If they existed in real life, superheroes would almost certainly be awful people: self-absorbed celebrities, unstable vigilantes, and malevolent, unstoppable godlings. This truism hardly seems original from the vantage of 2020, but it wasn’t always so obvious. Exactly when comic books themselves first grappled with the notion is debatable. Dave Sim dropped a delusional lunatic named Captain Cockroach into his long-running Cerebus the Aardvark series way back in 1979. However, the publication of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ epochal limited series Watchman in 1986-87 is typically cited as the watershed event in which superhero comics “grew up” and confronted the social and psychological pathologies lurking within the genre. Although often overlooked, Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill’s Marshal Law, which first hit stands in 1987, is also a crucial early work, depicting a self-loathing sociopath tasked with keeping the peace in post-apocalyptic San Francisco.

A lot has changed since then, and self-aware superheroes are all the rage now. However, it’s one thing to stroll through the fourth wall with a knowing wink at the genre’s sheer absurdity. It’s quite another to contend with how strange and disturbing it would be if superpowered crime fighters were commonplace in the real world. Despite the never-ending glut of superhero media, this question – What would a world with superheroes actually look like? – has been addressed only rarely and glancingly. (For all the film’s failings, the opening of 2016’s Batman v Superman is one of the few scenes in any blockbuster to evocatively convey the terror of being a mere mortal caught in the gods’ crossfire.)

Enter Eric Kripke’s caustic, cynical, ultra-violent superhero series, The Boys, which has just started its second season on Amazon Prime. Based on Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson’s 2006-12 comic series of the same name, Kripke’s show takes a rather ingenious approach to the hypothetical existence of superheroes. What would the world look like if a select few could lift cars, shrug off bullets, or soar through the air? Not all that different from our own world, as it turns out. Leaving behind some of the gleeful, edgelord depravity of its comic source material – while still managing to be outrageously violent and vulgar – The Boys envisions a reality where the essential characteristics of 21st-century society are remarkably resilient in the face of the extraordinary. Everyday crime may be down nationwide thanks to the existence of “supes,” but celebrity obsession, political corruption, and ruthless corporatism still dominate American life. The supes, it turns out, are brands rather than heroes, less concerned with evildoers than with endorsement deals, focus-group results, and the opening-weekend performance of their latest feature film.

The supe industry is a de facto monopoly controlled by Vought International, a mega-corporation that rents its heroes to major municipalities via lucrative crime-fighting contracts. The real money, however, is generated from the media and merchandising that are gleefully gobbled up by voracious consumers: films, shows, books, comics, video games, snack foods, energy drinks, athletic shoes, fragrances, and on and on and on. The viewer’s window into this slick, synergized world is Annie January aka Starlight (Erin Moriarty), a plucky, Des Moines-based supe who has just been selected as the newest member of the world’s premier supergroup, the Seven. Unsurprisingly, Starlight’s guileless dreams of heroism are quickly crushed by the demoralizing realities of the job, as the marketing denizens at Vought insist on stage-managing every iota of her persona – including an itinerary of scheduled crimes for her to stop while company cameras look on.

A more grounded perspective is provided by Hughie Campbell (Jack Quaid), a bland nobody who sells electronics and, like most Americans, grew up idolizing supes. Hughie’s life is blown to smithereens one afternoon when a lightning-fast supe named A-Train (Jessie T. Usher) accidentally runs through his girlfriend, Robin (Jess Salgueiro), at supersonic speed – exploding her in a burst of blood, bone, and brains. This horrific event not only deeply traumatizes Hughie but also fills him with cold anger at the injustice of Robin’s fate. Supes, it turns out, are immune from criminal or civil penalties over crime-fighting mishaps, and A-Train, being one of the Seven, is effectively untouchable. However, Hughie is soon approached by a haughty, fast-talking mercenary named Billy Butcher (Karl Urban), who contends that supe-related collateral damage has gotten out of control. Superheroes, Billy insists, are corrupt, violent psychopaths who think nothing of the normal people they’ve harmed. To that end, Billy convinces Hughie to join the titular Boys, a group of anti-supe vigilantes that includes munitions expert Frenchie (Tomer Capon) and ops manager Mother’s Milk (Laz Alonso).

