The Boys Season 1

“That was diabolical!”

I’ll start off by saying it’s way better than I ever expected it to be.

Of course, this is coming from someone who ended up sorely disappointed with what became of the AMC adaptation of Garth Ennis’ other most famous work, Preacher.

I had high hopes for that show, but it slowly lost what respect I had for it and descended into mediocrity.

Considering I enjoy The Boys far less than I enjoyed Preacher (I still haven’t even finished reading The Boys), I imagined the adaptation of The Boys would be a similar misfire. Even with the added Ennis-staples of ultra-violence, raunchy sex comedy and colorful profanity, I began season one with low expectations.

The Name of the Game

Surprisingly, it more than exceeded my expectations. Until I finished the first episode, I didn’t know the show was helmed by Eric Kripke, creator of Supernatural and showrunner of that show’s golden years. Like Damon Lindelof with HBO’s Watchmen, this felt like a good omen to me.

The Boys does a far better job at capturing the essence of its source material than the Preacher adaptation did. It helps that the subject matter and themes are just as timely now as they were when The Boys comic ran in the mid to late 2000s; one of the things that always bugged me about AMC’s Preacher is that the story just didn’t work as well when set in 2016 as opposed to the mid 1990s.

Actually, a story that cynically deconstructs superheroes and shows how toxic and chaotic they could be for the world is even more relevant for this age of “prestige television”, where serialized TV shows have become as saturated by superhero culture as the comic industry at the dawn of the 21st century.

While several aspects of the plot and narrative structure are different, the basic premise is the same.

In this world, superheroes are real. At least, that’s what Vought International, the powerful corporation that owns all of this world’s costumed “heroes”, wants you to think. Vought monopolizes their noble image to shocking extremes while paying good money to hide the fact that nearly all of them are shallow, unstable jerks at best and unimaginably evil lunatics at worst. One of these jerks stupidly kills the woman Hughie Campbell loves. Average guy Hughie is soon befriended by Billy Butcher, a snarky Englishman who makes taking superheroes down a peg his business. Then Hughie finds he’s just one of several unique people that Butcher has recruited. Together they form The Boys, an off-the-books government task force on a mission to check the power of Vought International and their most high-profile superhero team, The Seven.

Unlike the Preacher adaptation, taking a more serious tone greatly benefits this series. Garth Ennis plants moments of heart within the comic too, but The Boys was always more about making an intentionally crude statement about how pathetic, gross and superficial superheroes have become as a result of pop culture and corporate greed than it was about telling a real story. Whereas something like Watchmen pays homage to comic books and superheroes even as it boldly critiques everything about them, The Boys is a straight-up condemnation of the genre and, more specifically, the way it has been relentlessly milked for profit. The show embodies the same ideas, but it clearly doesn’t have quite as much disgust for superhero fiction as Ennis. This is best exemplified with the character of Annie/Starlight, who never really stops aspiring to be heroic and isn’t made out to be a total fool for doing so.

Like the Preacher adaptation, The Boys is quite a mixed bag for me. Both as an adaptation and as a show that stands on its own two feet.


What Works

There are aspects that totally work.

As I said, toning down the crudity was wise. Though I imagine they’ll only get more brazen with it as the show goes on, the lack of excess from the very start makes it that much more impactful when we see things like a shrinking man swan diving into a hooker’s vagina or a drugged up supe crushing a guy’s head as he gives her analingus.

The various allusions to modern culture, media, politics and society as well as superheroes all felt way more authentic than I thought they would. It’s heavy satire with a veneer of realism.

Karl Urban as Billy Butcher is perfect, in terms of casting. Another problem with AMC’s Preacher is that ultimately none of the three central characters felt the way they did in the comic. Not so here. Virtually all of The Boys in the show match up with their comic counterparts, but Butcher is the important one. If they didn’t get him right, I don’t think the show would work.

Understandably, the one everyone is talking about is Antony Starr as Homelander, leader of the Seven and prime example of how to portray an evil Superman; they tone down his insecurities and amp his malevolence way the hell up. So, in many ways, he’s even more of an effective antagonist here than he is in the comics.

They do a great job with the relationship between Frenchie and the Female, beautifully capturing their tender connection from the comic. The same can be said of the relationship between Hughie and Annie.

In general, adding more depth to the supes, particularly members of the Seven such as Queen Maeve, A-Train and The Deep, made them more tolerable than the despicable creatures they all are in the comics.

