"White men are nice... until they're not."
I have no idea where the quote above comes from. Perhaps it doesn't come from any particular place at all. It's just a sentence that feels like a quote because it's so damn true.
The Boys is a new series on Amazon Prime based on a graphic novel of the same name. And whether it was intended to be, the show is a full-blown meditation on the modern western male, specifically the white variety. It does this with a powerful contrast between the two leads, Hughie Campbell and Billy Butcher.
Hughie is the typical white millennial male who we can assume is of Irish derivation. He's passive, indecisive, almost willfully unsuccessful, though funny and kind. He knows he is capable of more, but mustering up the courage to ask his perfectly reasonable boss for a well-deserved raise is just too hard. Certainly moving out of his dad's apartment is way out of his league, even though his lovely girlfriend/fiance is encouraging him to do his part to kickstart their life together.
All that changes as he holds his girlfriend's hands... and she explodes into a mist of blood, bone, and gore. It happens so fast that Hughie does not immediately understand what's just happened.
A superhero, capable of fantastic speeds, has just run right through her. The slick, handsome young man offers a weak apology, with the girl's blood still on his face. "Sorry, man. I can't stop." And in a blink, he is gone, leaving Hughie standing there, still holding his girlfriend's hands, the only part of her body that was not reduced to pulp.
In this world, superheroes are fawned over, believed to be chosen by God. They are also protected (owned) by a powerful corporation called Voight, which sends a smarmy lawyer to Hughie's house to pay him off. A settlement, they call it.
When he's offered the money, being told this is generous since Robin wasn't his wife, he imagines himself reaching across the table and smashing this smug bastard's face into the table. But what he actually says is: "Let me think about it." He makes noise about turning down the money, but even his loving father says what is true: "You never had any fight in you."
But then, while he is doing his bullshit job, in walks Billy Butcher, the absolute antithesis of Hughie. Billy is bearded, swaggering, and British. Not the "afternoon tea" type of British. The Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels type of British. In truth, actor Karl Urban doesn't quite manage to banish his native New Zealand accent in his portrayal of Billy, but that just makes his performance even more rugged.
I say the show is aptly named because The Boys is full-octane testosterone, like the Schwarzenegger movies of old. Shirtless men standing in front of tables full of guns, a cigarette hanging from the lip and swirls of body hair exactly where they should be. No waxing, smoothie-drinking nu-males here. The contrast between Billy, Frenchie, and Mother's Milk (MM) with Hughie is stark... but not mean spirited. It is worth noting that MM is the only man of color on the team and also the only well-adjusted one. Veteran, husband, father, inspirer of wayward youth... Hughie can see right away that MM is a good man, one to be trusted. He can also see that Billy, despite his swagger, is not.
Drawn into the world of hunting superheroes (supes, as they are called) as revenge for his dead girlfriend, it doesn't take Hughie long to notice something off with Billy. His recklessness. His utter glee when Hughie, against all odds, kills his first Supe. It wasn't the man who killed Robin, so why is Billy so elated? What drives him to do this?
We find out soon enough and it's a similar revenge story to Hughie, but much darker and not at all tempered by the sweetness in Hughie's soul. The Supes are horrendous people (mostly), but is Billy any different?
The Boys is a masterful study in men: What motivates them, what bonds them together... and what they fear. Hughie discovers who he is by actually standing up and saying no more. No, I am not okay with a whole class of people being allowed to kill innocents without consequence. I am not okay with being lied to and my government accepting bribes at the expense of their own people. I am not okay. And I, as a man, will do something.
Dr. Jordan Peterson, in giving advice to aimless young men, says to pick up the heaviest thing you can and carry it as far as you can. Life without a purpose can only lead to tragedy. And for Hughie, this advice works. It focuses his drive and his good character sees him through. Billy... not so much. You see, he didn't pick up the weight on his shoulders. It was dropped on him. And he has allowed his mission to become all-consuming, ignoring every signpost along the way that he is on the wrong path.
Billy is what happens when we let a narrative, an ideology, drive our actions, instead of seeing what is actually there. The angry white man who only listens to the stories in his own head instead of hearing what the people around him are saying. He certainly doesn't listen to Hughie.
The last scene of Season 1 is the most targeted kick in the balls I have ever seen. The fear and insecurity that plagues men (ALL men) and drives them to do some of the worst things to the people they claim to love is used as a weapon against Billy, showing him in one devastating scene how wrong he was about absolutely everything.
As a longtime comicbook fan, I loved this show. Loved how they turned the tropes we know on their head. As much as I love the X-Men, I think as we become adults we understand that people with so much power over others rarely use it in magnanimous fashion. The Boys may not be the heroes we wanted. But they are the heroes we deserve.
Watch The Boys on Amazon Prime Video