(This piece contains mild-ish spoilers for Amazon Prime series ‘The Boys’. You have been warned!)
Amazon’s new series The Boys imagines an America where superheroes walk among humans, and capitalism has turned them into money-making machines with a much bigger reach than even Kevin Feige’s MCU has in our universe.
After his girlfriend Robin (Jess Salgueiro) is obliterated by one of the ‘supes’ in a shockingly graphic scene that instantly sets the tone for the series, Hughie (Jack Quaid) wants justice, and he wants revenge. He teams up with mysterious maverick Billy Butcher (a laughably accented Karl Urban) and his crew to get it, and they begin to attempt to expose all that is wrong with these commercialised caped crusaders.
The Boys isn’t what you expect it to be. We rarely get to see the supes’ powers in action, and it’s more about the relationship between them and the public, their fans, each other, and Vought, the corporate hand that feeds them. This is a world where superheroes are the new movie stars, politicians and cult leaders combined. They have film franchises, brand deals and public speaking gigs, all whilst appearing on the news every time they catch a criminal or save an innocent - most instances of which were likely set up by their marketing team.
By focusing more on how the sausage gets made than seeing it fight the bad guys, The Boys is a complex but wildly entertaining look at how even in a world of superheroes, women always come off worse - and how the most seemingly heroic people can actually be the most awful, when you look at them up close.
Sexual power - and more importantly, the abuse of that power - is on everyone’s mind at the moment, and The Boys doesn’t shy away from that. In the very first episode we see new Vought recruit Starlight (Erin Moriarty) become the victim of indecent exposure before being manipulated into committing sexual acts by The Deep (Chace Crawford) - someone no more powerful than she is, but who just managed to convince her that he was. The acts aren’t shown on screen (thankfully), just the conversation that led to them. The scene is written in a way that shows what happens as clearly wrong, but embraces all the shades of gray that are so often misunderstood in this kind of story.
Crawford plays The Deep excellently as the specific kind of arsehole whose ego is way outsized compared to his talent; a genuine idiot who likes to tell himself he’s the hero but ruins everything he touches. Watching him be emasculated by the other supes as well as the company that manages him is a kind of satisfying punishment, but it’s in the seventh episode that the tables turn on Deep, and what goes around really does come back around. Still painful to watch, it feels like a unique experience to see a woman taking advantage of a man’s vulnerabilities - especially when that man is a superhero.
Elsewhere, Translucent (Alex Hassell), aka. the invisible man of the group, has a penchant for using his powers to lurk in the womens’ bathroom - naked, of course, so as to become completely invisible effectively. It’s highly disturbing, but almost played for laughs. And Homelander (Antony Starr), the Captain America-alike (if Cap was a psycho, that is), seems to take joy in wielding his physical power over fellow supe and ex-girlfriend Queen Maeve (Dominique McElligott) in public. Even nice-guy-gone-rogue Hughie, who acts as the audience’s eyes in this fucked up system of superheroes, takes advantage of Starlight as they become closer, getting intimate with her despite knowing she would never consent to it if she knew the truth about his original intentions to charm information out of her about Vought.
When we do get to see female characters take sexual control, it doesn’t end well. One character literally pulverizes a man’s head as she climaxes from oral pleasure, and big boss at Vought, Madelyn Stillwell (played by Elisabeth Shue), uses Homelander’s Oedipal complex to maintain a hold over him - though we can never quite tell whether she does so out of genuine attraction or fear.
It’s not just sexual power that the women struggle to claim in this suped-up world; time and time again, agency over their own narrative is usurped from them by the script. At best, there’s only four key female characters to begin with - Starlight, Queen Maeve, Stillwell, and The Female, despite her getting pretty much no dialogue - compared to at least seven male ones, and we rarely see any of them take action that they aren’t forced into by those around them.
The first victim in this is Robin, Hughie’s girlfriend who is blown to pieces when Quicksilver-esque A-Train runs through her at superspeed. An example of the ‘fridging’ trope we see time and time again on screen (aka. where a female character dies or is victimised so as to fuel a man’s emotions and character development), Hughie was just a nerdy, beta male, superhero fan before Robin’s death, and ends up as something else entirely after it. Her obliteration is the whole reason for the show to exist, and for Hughie’s emancipation from his stale, beige life. It would have made no difference whatsoever story-wise for the genders to be swapped here, but I guess the title ‘The Boys & One Girl’ is a lot less catchy.
The Female (Karen Fukuhara), one of the most brutally powerful supes in this story - and the most drastically underused - is kept prisoner by men, freed by the titular boys and, despite having more than enough strength to overpower them and go free, ends up as nothing more than a damsel in distress. It’s immensely frustrating to see a woman be captured and saved by men that she could literally rip limb from limb, and in a show so open in its depiction of male power, it would have been nice for them to give us at least one instance where the roles are reversed.
Starlight gets the closest to driving the story forward, going against what’s expected of her on multiple occasions, and is given the rounded character development she deserves. And, it’s clear that Madelyn Stillwell is pulling a hell of a lot of strings, though it’s also obvious how easily it could all be taken away from her if Homelander is let off his leash.
The Boys is a grown-up, graphic and gratuitous eight hours of television that will have you wincing, wondering what the hell has happened to Karl Urban’s voice, and ultimately, keep you watching. It’s not afraid to show you the ugly side of success and sexism up close, and does so knowingly - but at the end of the day, it’s still showing it. Choosing to tell a story on screen about an issue like sexual abuse in the workplace will always be a tightrope walk between exposing it, and perpetuating it by virtue of that exposition. How to walk that walk remains a mystery, but I think The Boys just about makes it to the other side.
Watch The Boys on Amazon Prime here.