David Weil, creator of Amazon’s Nazi-hunting thriller Hunters, says the show came out of his own family history: he contextualized the stories his Holocaust survivor grandmother told through the lens of comic book morality. The idea of World War II as a battle between grand heroes and villains is clearly expressed in Hunters — available to stream on Feb. 21 — when teenage Jewish comic-book nerd Jonah Heidelbaum (Logan Lerman of The Perks of Being a Wallflower and the Percy Jackson films) compares the Nazi-hunters he’s working with to Batman, Spider-Man and the Punisher.
But the show has more in common with a different comic book series: Garth Ennis’ The Boys, which was adapted as an Amazon series last year. Both are built around ensembles rather than individual heroes, with dweeby newcomers as audience stand-ins. The Boys’ Hughie Campbell is motivated by a classic case of fridging, vowing to take vengeance on superheroes after one of the world’s most famous and powerful heroes accidentally kills his girlfriend. But by creating a wholly original work rather than adapting a nearly 15-year-old comic, Weil freed himself up to borrow tone and tropes as he sees fit, dropping and inverting some of the genre’s worst elements.
Jonah’s defining tragedy is more akin to Peter Parker’s. He’s avenging his grandmother after she’s killed in what the police are quick to assume is a robbery gone wrong. But Ruth Heidelbaum (played by Jeannie Berlin in the present of 1977, and Annie Hagg in flashbacks set during the Holocaust) isn’t a victim, she’s a soldier, a Holocaust survivor who helped found an elite squad of Nazi-hunters, and is killed in the first episode by one of her targets.
Ruth wanted to keep Jonah innocent, but when he gets in trouble investigating her murder, he’s initiated into the cause by Ruth’s partner in vengeance and fellow Auschwitz survivor, Meyer Offerman (Al Pacino). Jonah refers to Meyer as Professor X, but he’s more like the group’s version of The Boys’ Billy Butcher, a charismatic leader filled with a deep anger that occasionally wells up in ways that threaten the mission and his team. Pacino does an excellent job with as Meyer, projecting a gentle grandfather exterior as he lectures on chess or the Jewish law dictated by the Talmud, before demonstrating the fearsome menace that’s given him a long career of playing mob bosses. As with Billy, the team wouldn’t work without Meyer, but it’s also unclear whether anyone should trust him to make decisions about who deserves to die.
Also in the vein of The Boys, the Hunters team includes an intimidating crew of characters with personal motivations for the collective hunt. The supporting cast is introduced in Hunters’ second episode, “The Mourner’s Kaddish,” with a bizarre sequence that combines a bat mitzvah candle-lighting ceremony with a comic-book splash page. Those characters get precious little development over the first half of the 10-episode season, though a few standout moments hint at their potential.
Josh Radnor played the classic sitcom protagonist as Ted Mosby, the least entertaining character on How I Met Your Mother. But he shines in Hunters as Lonny Flash, a recovering addict and has-been actor who uses his performance skills with all the subtlety of Gary the Actor in Team America: World Police. The gadgeteer weapons experts Murray (Saul Rubinek of Warehouse 13) and Mindy Markowitz (Carol Kane) have the same dynamic of Agents of SHIELD’s Fitz and Simmons, except they actually are an old married couple. Unfortunately, the MI-6 connected nun Sister Harriet (Kate Mulvany) just comes off as selfish and shady, and Roxy Jones (Tiffany Boone) and Joe Mizushima (Louis Ozawa) aren’t characters so much as stand-ins for the Black Power movement and Vietnam War veterans that can’t readjust to civilian life, respectively. Hunters devotes multiple flashbacks to Ruth and Meyer’s shared history, and the rest of the team could use similar treatment.
The show largely follows a Nazi-of-the-week format, using flashbacks to showcase each one’s crimes. The writers make it clear that the heroes aren’t pursuing mere soldiers who were following orders; they’re after sadists and profiteers. Weil avoids the pitfalls of exploitation by again cleverly giving agency back to the victims. The Nazi atrocities are often paired with small, stirring acts of resistance, like a group of musicians being forced to play the works of the anti-semitic German composer Wilhelm Wagner, then bursting into a rendition of “Hava Nagila,” a folk song played at Jewish celebrations. These moments of defiance almost always end in tragedy, but they provide a throughline for a show about underdogs taking on powerful, evil people at great personal risk.
The vigilantes in The Boys risk the wrath of superheroes and the powerful corporation that they work for. While the Hunters are largely pursuing old men and women who were active during the war, many of them are still capable of striking back violently. But the real risk comes from their connections, as the former Nazis have acquired significant wealth and indifference within the United States. Meyer and Ruth first attempted to work within the law, and only became vigilantes after meeting resistance and indifference. There are obvious parallels to the current political climate in plotlines like a disciple of the Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels serving as a political strategist advocating “America First” policies, or a community of Nazis cozily ensconced in Alabama, where they proudly fly the Confederate flag.
In true comic book form, Hunters also delivers some worthy supervillains. The neo-Nazi enforcer Travis Leich (Greg Austin) is chilling, whether he’s monologuing about eugenics or bursting into brutal violence. His hands-on approach allows the mastermind known only as the Colonel (Lena Olin of Alias) to keep her aloof detachment as she weaves a conspiracy involving secret radio messages and blackmailing politicians so they’ll fall in line with her schemes.
But the real star in the rogues’ gallery is under secretary of state Biff Simpson, played by Dylan Baker with the same oily charm that he brought to the wife-killer Colin Sweeney in The Good Wife. Like The Boys’ primary villain, Homelander, Biff has a hokey, all-American exterior that conceals a horrifying capacity for violence, powerful ambitions, and an absolute lack of moral compass. He has no direct interaction with the heroes in the first half of the season, but the coming confrontation is likely to be thrilling.
Hunters also gains strength by including a classic comics trope not found in The Boys: the good cop. The writers have set up a three-way conflict between the Nazi hunters, the Nazis, and FBI agent Millie Morris (Jerrika Hinton). Tough, smart, and sharp-eyed, Millie pushes Jonah to question his methods and work with her to fight evil the lawful way. But as a gay black woman, Millie is often ignored by her superiors, especially when she’s bringing accusations against people with significantly more clout. It’s a strong conflict, the type that eventually led the likes of James Gordon or Misty Knight to acknowledge that some crimes can’t be solved by people who wear badges.
One of the central questions at the heart of many revenge stories and superhero adventures is whether the hero is doomed to become as bad as the villains they fight. Both The Boys and Hunters try to mitigate that risk by giving their protagonists strong moral compasses. Jonah’s best friend sings Robin’s praises, calling him “the most needed superhero of all time” for his role of keeping Batman from falling too far into darkness — a nod to Jonah’s role doing the same for Meyer. But the biggest argument for the justness of the good guys in Hunters is that they aren’t facing off against mentally ill or morally compromised people in costumes. They’re fighting Nazis, and everyone should agree that’s the right thing to do.
Season 1 of Hunters is now on Amazon Prime Video.