“That’s where I come in. To spank the bastards when they get out of line.”
The Boys is not the sort of comic that you ever expect to be adapted. Co-created by Garth Ennis and Darrick Robertson (and written and drawn by the two, respectively) the comic ran for 72 brutal, edgy, disgusting – yet undeniably entertaining – issues. The gratuitous violence, sex, and language should have made it impossible to adapt – the liberal use of c-bombs alone made it a difficult prospect, not to mention how CGI heavy it would need to be. But now we’re in the golden age of streaming. And those Bezos-bucks mean there are no obstacles to what is possible in the medium.
So we now have a TV reworking of the cult comic, with some real talent involved on and off the screen. But is it a faithful adaptation? Let’s take a look.
The world of The Boys is one where superheroes exist, but they never got that Uncle Ben pep talk. So they’ve got great power, without any shred of responsibility. The original comic posed the cynical idea that the human race is evil, nasty, and everyone is out for themselves – why would that suddenly change if a percentage of us got superpowers? Like I said, cynical. But it’s an intriguing idea, one that was a hell of a lot of guilty fun to watch play out in the comics.
The superheroes (“supes”) are owned by a huge corporation called Vought – just like in the comics. Basically, imagine Marvel or Disney if their heroes were living and breathing. They control every aspect of a hero’s brand. And they act as a allegory for a few different things across the eight episodes, mainly Disney’s suffocating reign on the entertainment world and the over-saturation of superheroes. Since the comics were released, the superhero world has exploded into a behemoth, so a lot of this satire works even better than when the comic came out. Vought’s chief superhero team ‘The Seven’ also act as a pretty great parody of the Justice League too.
As the show progresses, Vought begins to represent the increasing role of corporations in US politics, showing that if a company like Vought wants something (like a bill passed) then they’ll get it. It hold a mirror up to the worrying amount of power and resources huge corporations have (ironic, seeing as the show is airing on the streaming platform of perhaps the world’s most terrifying mega-corporation).
So, the world presented in the show is pretty much the same as the comics, if way more prescient. But it feels like perhaps a few of the edges have been shaved off – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The comic always went to such levels of excess, perhaps to a fault at times, a criticism that Garth Ennis is always labelled with – though usually unfairly (though if Crossed gets an adaptation, I’ll eat my hat). What the show gets right is knowing what to cut and what to keep. This show is gross, violent, depraved at times (with move c-bombs in eight hours than I’ve ever seen) and it’s still probably the most messed up show out there, but it never steps over that line. Obviously, I realise my line is not in the same place as most, but the show balances it’s extreme moments with heart and comedy.
For me the characters in the show are either pitch-perfect versions of their comic book counterparts or are actually improved upon. The Boys themselves are all there; Hughie, Butcher, Mother’s Milk, Frenchie, and The Female (or Kimiko). The performances are all really great and add a little more depth to the characters in general. Karl Urban’s Billy Butcher is the star, and he treads the line between anti-hero and full on scumbag as well as in the comics. Jack Quaid’s Hughie is quite a departure, now being American and over six foot. But the visual part really doesn’t matter because he capture Hughie’s initial naivety and trepidation as well as his eventual tougher side.
The first difference you’ll notice with The Boys is that they don’t seem quite as organised in the show – lacking the CIA backing and having to confront supes using more improvised methods. The main reason for this, and possibly the biggest departure from the comics, is that The Boys aren’t enhanced with Compound V (except Kimiko). This was the bit that worried me before it aired – the Compound V feels like such an integral part of the comic. (But it does still make an appearance, just not in the same way). By not having Butcher and The Boys be dosed up with V, it makes every confrontation so much more tense. They’re the underdogs now, well and truly. The supes, especially Homelander, could kill them instantly. They have to use their wits to survive against these people who are basically gods, whereas in the comics they could often fight their way out (though granted, not all the time).
The supes themselves look like they’ve jumped straight from a comic book. Though that doesn’t mean there aren’t some changes. The Seven are the heroes we see the most of, and their line-up differs from the comics. Jack from Jupiter is gone, which makes sense given the shows more grounded and gritty feel, and has been replaced with Translucent. Queen Maeve, Homelander, and Black Noir are still here – but now with more human proportions. The biggest change is The Deep – nothing more than a parody of Aquaman in the comic, but here’s he’s a very complicated character. After doing something abhorrent in the pilot episode, we spend quite a lot of time with him as his life goes increasingly downhill in both hilarious and devastating ways. Played by Chace Crawford, The Deep is one of the best characters, even if he is a scumbag. And he’s a great example of how an adaptation can draw on the lesser developed moments of it’s source material and do something really interesting with it.
But the person you’re going to remember after watching the show is Antony Starr’s Homelander. Somehow more sympathetic and more of a douche than the comics, he is shaping up to be an all-time great villain. In the comics he was crazy, but also a bit of screw-up with no redeeming features. Which is fine for the exaggerated world Ennis and Robertson created. But you’re not going to want to spend time with someone like that without it getting old, so here Homelander is much more watchable. He’s still evil, now in a more calculating way, and though his motivations are skewed, you at least see things through his eyes.