What Doesn’t

As well as they’ve handled Billy Butcher so far, I am disappointed that they still felt the need to give him the same treatment they gave the live-action Jesse Custer: made him a brooding, scowling conventional anti-hero. Thankfully, this only crops up here and there. The rest of the time he’s the badass manipulative bastard and gleefully unfiltered smartass we deserve.

The way they’ve adapted the comic series is a little wonky, mostly because they felt the need to include a bunch of important details and reveals — ones that are gradually revealed over the course of many issues and arcs — in the first season. We get clear insights into the dark backstories of Butcher, Homelander and The Female, the mystery surrounding Butcher’s former mentor Mallory, the beginning and end of Homelander and Stillwell’s contentious relationship, Annie and Hughie’s relationship comes to a head. It’s a lot for one season.

And while I’m okay with some characters being taken in new directions, there’s a last minute twist that did not work for me, both because of the twist itself and because of the way it fundamentally changes the dynamic between two of the lead characters. A twist that, as far as I know, has no parallel in the comic series, but will probably have major consequences for the entirety of the TV series.

These last two negatives lead me to believe that this adaptation is going to mutate into something quite different from the comic. That could be a good thing, or a bad thing, like it was for Preacher.

Although it is fun to see Elizabeth Shue as a cold, calculating corporate shark, I was disappointed that Stillwell’s character was considerably less formidable than the one seen in the comics. Though I’m guessing they’re leaving that aspect of Stillwell for the guy Giancarlo Esposito is playing.

So far, The Boys do not take Compound V and, thus, are not as great a threat to the supes as they ought to be. That’s disappointing, but might change in future seasons.

The ending of this season is very abrupt. And not in a good or suspenseful way, like the ending of Supernatural’s first season.

Finally, there is a considerable lack of trench-coats. I get that they’re trying to be more modern and realistic and trench coats are very post-Matrix, but goddamn it. It’s The Boys. Give them trench coats.

Overall

It’s still a little bit uneven as a show and adaptation. But it makes up for that with its fiendishly quirky characters and various little moments that shine like the blood caught in heat vision lasers.

It isn’t on the level of something like Watchmen (2019), but I can't deny that it does have monstrous entertainment value. If you’re into this sort of thing, The Boys is a lot of fun.


Supes and Sceptics:

* “London Calling” by The Clash kicking in during Butcher’s first showdown with a supe was another good sign. Later on, a foreign language version of “Rock the Casbah” plays when Homelander slaughters a bunch of Syrian terrorists.

* Butcher doesn’t use “sceptic” as a slur against Americans in the show. I’m tempted to dock the show a whole point for that, but I think I get why they didn’t include it.

* Karl Urban and Antony Starr really own the show, but I’ve gotta tip my hat to Jack Quaid for his portrayal of Hughie. Upon seeing promos for the show, I was sorely disappointed that they apparently made Hughie into a nerdy American guy as opposed to, well, Simon Pegg. But despite that, Quaid brings the humanity we should be seeing in Hughie and fully embodies the spirit of his comic counterpart. Butcher and Homelander may be the heavies, but Hughie is the central character and heart of the story. You feel that here too.

* That said, I am happy that they were at least able to cast Simon Pegg as Hughie’s father. American accent or not, actually hearing Pegg say “jings” onscreen made the whole season worth watching for me.

* Best scene in the show has to be Butcher’s completely out of nowhere pep talk centered around the Spice Girls.

* While the cliche estranged ex relationship between Butcher and Rayner in the show isn’t as interesting or entertaining as their hate-fueled dominant/submissive sexual relationship from the comic, I don’t mind the change since it allows Jennifer Esposito to play a boss. I like that.

* At different points in the later episodes, there’s a fly randomly buzzing around The Boys as they work. I’m not sure if I missed the scene where this is explained. Are we meant to think this was the shapeshifter character spying on them?

* I apologize for harping on Preacher so much in this review. I’m just still very bummed with how that show turned out, and the fact that that’s the adaptation of Preacher we’re stuck with.

Quotes:

Butcher: See, people love that cozy feeling supes give them. Some golden cunt to swoop out of the sky and save the day so you don’t got to do it yourself. But if you knew half the shit they get up to? Ooh… fuckin’ diabolical. But then… that’s where I come in.
Hughie: Come in to… to do what?
Butcher: Spank the bastards when they get out of line.

Butcher: Hughie, calm down. Alright? This is like that scene in The Matrix. Now, you could take the fuckin’ red pill, right? Spend the rest of your life jerkin’ off, crying into your chai tea green latte what the fuck. Or you could take the blue pill… Or was it the red pill? Anyway, take the other pill and quit being a cunt.
Hughie: Which pill do you want me to take?
Butcher: Just quit being a cunt, that’s what I’m saying.

