Listeners to our podcast may recall that I had little bit of a grudge against Amazon’s The Boys, since I saw its presence as perhaps one of the reasons why my beloved The Tick was cancelled after its second season. It took, however, no more than about fifteen to twenty minutes of the first episode for me to forget that grudge entirely. Because The Boys has turned out to be that rarest of things: a comic book adaptation that’s leaps and bounds better than its source material.
That’s not to immediately denigrate the source material, mind. Garth Ennis, Darick Robertson and Russ Braun’s Dynamite Comics series has plenty to recommend it – it is, after all, a Garth Ennis comic. So it has good characters, a strong premise, and healthy amounts of anger about the state of the world.
But it’s also driven by Ennis’ hatred for superheroes, and although he knows enough about them to litter the book with deep-dive references (he’s nothing if not a voracious researcher, after all), it’s rarely done with affection. It also means that there’s nothing holding him back from indulging in some of his baser excesses.
Eric Kripke’s TV adaptation, therefore, is in the position of being able to change significant details about the original work without feeling like something lofty is being lost – this isn’t Preacher, where (in this writer’s eyes) the undoubted quality of the show can’t make up for the fact that it’s just not telling the story we wanted to see lifted from the comic. When it comes to The Boys, there’s plenty of stuff that could happily stand to be changed, or even lost entirely.
And there’s an awful lot that gets changed here. Core concepts – Vought, the Seven, the death of Hughie’s girlfriend, his relationship with Annie – remain in place, but barely anything survives without having at least some measure of alteration. The TV series has decided to take the basic premise of superheroes as commercialised pop culture, and run in an entirely different direction. What’s impressive is just how well-defined, thought-through and executed that direction is.
There’s a singular focus to the way the show picks up one particular element of what Ennis was doing with the comic – using superheroes as a lens through which to view the modern world, and scrutinise authority – and bases its entire ethos around it. Coming in the year when a superhero movie has just become the highest-grossing film of all time, using the genre as a filter to comment on such topics as celebrity, sexual harassment scandals, televangelism, public relations, terrorism, online culture and more feels particularly well-timed.
The sharpness of this satire – from season-long plot arcs such as The Deep’s fall from grace, to individual scenes like A-Train’s disastrous Facebook Live hospital stream – wouldn’t succeed half as well if the show wasn’t as generally enthralling and well-made as it is. The look of The Boys is a cut above just about every other superhero TV show out there – there’s clearly an awful lot of money thrown at the screen, and it helps the show in building a robust, thriving world in which to set itself.
There are large numbers of superpowered characters kicking around, and while the constraints of TV do mean that actual instances of power use have to be kept sparing, they never look cheap or awkward – and there are set-pieces, such as one particularly harrowing attempted rescue sequence that’s lifted remarkably well from probably the best single issue of the comic, that are easily up to blockbuster movie standard.
Ennis’ works usually thrive by way of their depth of character, and while The Boys sees fit to make significant changes to some of its characters’ backgrounds and personalities, it’s still a positive attribute that’s held across well. Jack Quaid’s Hughie is endearing in a different way from his Simon Pegg-inspired Scottish comics counterpart, but makes for a likeable core at the centre of the show – particularly when paired with Erin Moriarty as Annie/Starlight.
Annie is one of the adaptation’s greater successes – with far more time being given her backstory and her time with the Seven developed into something far less one-note, she’s a hugely compelling character, and as much a lead of the show as Hughie is. Their developing relationship plays out in a believable and engaging way, too.
It’s harder to get a handle on Karl Urban’s Billy Butcher – it’s only at the very end of the season that we get a true glimpse of the darkest depths he would show himself capable of sinking to in the comic, but for the most part he’s a gruff (if excessively violent) mentor figure for Hughie rather than the ticking time bomb Ennis created.
A bigger surprise is Tomer Capon’s Frenchie. Having been initially put off by just how different he was from his enjoyably deranged comics counterpart, I found myself surprised at just how much I’d warmed to him, and his unusual relationship with the Female (Karen Fukuhara), by the time the season had ended. Meanwhile, Mother’s Milk (Laz Alonso) is closer to the personality of his comics counterpart, albeit without any of his backstory (and the reason for his nickname) having really been explored yet.
It’s over at Vought that the biggest improvements come, however, as the set of largely one-dimensional bastards that Ennis created are given depth and nuance. This Seven are far more believable as publicly-beloved superheroes, no matter how much they might be assholes behind closed doors – and in a crucial difference from the comic, do actually carry out heroism on occasion.
This is most evident with Dominique McElligott’s Queen Maeve, someone who genuinely did once want to do good and is troubled by the way her “superhero” career has developed, retreating into the cynicism and snark of her comics counterpart but retaining depth and steel beneath. She’s a strong enough character and performance to have carried a show on her own, but as it is she provides a valuable anchor to Annie in the Seven’s world.
But the undeniable standout – not just of the Seven, but the show as a whole – is Antony Starr’s Homelander. Pitching almost perfectly between a quintessential Superman and a Chris Evans Captain America, Starr nails the stalwart, smiling public face of Homelander – as well as the bubbling, neurotic anger beneath. Reminiscent of the Twilight Zone episode “It’s A Good Life” (and its memorable Simpsons pastiche), you can see the world around him reacting with fixed smiles, indulging his superheroic pretence while terrified of the sheer power he holds.
Thanks, one suspects, to a significant female presence in the writers’ room, The Boys does much to skewer the heavy masculinity of Ennis’ work. This is particularly manifest in the gender-flipping of two notable characters – one from the titular Boys’ past who shows up late in the season, and the other in the form of Elisabeth Shue’s Madelyn Stillwell. Shue is superb as the ruthless face of the Vought corporation, struggling to keep on top of the myriad problems these superpowered, overgrown children present her; though readers of the comic may slightly yearn for the entertainingly calm infallibility of her original counterpart, James.
The Boys isn’t perfect – with a number of different plot and character threads to juggle, it sometimes struggles to balance them, giving weight to certain elements early in the run before largely forgetting them later. And while it reins in some of Ennis’ worst excesses, there are times when the excessive violence and gore feels overindulgent, rather than necessary to the story. It would also benefit the show if Urban either worked on his East End accent more, or ditched it entirely.
But these are niggles, rather than fundamental problems with the show’s conceit. As it is, and against expectations, The Boys’ first season is one of the strongest superhero TV shows of the modern era. The twists at the end of the run mean that it’s hard to picture exactly what it’ll do next, and whether it’ll retain more than the barest of connections to the comic (though I’m holding out hope that that Black Noir reveal remains intact) – but I’m excited to see what it does next.