkness that few shows or movies choose to attempt.
It's a pilot that emphasizes world-building over story-building, or at least it does that if you're curious what the show's title refers to, since the opening hour doesn't introduce key characters including Female (Karen Fukuhara), Mother's Milk (Laz Alonso) and Frenchie (Tomer Kapon). Billy Butcher has to represent his entire group and Urban is having an obscenity-spewing blast, complete with an exaggerated working-class British accent that's only bad if you apply standards of realism to it. His arrival around the pilot's halfway point, culminating in a well-executed and unique fight scene in its last act, really energizes things.
Quaid gives Hughie some believable meekness and stuttering humor, exactly up to any moment he flashes his wicked grin and you go, "Dude, you're Dennis Quaid's son, stop trying to make us believe everybody is overlooking you." The more conventional casting would have been somebody like Simon Pegg in his early Edgar Wright days, which makes sense since the character in the comic is visually based on Pegg and Pegg even appears here as Hughie's world-weary father.
On the superhero side, I liked Banshee veteran Starr, playing what I'm choosing to interpret as a variation on Armie Hammer's near parody of All-American handsomeness; Crawford, taking on an extreme of CW-friendly cockiness; and McElligott, eagerly breaking from her frequent prim-and-proper period roles.
Moriarty is the pilot's most likable element, and so it's unsettling how much time is spent building up to or around Annie's debasement and how outrageous the pilot wants you to think those moments are. Her centrality is a good way to offset how, if it just focused on Hughie, The Boys would be another of those stories about emasculated men finding their mojo through violence, a commentary on vigilantism that can become gleefully reactionary if you get off on the extremes in a way that I often think Mark Millar (Wanted, Kick-Ass) does. Of course, when they're fully assembled in the comic, the titular organization push the story more in that direction, and the character of Female provides an uncomfortable combination of stereotype and stereotype-bashing that has to be handled nearly perfectly to work.
I'll have to check in again on The Boys after a few more episodes to get a sense of whether or not the encroaching cynicism topples what I find initially promising here.
Cast: Karl Urban, Elisabeth Shue, Erin Moriarty, Antony Starr, Dominique McElligott, Jessie T. Usher, Chace Crawford, Nathan Mitchell, Laz Alonso, Jack Quaid, Karen Fukuhara, Tomer Kapon
Creator: Eric Kripke, from the comic by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson
Premieres: Friday, July 26 (Amazon)