Saturday, August 10, 2019

Super Satire Watch: The Boys (Amazon Prime)

I haven't actually read Garth Ennis's The Boys series.  I read the first trade and always intended to follow up to see where it went from the set-up, but never quite got there.  I'll make up for it now, but it's gonna take some purchasing power, I guess.

Flat out, Garth Ennis is one the three or four best writers in comics, and, on some days, I think he's just "the best".  Some of us stumbled upon him due to his bizarre ability to make gore and violence absolutely hilarious (in the right context) but stayed for the amazing characterization, astounding turns to genuine sympathy for unsympathetic characters, and his ability to grasp humanity and the tragedy and comedy of his characters enough that they feel can feel three-dimensional.  All while existing in profane, graphically violent, sexually frank or ridiculous situations that seems like it would send many-a-comics-twitterer running for some pearls to clutch.

In much of Ennis' work (including, occasionally, his war comics) the name of the game is "satire".  Mostly he punches up, but he's an equal-opportunity puncher, and if he finds something tickles him, it'll end up in one of his books - but I think I can offer up that I think whatever he might be poking at, he also does so with some thought behind it.  He can be profane, blasphemous, gory, or just plain old unsettling (just the entire character of Arseface in the Preacher comics was mind-bending, much more so than the TV show). 

But he can also be sincere, as evidenced in books like his "Night Witches" runs (about the Soviet female air force pilots of WWII), or "Dear Billy", one of the most heart breaking comics I've ever read.  And, if you ask many-a-Superman fan, they'll tell you that the 2-3 times (depending on how you count it) that Ennis took on Big Blue, he may written one of the most spot-on takes on The Man of Steel in decades.

There's a genuine morality underpinning Ennis's work, but it's easy to get lost in the details or miss what he's pushing at if you can't see that when he's not being blunt about the horrors of the world (and, often, war), he's heightening the absurdity of an already absurd situation.  He has his sacred cows, but they aren't built on politics or religion.  And that there's good people walking through this absurd world of ours, doing their best, but they are deeply flawed in ways that seem real, not the "flaws" of many a movie or TV character.

Weirdly, people really don't *talk* about Ennis the way they talk about and dissect Morrison, nor is there the molten fannishness that Gaiman draws.  I think theses days it's mostly us aging comics guys who give a knowing nod and smile when his name is brought up, but maybe the TV shows changed all that.  It's just been in recent years that his work has seen adaptation with AMC's Preacher TV series, based loosely on the comics of the same name (but which I gave up on as it strayed from the source material).  And, even then, I'm not sure how much the general public was aware of Ennis as a force.

I was a tad surprised by Amazon Prime deciding to adapt The Boys, Ennis' long-running superhero satire, simply because a lot of kids might accidentally give the show a go as a "superhero show" and wind up seeing some stuff their parents would really rather they didn't - Like disembowelments, people exploding and sexual assault.  Yeah, comics get weird when you start to actually apply what happens every day in the real world to a world of capes and spandex.*

Much like the comic, the TV show deals in behind-the-scenes of a Justice League stand in which, believably, is really the face of a corporation profiting from the likenesses of its heroes as well as deploying them to certain cities for a fee.  Our supers are not the upstanding citizens of the DC and Marvel universes - they're ordinary people (for the most part) with extraordinary abilities that truly set them apart in all the best and worst ways.  While the scope and scale is different for each, their status sets them as something different from the people who buy their merchandise and who fawn over them.  Their powers and power over people (and each other), paired with the powers of a massive corporation grants them an awesome celebrity status, as if the Avengers of the films were real people we might glimpse.

Our POV character/ protagonist is a young everyman (actor Jack Quaid, son of Dennis and Meg Ryan.  I am old as @#$%.  I remember when this kid was born.) who sees his girlfriend turned into a puddle in front of him when a superhero, the resident Speedster, misjudges a step.  Checks are offered and the cover-up by Vought corporation kicks in in full gear.

From here, he's inducted into a group of fellows (the eponymous 'Boys') who are trying to expose/ take down the invincible, untouchable gods.  Using Hughie's tragedy as a fulcrum, Billy Butcher (Karl Urban) re-enlists his gun-dealing colleague, Frenchie, and Mother's Milk, a good man doing bad things for good reasons.

Billy has a mad-on for "the Supers" and wants them all dead.  And it seems he's willing to take anyone along for the ride that he can, so long as they're useful.

Meanwhile, a young Super, Starlight/ Annie (Erin Moriarty), goes from Midwestern obscurity to filling a role on The Seven (our clear nod to the Justice League), a life she's worked toward since toddler-hood.  Only to experience sexual harassment/ assault from our Aquaman stand-in, The Deep.  In a single moment, everything that Starlight imagined about her new life of heroism and fame explodes in her face.

There is a super-hero-ish sort of plot that winds through The Boys.  It's pretty good as these things go, but I won't spoil it any further than the initial set-up.

The players in The Seven are given, honestly, surprising and human arcs.   Queen Maeve has forgotten why she's here and is just going through the motions to keep out the horror of what she's involved in.  Despite his hero status, The Deep is a born loser who can't do any of the work he wants to do - after all, he doesn't just talk to fish, he gets along with them.  And, of course, The Homelander - our "bad Superman" take.