As one might expect, Billy has his own reasons for loathing supes, as he blames his wife’s disappearance on the Seven’s nigh-omnipotent leader, Homelander (Antony Starr). A egotistical sadist who projects an all-American image to the world, Homelander leads a thoroughly dysfunctional cadre: closeted burnout Queen Maeve (Dominique McElligott); invisible creeper Translucent (Alex Hassell); mute sociopath Black Noir (Nathan Mitchell); and the Deep (Chance Crawford), an abusive, self-loathing aquatic supe who views himself as a “diversity hire.” Unsurprisingly, Starlight’s disillusionment with both her fellow supes and her corporate overlords – such as conniving Vought vice president Madelyn Stillwell (Elisabeth Shue) – sets her on a path that will inevitably intersect with that of the Boys. Hughie, for his part, is leery of Billy’s violent, black-ops tactics and his monomaniacal resolve to bring down Homelander, but the mercenary has a knack for smoothly exploiting Hughie’s own thirst for justice. (It doesn’t hurt that Urban exudes vulgar charisma as a cocksure scoundrel, filling his every scene with world-weary swagger and Guy Ritchie profanities.)

The most immediately compelling aspect of The Boys is its familiar yet grotesque vision of life in a world with superheroes. The series opens with a commonplace scene – adolescent boy arguing passionately about which costumed crime fighter is better – and then adds a triple-twist. Not only are the superheroes in question real, but they blithely murder criminal suspects in grisly fashion – and then pose for selfies with their admiring onlookers. Kripke and the show’s other writers lean into their premise’s gruesome, over-the-top violence, cheekily indulging in all the gore that PG-13 superhero flicks elide in the name of broad demographics. It’s a much more successful expression of the approach previously employed in 2019’s misguided “What if Superman were evil?” horror film Brightburn.

Unquestionably, the show’s worldview is a deeply cynical one, where the official Good Guys are all heartless, self-serving, or outright malevolent – while the actual good guys are gangsters, gun runners, and lawless soldiers of fortune. Hughie and Starlight are the closest thing to genuinely good-hearted characters in the series, and they are swiftly chewed up by the world’s cheap violence and craven phoniness, respectively. The series’ outlook often feels cobbled together from equal parts Christopher Moore, Hunter S. Thompson, and Trey Parker, all served up with a triple helping of gooey Michael Bay sauce. This makes for what might have been a nihilistic, nerve-fraying viewing experience, but against all odds, The Boys proves to be a dense, wide-ranging, and thoroughly engaging story. It handles some truly wild tonal shifts with enviable nimbleness – vaulting breathlessly from hyper-violent action to crass comedy to heist-picture thrills to domestic horror to compelling character drama.

The latter might be the most unexpected dimension to the series’ success. Given its smirking scorn for superheroes and gorehound enthusiasm for decapitations, The Boys is a show that should feel one-dimensional. To be sure, it takes place in an exaggerated action-movie reality full of glowering badasses and quotable one-liners. Yet Kripke and his collaborators are always willing to downshift and let their characters breathe, whether depicting the panicky depths of Hughie’s unresolved survivor’s guilt or the ragged fury that suffuses Billy’s grief. Although the series might be short on unqualified heroes, it treats its numerous antiheroes (and villains) with a surprising amount of depth, even as it tears into them for their flaws. Nowhere is this more apparent than with Homelander, a menacing megalomaniac with some truly perverse proclivities and seemingly no redeeming qualities. Yet by the end of the show’s first season, the character seems as pitiable as he is repugnant, the series conveying his twisted psychology with the sort of clarity that is rarely afforded to movie supervillains.

It’s this sincere fascination with its characters’ anxieties, compulsions, and human failings – especially, perhaps, those of its superhuman characters – that elevates The Boys. The show’s satire can be deliciously acerbic, but it can also feel glib in its sweeping contempt, full of catholic disdain for everything about America in the 21st century. (There’s that touch of South Park …) The show’s humor is perhaps best thought of as the setting rather than the content, an absurdist stage where tales as old as time play out in fresh, outlandish variations: greed, jealousy, vengeance, self-doubt, mortal dread, and a ton of Mommy and Daddy Issues. Though the show’s hefty, Amazon-backed budget ensures that The Boys features plenty of superheroic spectacle – and a lot of pricey needle drops – what lingers are the moments of quiet anguish, terror, and desperation. It’s the authentic gravity of these moments, not the copious blood and f-bombs, that sharply distinguishes The Boys from the glossy, quippy geniality (or grimdark self-seriousness) of most multiplex superhero fare.

Rating: B

Further Viewing: The Toxic Avenger (1984), Darkman (1990), Batman Returns (1992), The Meteor Man (1993), The Tick (1994-96), Mystery Men (1999), Watchmen (2009), Super (2011), The Awesomes (2013-15), Deadpool (2016), Teen Titans Go! to the Movies (2018).

Season 1 of The Boys is now available to stream from Amazon Prime. Episodes 1-3 of Season 2 are also now available, with a new episode premiering every Friday from Sept. 11-Oct. 9.