Amazon’s adaptation of The Boys is simultaneously extremely faithful to the feel of Garth Ennis’ comic book series of the same name while also making significant departures in terms of plot, characterization, and storytelling structure.
That divergence is clear from the premiere of the eight-episode first season, “The Name of the Game.” The Boys is set in a world where superheroes not only fight crime but are also stars of films, TV shows, and sporting events, and the writers immediately establish the setting by showing just how ubiquitous the caped crusaders are. It’s oddly reminiscent of the tributes to Iron Man found throughout Spider-Man: Far From Home if they were also being used to sell shoes.
The first major departure from the source material comes from protagonist Hughie Campbell (Jack Quaid). He was a conspiracy theorist modeled after Simon Pegg in the comics but in the show is the sort of mild-mannered but charming hapless dude that could easily front a rom-com. At the start of the series, he’s working at an electronics store and doesn’t even have the confidence to ask for a raise despite his confident and funny girlfriend Robin (Jess Salgueiro) trying to get him to stand up for himself.
He’s ripped from his fairly mundane existence when Robin is accidentally killed by A-Train (Jessie T. Usher), a speedster in the mold of the Flash and a member of the Seven, the world’s most powerful superhero group and a clear parallel to the Justice League. In the comics, Robin dies in a fight between A-Train and a supervillain, but as of the start of The Boys, supervillians don’t actually exist.
Though some people believe that superheroes are just as bad. Enter Billy Butcher, played with delightful cantankerous swagger by Karl Urban of the Star Trek films and Thor: Ragnarok. Billy seizes on Hughie’s tragedy by trying to recruit him to get vengeance against A-Train and the rest of the Seven. Eager to cover the mishap up, Vought, the mega-corporation that employs the Seven and most other superheroes, offers to pay Hughies $45,000 if he’ll avoid tarnishing the reputation of one of their stars. Billy persuades Hughie to use the opportunity to plant a bug inside the Seven’s stronghold, a skyscraper clearly modeled after Avengers Tower.
Hughie’s plot is paralleled by that of Annie January, aka Starlight (Erin Moriarty), an extremely naive and good-natured young superhero who’s fulfilling her lifelong dream of joining the Seven. But like Hughie, she’s learning that the world’s greatest superheroes might not be all they’re cracked up to be. Especially evocative in the #MeToo era, The Boys has Starlight immediately sexually harassed by Aquaman stand-in The Deep (Chace Crawford), who threatens to sink Starlight’s membership prospects if she won’t perform sexual favors. Meanwhile Translucent (Alex Hassell), a beloved hero with the power to turn invisible while completely naked, apparently uses that ability to spy on the female members of the Seven.
That barely even scratches the iceberg of the sexual perversion on display in the first episode of The Boys, which also sees Billy taking Hughie to a superhero sex club where the writers seemed to have a lot of fun imagining what could be done by heroes with shrinking powers and elongating limbs. But the purpose of the scene isn’t kink shaming but demonstrating the contempt superheroes have for normal people. Hughie finally agrees to Billy’s plan only after he sees A-Train laughing about what happened to Robin. Although, Billy’s plan fails due to complications brilliantly set up early in the episode. “The Name of the Game” ends with a dramatic scene that promises to lock Hughie into Billy’s world and sets up much more dangerous conflicts to come.
Visually the show looks great, filled with bright colors that pop off the screen like a comic book. It also delivers excellent performances, with Hughie’s sharp wit keeping him from following the example of so many comedy protagonists who turn out to be the blandest member of the cast. As a nice nod to the comics, Simon Pegg makes an appearance as Hughie’s father, urging him to move on with his life and accept the things he can’t control. Instead it looks like Hughie’s willing to burn his old life to the ground and have fun doing it. The Boys is available on Amazon Prime.