“The Boys” is a Sharp Superhero Satire

The words “satire” and “parody” are often used interchangeably these days, but they shouldn’t be. A satire offers humorous commentary on the world using a popular or familiar creative work as its vehicle. A parody, however, lampoons the creative work itself, with social or cultural commentary rarely a focal point of humor. Put simply, a satire is a critique that features comedy; a parody is a comedy with specific critique. (This being October, it may be apt to draw examples from horror films: Scream = satire, Scary Movie = parody.)

Another way to look at it is that parody tends to work on one level (comedy directly spoofing the work it targets), while satire can work on two or more (deconstructing a familiar genre, while also being a compelling work of said genre). Think along the lines of Galaxy Quest or Shaun of the Dead – these films are enjoyable whether you’re a fan of zombies/space aliens or think they’ve oversaturated the market.

This brand of satire extends to TV with shows like The OC (soap operas) and Jane the Virgin (telenovelas). And now it’s come to the world of superheroes, through Amazon Prime’s TV series, The Boys.

Created by Eric Kripke, based on the acclaimed comic book series by Garth Ennis, The Boys is a superhero show set in a much darker world than that of the Avengers. Here, the planet is protected by the Seven, a team of superpowered individuals with clear Justice League parallels. The leader, Homelander (Anthony Starr), shares many of his powers with Superman, and other members take clear cues from the team as well – including Queen Maeve (Dominique McElligott), a Wonder Woman-style warrior and A-Train (Jessie T. Usher), a Flash archetype.

But the similarities are merely surface-level. The members of the Seven present as heroic, but they’re hardly fine role models – the first episode sees one of them accidentally killing a bystander, while another sexually assaults his teammate. Moreover, their heroic sheen is largely the product of Vought International, a powerful corporation than test-markets their appeal and exploits them for profit, effectively selling them to a world that eagerly consumes everything they do and say.

In fact, the real heroes of the show (though I still use that term loosely) are the titular Boys, a group of renegade outlaws with an axe to grind against the high-and-mighty supes. Led by the rough-and-tumble Billy Butcher (Karl Urban), the team has their work cut out for them in trying to take down the very heroes the world loves – especially when the lead “hero” can just as soon vaporize an opponent as look at him. And the Boys quickly develop rifts of their own – most notably between Butcher and the reluctant Hughie Campbell (Jack Quaid), a civilian whose thirst for revenge against one member of the Seven soon spirals beyond his control.

By my description, it may sound like The Boys is another entry into the grimdark genre, already a heavy factor of onscreen superhero tales – think the Zack Snyder films or Titans or the Netflix wing of the MCU. But therein lies the catch – for all its dark and gritty characterizations, The Boys is actually one of TV’s most ingenious comedies.

As with the best of genre fiction, the series lures you in with its superpowered premise, but then uses that as a launching pad to explore an abundance of themes – corporate America, media malpractice, religious faith, #MeToo, the digital world, racism, immigration, and celebrity politics. Pulling back the curtains on so-called “American icons,” The Boys underscores how easy it is for society to have their perspectives manipulated, based on what’s popular, what’s exciting, and what we simply want to believe. And by filtering all this commentary through a superhero lens, the show delivers all these messages with tongue firmly adhered to its cheek.

And it does this all while juggling a wide variety of compelling characters, both among the Boys and the Seven. No one is a true “good guy” – even bright-eyed superheroine Starlight (Erin Moriarty) soon develops a dark streak. But the show carefully balances these characters, developing their friendships and bitter vendettas in surprising and suspenseful ways, never letting them be defined by the social or political commentary around them.

It is also, simply put, one of the most certifiably insane TV shows currently on the air, taking character and story risks that most shows would shy away from. Ennis is well-known for the graphic level of violence in his comics – his other work includes R-rated runs on The Punisher and Preacher – and Kripke and co. have (for better and worse, depending on your perspective) done a remarkable job of translating that level of bloody mayhem to the screen. This show is one of the most violent in TV history, but the gore almost never feels gratuitous – it’s perfectly in tune with a show that lampoons the world of commercialism and features the saddest dolphin death in TV history. (To say anything about Patton Oswalt’s voice role in one Season Two episode would be saying too much – although it’s certainly a contender for the most outrageous performance of the actor’s career.)

“Subtlety” is not a word in The Boys‘ vocabulary, either in themes or in tone, but the show commits to its craziness so fully that there’s little incentive to carp. In taking a popular genre and flipping it on its ear, the show proves to be a thoroughly entertaining version of said genre, more complex and engrossing than most other superhero shows on the air.

There are certainly flaws with the series, issues that becoming more apparent in binge-watching. The constant defaults to TV reporters for exposition can feel staid after a while, and a number of plot contrivances (particularly in trying to keep certain storylines from upending the show) can distract in their blatancy. And as with many cable/streaming dramas, episodes tend to exceed their necessary time limit – notably in Season Two, when most clock in at 60 minutes or more.

The Boys is certainly not for the squeamish – a key reason to why I initially avoided it. But beneath the grunge and gore, this is one of TV’s most purely entertaining shows, a clever satire of a fictional world that shares a few too many uncomfortable parallels with our own. Whether you’re a fan of superheroes or are just plain sick of them, chances are this show will have something to connecting with. And that’s about as high a bar as a comic-book adaptation can clear.

The first two seasons of The Boys are currently streaming on Amazon Prime. A third season is in development.

One thought on ““The Boys” is a Sharp Superhero Satire”

  1. MILD SPOILERS

    I think this is a really good review, and I especially like this sentence in discussing the themes:
    ” Pulling back the curtains on so-called “American icons,” The Boys underscores how easy it is for society to have their perspectives manipulated, based on what’s popular, what’s exciting, and what we simply want to believe. And by filtering all this commentary through a superhero lens, the show delivers all these messages with tongue firmly adhered to its cheek.”

    I think my lack of enthusiasm for the show comes down to that a show satirizing these issues is nothing knew, I feel like approximately 80% of the movies and shows about Hollywood have this sort of message. It’s a bit more unique to do this in a superhero show I will fully acknowledge, and there’s a bit of a have your cake and eat it too aspect of getting to be the deep Hollywood/fame machine satire while also having the thrills and action of the superhero genre.

    I am interested in hearing more about the tongue in cheek tone you found with the show. I definitely get that at times, both with the entire storyline of The Deep and his cult and the “Kingsman”-like use of violence and gore. But I think the main plots and themes of the story it does treat with seriousness – Hugh/Starlight, Butcher, and Homelander. Not to the point of being dour or humorless, but personally I don’t really find anything satirical about the main thrusts of the show. It tends to reserve that for its side plots and amping up the utter ridiculousness of the situations they find themselves.

    Like

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