By: Emily Anderson
Photo Courtesy of: Amazon Prime Video
The trailer for Amazon’s “The Boys” reels in an audience with an intriguing premise and then sprinkles in enough clips of graphic violence to make that same audience queasy. The first season, which ran eight episodes long, reflects these tactics. The overall plot responds to many contemporary concerns. It delves into the complex relationship between morality, violence, power and public perception while centering around America’s favorite topic: superheroes. This deadly combination draws a crowd and pleases critics—revealed by the show’s 8.8 rating on IMDB. Despite the intrigue, graphic violence and sexual content saturate the entire first season while truly gruesome scenarios drive the plot. These shocking details, meant to provoke thought and parallel the savagery of modern reality, serve to undermine what could be a more subtle and refined commentary on the state of society. Ultimately, these elements prove distracting and attract an audience that engages for the series’ “violent delights” while largely ignoring the broader message.
In “The Boys,” the creators imagine a horrifying world where superheroes exist but they abuse their power and are commodified by brands. In this bleak universe, society worships these “heroes” who use their abilities not to enforce justice, but to satisfy their own lust for power. They kill without questioning and fail to confront the consequences of their actions.
In an interview with Screen Rant, creator Garth Ennis said that he approached typical comic book heroes with “suspicion and disdain.” With his series, Ennis wanted to answer the question: “What would these people really by like?” Such a premise plays off of the fears that many of us have today where a new abuse of power seems to surface every day. The intended parallels to our own political climate come into hyperfocus when a superhero executive blackmails a female protagonist into performing sexual favors in exchange for a place among the top “supes.” Relatable instances like these beg the question: in today’s world of privilege and power dynamics, what would happen if certain individuals were born with special abilities? What would happen if we worshipped them, commodified them and let them do whatever they wanted? How far would we let things go? It is questions like these that make “The Boys” alluring. It hyperbolizes today’s political climate and reframes it against a familiar background while subverting the tropes an audience has come to expect from comic book stories.
But for a show aiming to comment on the mature themes of power and consequences, it certainly focuses heavily on sex and gore instead. The plot ignites when a character with super-speed runs through the protagonist’s girlfriend as she stands in the street. The audience watches her die, shockingly, painfully and gruesomely, which sets the protagonist on a revenge quest. Throughout the show, the creative deaths and sprays of blood continue — the protagonist even plants a bomb inside another character — until only horrific details propel the plot.
When the graphic content becomes so central to the plot and so commonplace within the series, it loses its power and meaning. With scene after scene attempting to shock the audience with its twistedness, the shock-value wears away and something almost comical remains. The gushing wounds, ghastly deaths and twisted orgies come to create the bulk of the series’ entertainment value, attracting an audience who delights in such visuals instead of criticizing the action behind them. And as the protagonists counter violence with more violence, the message decentralizes and the focus shifts toward amusement from stomach-churning scenes like ones involving sexual assault. This progression is a problem that exists in mainstream television where there is already an abundance of explicit content. Though “The Boys” has good intentions, a gradual connection forges between extreme gore and entertaining television which causes the project to ultimately fail at communicating its core message to the audience.
Despite this, reimagining superheroes in this way unlocks a wealth of psychological and societal commentary. Other mainstream studios have actually attempted to tackle these issues as well. Recently, DC’s “Shazam” grapples with some of the same questions. But “Shazam” also incorporates positive messages about family and community. In the film, society treats the protagonist like a celebrity despite his tendency to inconvenience and even harm the people he claims to help. But after receiving criticism, the character evolves and begins to deal with the consequences. Like “The Boys,” “Shazam” seems to scrutinize those with power except key differences set them apart. “Shazam” doesn’t complicate the message. It does not glorify or sexualize twisted morals. It blatantly offers an easily digestible critique of a nuanced character and suggests alternatives to violence.
Ultimately, “The Boys” tells a lot of truth. The show warns about idolizing privilege while also giving commentary on sexism and disillusionment after encountering corrupt leadership. Yet it has no positive messages. While life itself is violent and disturbing, we should produce art that inspires society to change for the better and provide an alternative rather than simply pointing out the wrong. We shouldn’t have to be shown disgusting things in order to appreciate their role in our universe. We should have a little more hope and we should stomach a little less blood.