Another change is Erin Moriarty’s Starlight. Her and Hughie are the joint protagonists of the show, and we see the world through their eyes as they both grow stronger and take a stand. Though visually you couldn’t have found a closer Starlight, her character is a little different. She’s a lot more in control in this version – the best example of this is how she deals with the sexual assault. I mean, it makes sense – we’re in a post #metoo world now, for the better. Whatever your thoughts on Ennis’ writing, it was written years ago. The world as moved on and Starlight represents that, gaining more agency in the story than her comic book counterpart.
There’s been a couple of gender-swaps too. Stillwell and Mallory are both women now. With the latter, played by Laila Robins, the gender plays part in the character. Mallory is tough and mysterious, and Robins is a nice change of pace from the typical, grizzled, old white dude we usually get in roles like this. With Elizabeth Shue’s Stillwell, it’s a very clever decision to change her gender. Firstly, we have someone to fill in the role of scary corporate man (Giancarlo Esposito in a cameo role) and Stillwell here is so much more interesting than in the comics! Her relationship with Homelander is one of the weirdest threads throughout these eight episodes, as you try and work out such what the pair want from one another.
The most important thing about the gender reversals, is the fact that it stops the show from being an all-boys affair. I’ve already seen people dismissive it as a masculine, teenage show. This inane article from Vox is the most glaring example, as the writer (who is praising the show) claims: “As you can probably tell from the title, this show is hyper-masculine. Its ideal audience is teenage boys pretending to be asleep but actually watching this show on their phones. Your mileage may vary as to whether that describes you or some small part of yourself.” Granted, they’d only seen the first episode – and this does kinda describe the source material. But that take is waaaaay off. It’s so much more clever and aware than that gives it credit for and the handling of the female characters is especially great.
Adaptations are tricky. Do you go all the way and make a near shot-for-for remake (like Watchmen – for the most part – or Game of Thrones in the early seasons) or do you shake things up?
Well, The Boys does the best thing. It manages to recreate the fan-favourite moments when it needs to, and also changes the plot to create something entirely new. Some of these are out of necessity – the show takes place in 2019, whereas the comic took place in the early 2000s. So all mentions of 9/11 are gone and the famous plane scene happens completely differently. (The new timeline also raises questions of how they’ll deal with the origin of the supes – in the comics it was a wartime experiment. This will probably come up in the second season as Stormfront – the Nazi superhero – has already been cast).
Other changes just work better for the TV format. For example, Hughie and Starlight find out each other’s secrets very quickly here – something that took a lot of issues in the original comic. And that makes perfect sense. Because in this format it’s just not enjoyable to see them keeping the secrets from each other, especially now that Starlight has more of a starring role. And it also means you don’t have to suspend your disbelief at Hughie not recognising Annie as Starlight – something that works fine in the comics, when secret identities are a given and there are loads more supes to keep Hughie distracted. But in the show it’s more focused on The Seven, there’s no way Hughie wouldn’t realise. So by changing it they avoid that potential issue and keep the world feeling coherent and believable.
The biggest change is the gut punch at the end of the series, as we realise that Butcher’s wife is alive – as is her son, a product of (possible?) rape by Homelander. It’s messy and completely different from the comics. In the original, Butcher’s wife is well and truly dead. And that is what fuels his hatred of supes and what causes him to do everything he does. But this sets up a completely different relationship between Homelander and Butcher. In the comics, he’s a man who’s lost everything who doesn’t care if he lives or dies. But by the end of the series, he’s in a very different place. And after seeing Homelander greet his son, I have to say I think Butcher is going to go even more off the rails in the show. His wife is alive and hasn’t told him, worse still she has a supe son.
The story itself is a lot more serialised here than in the comic. The comic did have an overall story of The Boys versus The Seven and Vought, but for the most part it had very defined arcs. Now I loved that about the comics. I thought it was great that every volume almost felt like a self-contained story. But that wouldn’t work on the show, it’d end up feeling “very monster of the week”. And while it’s a shame that we didn’t get to see any of the other teams in this, though Teenage Kix are mentioned quite a lot, I get why they decided to focus it. TV shows nowadays are expected to be more serialised, more easily binged. And it also feels like a more complete story to have the same threads running through all eight hours. It feels tight and the pacing on this first season is really exceptional.
Other shows could learn from this first season. More episodes doesn’t always mean a better overall story. Eight perfectly paced and planned out hours of television are better than 12 or 13 bloated or stretched episodes.
As a fan of the comics, the show is everything I hoped it would be. They’ve brought the characters I love into a world that feels pretty spot-on. And there’s a great cast of actors bringing these characters to life too. I don’t think there’s a weak link between them – with Antony Starr’s Homelander being perhaps the best TV villain of the year.
Some things have been updated, some out of necessity and some for story reasons – but it feels right. They’ve managed to shave off a few of the more excessive elements of the comic, but in a way that shouldn’t piss off any of the fans that loved the comics for that very reason. Most importantly, they’ve made it more mature in other ways. It’s handling of female characters and sexual abuse is above the majority of other things out there right now. It’s just a shame the title of the show itself might put some people off! It’s definitely not just for boys.
It feels like the talent involved with the show understand exactly what Ennis and Robertson were going for with the comics, a dark, satirical, and funny take on superheroes. It just happens that it’s even more relevant in 2019.