I've seen a lot of "bad Superman"'s trotted out, and some are better than others.  One dimensional, most of the time, based more on the impressions of Big Blue more than with any real character.  Homelander may share some of Superman's powers, but Antony Starr found a fascinating character in there - especially since so little of what he does is actually Super action - it's a lot more walking around in a super-suit all the time having conversations with his colleagues or the public.  And he knows how to put on that just-right face for the crowds.

He plays a lot of scenes against his handler and the overall manager for The Seven, played by Elisabeth Shue.  I am choosing not to throw a brick at Hollywood for its gross negligence in not casting Shue everywhere in everything after Leaving Las Vegas, but she has to do a lot here, stuff that isn't on the page.  And she has to both play it so the characters on the screen don't quite get what she's up to, but we do.  Seeing her in triumph and defeat, you get the same broad smile, with a fraction of a fraction of change.

I'm not clear on what is and is not in the comics (yet), but there's a world of stuff going on in The Boys that seems to play one way and moved to another.  A decade ago, what the show was saying about women in the world of angry men might have been somewhat ignored - plot points.  But in 2019, we know it's deliberate, and so it's worth paying extra attention to what occurs with both Shue's character and with Starlight over the course of the show (and how the other women interact with them).

"Fridging" refers to a particularly gruesome and unnecessary motivator for a new Green Lantern in a 90's DC comic (his dead girlfriend was shoved in a fridge), and the show both embraces the idea while also giving it a new spin.  I've no doubt some of twitter will dismiss the show due to the "vengeance" or "self-made justice" angle - but I'd argue watching how this notion is dealt with in-show is, at minimum, novel.

I saw some reviews that correctly labeled The Boys as satire, and one that said "it's too bad it has nothing to say" - but the one that was throwing around "satire" seemed fixated on how the show reflected on superhero comics and movies.  Maybe on how we come on bended knee to these movies (a critique I'm not necessarily on board with and don't think it's quite as simple as a sniffy TV reviewer might want to make it for argument's sake).  From what little I've read to date, the comics of The Boys fixated a bit more on superheroes and superheroing and "wouldn't it be crazy if behind closed doors the Justice League were all perverts and did drugs?" - and the show has that!  But that's not the satire.  That's the absurdism Ennis always uses to get you in the door.

I'll argue that the satire of the Amazon show of The Boys, much as in Preacher and Hitman, is a heightened reality to give everything a chance at examination.  The show is less concerned with superheroes, per se, than how Americans wrap up our IRL idols and icons into bright shiny packages that really don't *do anything* - our preoccupation with fame for fame's sake and celebrity based on photo ops.  That we let that mix with politics, religion, our notions of patriotism, our belief that those people who do the things we like *must* be good people all intermingle.  It's taking swipes at the military-industrial complex and how we wind up in conflicts and the eternal escalation of arms.  And how our parents delight in the notion of "specialness" and lose themselves in the vicarious lives they can lead as a second chance through their kids (or feeding them pizza rolls while they watch Remington Steele).

And, of course, a few other things.  In short, if your takeaway is "this show had nothing to say", I'd recommend handing in your TV critics card or go back to covering CW soaps.  I mean, for @#$%'s sake.

But it also does have at least glimpses of Ennis' trademark whiplash moves to sincerity and genuine character moments.  Hughie is grieving, Annie is dealing with having her whole world shift, and they share scenes that are surprisingly moving for all the nonsense around them.  And it's not just them.

I won't say the show is perfect.  Both Frenchie and Mother's Milk are given short shrift in the "motivation" department, let alone in the "now who are these guys?" department - which seemed like an odd oversight when it's something that could have gotten at least a hand-wavy answer or two to get picked up on later if there's time.  It also went deep on story (which is semi-understandable) in the final two or three episodes, and it felt like some of the world they'd built was now taken for granted in comparison to earlier in the season.  And whether the next season will continue on this trend or return to form, I can't say.  I didn't feel like AMC's Preacher was able to maintain itself across a full season, and I bailed on the show in Season 2.

Anyhoo... it's nuts to see this kind of stuff make it to TV and in context.  When movies like Mystery Men used to hit, I'd sort of grit my teeth, because there wasn't really enough superhero stuff out there in theaters or on TV for counter-programming within the genre.  It might retain some ideas from the comics, but always really seemed to be selling back the idea that "superheroes sure are silly, aren't they?" that pervaded until 2000-02 or so.

But in the superhero saturated late 2010's, when even I can't keep up with 80% of what's on TV and what's at the movies (and I literally have nothing better to do), we can use superheroes to tell stories that aren't just about the superheroes themselves.  If we're at the same point now with superheroes that Westerns once occupied, we know there are an infinite number of stories that can be told that can comment upon and reflect our world and have something to say - just as scifi and fantasy and name-your-genre have always done.  The Boys isn't going to be everyone's cup of tea, but it can also help raise the stakes and game, even when we know DC and Marvel can only sort-of touch these kinds of things as deeply protected IP.

*I, myself, struggle with this, but it has a lot more to do with which characters, which context, etc...

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