Butcher (to a supe baby): Now you keep your nose clean, sunshine. Or I’ll come back and stomp ya.

Mother's Milk: You're a natural, kid. You're like the fucking... Rain Man of fucking people over!
Hughie: Heheheh, not a compliment.

Hughie: You know, you're always calling people "cunts" or "twats," but I just... I never really got how that's an insult. They're flexible, take a pounding, and they're the reason behind, like, 98% of my life decisions.
Butcher: ... You're a good cunt.

Frenchie: Never has a man thrown his life away so completely like you have thrown yours away today. No, no one. I mean, you rescuing us is the most useless, futile gesture I can think of.
Hughie: Yeah, yeah, I got it.
Frenchie: Unbelievable!

Mother’s Milk: I’m gonna knock that bitch out your mouth.
Hughie: We’re not at that step yet, you don’t have to do that.
Mother’s Milk: It’s just gonna sting a little bit. Alright?
Hughie: “Sting?”
Mother’s Milk: On three. One, two, three.
Hughie: Okay, well, if you count down— (gets sucker punched and collapses)
Mother’s Milk: You alright? You okay, buddy?
Hughie: (groans and spits out retainer)
Frenchie: Yes!
Mother’s Milk: Yes! Good job, Hughie!

Homelander: (to military commandoes) Howdy, boys! Oh, sorry, sorry, sorry. How you guys doing? Good? Why don’t you, uh, go have a smoke or something. Okay? I got this. Oh, and, uh… you guys, you are the real heroes.

Pretty good. I’ll probably watch the second season, at least. Three and a half out of five missing trench coats.

5 comments:

Billie Doux said...

What a terrific review, Logan. I really knew nothing about the comic that this series was based on, so -- lots of interesting info there, too.

I was halfway through the first episode and thinking it might not be for me, but then there was Karl Urban. And then the violence started making me laugh. And then I realized that I was getting into it.

How did they make Homelander so damned creepy? He just reeks of Nazi. I also really loved Frenchie's strange romance with super Kimiko, and the "Believe Expo" was brilliant.

And what an ending. I'm definitely on board for season two and I just didn't expect that to happen.

Anonymous said...

I liked preacher season 1 despite the slow start I found it entertaining and very intriguing. Always planned on finishing it at some point but disappointed to hear it ends in mediocrity.
The boys was the best show of 2019 for me. This is what subverting expectations is.
The homelander plane scene alone gave me more chills and left a bigger impression on me than the entirety of Game of thrones s8.
More than anything I love the application of the story to the real world. Swap in celebrities for the superheros.

Logan Cox said...

Anonymous, to be fair, I don't know for sure that AMC's Preacher ends in mediocrity. I gave up on it in the third season. Just not a fan of the direction it went in, even though I also thought season one was pretty good.

Billie, just wait until they introduce a superhero who actually IS a Nazi.

The way celebrity is weaponized to endorse political/ideological agendas like the war on terror or religious fundamentalism was very well done, as seen with Believe Expo. This was also where I started to love Annie, even though it sucked that Stillwell later spun her new "no bullshit" attitude into a win for Vought.

Gus Brunetti said...

Loved the review!

I, like anonymous, was really impressed by the plane scene. Homelander being his public self while being completely ruthless was a fine performance.

I read all the comic, but can't say I liked it. I think the show is better at humanizing the characters, even those who are (nearly) irredimable. The comic is really mean spirited, the show is critical.

As for Preacher, I saw it to the end, and it astounds me to this day how it managed to have four seasons and still say nothing.

Logan Cox said...

Gus, I've read summaries of the last two seasons of Preacher and, yeah, it doesn't sound like it amounted to much. Damn shame.

I wasn't sure about the decision to adapt the "plane scene" at all, but was surprised at how well they show's different take on it worked. It works just as well as a botched rescue of a 9/11-type plane hijacking as it did when it was the Seven spectacularly failing to prevent the actual 9/11 incident.

And I agree about The Boys comic. Whereas this show focuses on how superheroes would influence or be influenced by real world issues, the comic (I've only read about two-thirds of it) just uses all those real world issues to emphasize the real point the author's trying to make: which can basically be summed up as "Wow, superheroes are such disgusting whores!" Granted, because he's a pretty damn good writer, Ennis was able to do some wickedly creative things with that premise alone.