WARNING: This article contains minor spoilers. All eight-episodes of the first season of Amazon Prime’s The Boys were watched for review.
Faithfully adapting a long-running comic book series to television has, time and time again, proven to be something of a Herculean task. One of the biggest hiccups shows like The Walking Dead or Preacher suffer from is finding a proper narrative pace. Do we need to spend an entire twelve-episode season in a location the comics meandered around in for a mere issue or two? Probably not. However, if a show is stuck in a single story arc or location from its source material, it can be forgiven by taking that time to build the world and develop ancillary characters. Narratively speaking, Amazon Prime’s adaptation of the Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson’s superhero satire The Boys takes its time but never wastes it.
The Boys follows a lot of similar trajectory as the first six or so issues of the comic book series upon which the television show is based, taking detours and cherry-picking plot threads in later issues along the way. We are introduced to Hughie Campbell (Jack Quaid), a young man living in a world where not only do superheroes exist, but they are commoditized by massive corporations and are woven into the very fabric of American culture. Hughie’s life is suddenly changed forever when A-Train (Jessie Usher), a member of the most elite group of heroes in America, The Seven, accidently kills Hughie’s girlfriend, Robin (Jess Salgueiro).
The tragedy causes Hughie to second-guess the world around him and eventually finds a mysterious man known as Billy Butcher (Karl Urban), who acts as something of a private contractor for various government and private organizations, doing dirty work for people who need to keep their hands clean. Butcher, along with Frenchie (Tomer Kapon) and Mother’s Milk (Laz Alonso), have a knack for taking out Supes, and they enlist Hughie to join them on their quest to uncover a larger conspiracy surrounding The Seven and the company funding them.
Much like the source material, The Boys is a nasty piece of superhero fiction. The vast majority of the characters populating the screen are, at worst, sadists and, at best, complicated, broken people. And while the actual depravity on screen in nowhere near as shocking as it in the comics, there’s enough taboos and graphic violence to turn even the most jaded viewer’s head. A lot of the blood, sex, and intrigue are played for comedic effect to varying degrees of success (there’s plenty of kink-shaming and toxic masculinity in The Boys that could easily be misread). However, when The Boys portrays horrendous acts of violence with emotional weight, it’s extremely affective and sobering, especially when they involve Hughie and the newest member of The Seven, Starlight (Erin Moriarty).
The relationship between Starlight and Hughie is sweet and feels like a beacon of hope in a series filled with so many terrible realities. Both Quaid and Moriarty are doing fantastic work and have stellar onscreen chemistry. These are two young, idealistic people who have invested so much of themselves into false narratives. When the reality of how awful their idols really are into view, they both rebel against it in different ways. Starlight focuses on the gender politics and social appearance of The Seven from within.
There is a wonderful scene early in the seasons in which she confronts a member of The Seven, an Aquaman-analog known as The Deep (Chace Crawford) over an act of sexual predation. It’s an empowering moment that’s undercut by the understanding of just how bad Starlight’s situation truly is. There’s no running away from what she’s gotten into, but she refuses to let go of her ideals and will not give in to moral ambiguity… at least, not yet. There’s a sense of hopelessness in Starlight’s story arc, which is ironic given her powers (it’s basically in her name).
Conversely, after deciding he’s on board with Butcher’s quest to take down The Seven and expose all their dirty laundry, Hughie trashes his own bedroom, which is adorned with posters, action figures, and comic featuring the likenesses of A-Train and his teammates. It speaks volumes to the current state of fandom. If you’ve ever claimed a superhero movie ruined your childhood because it wasn’t what you wanted, watching Hughie literally have his entire life turned upside down by the real thing puts things in perspective.
The rest of the cast is also stellar. Karl Urban as Butcher is raw, energetic and captivating. Elizabeth Shue as Madelyn Stillwell, a manipulative corporate shill, is a wonderful turn for an amazing actress who should have a much larger career. And Antony Starr as The Homelander might be the most chilling new onscreen protagonist to debut this year. He’s so diabolical, it’s impressive. Even when the series dives into Homelander’s abusive past, it never grants him immunity for his transgressions, but does humanize the character.
The shock and awe moments in The Boys aren’t shoved down our throats. They occur organically and never feel like hard left turns into exploitation. The Boys takes its time and uses that time wisely. The titular team is slowly pulled together over the first half of the season and are barely operating as a unit by the finale, and the journey to get to ground zero is often harrowing. The Boys embraces the darker side of humanity through a fractured prism of demagogues and false heroes. It’s smart, funny, brutal and surpasses the source material in almost every way.