The Boys Season One Review: A Solid Series With Not Enough Heroes
Anyone who signed up to Amazon Prime to watch The Boys season one is likely already aware that this super-show wouldn’t feature many real heroes. In both the series and the comic book that inspired it, the heroes in their costumes are actually all terrible people. It’s a cynical take on celebrity, institutional authority, and the ruthlessness inherent in the comic book stories generations loved growing up. While the comic book does this task with varying levels of success throughout the 70-plus-issue run, the series distills that message in a more effective way. We see how the public reacts to these heroes, and we also see that they don’t actually save many people. In fact, sometimes they actively hurt them which gets the titular group on their cases. Light spoilers to follow.
As a deconstructionist take on the idea of superheroes and comic books, this series doesn’t come close to what The Watchmen (graphic novel or film) did. In this world, there are no well-intentioned but ineffective heroes like Nite Owl or the ill-intentioned, brutal vigilantes like Rorschach. No, every superhero, except one, is just terrible. They either don’t care about trying to save people, or they do but not enough to push back against the corporate machine that runs them. Like John Wick, there is no one to really “root for” in this story, and all you can do is just enjoy the spectacle and bloodshed. What saves the series comes in the form of incredible performances from the actors. A character that behaves in a vile way at the beginning of the show can still evoke some empathy from the audience by the end of season one.
How Does It Follow the Comics?
In the comics, the roster of the team doesn’t really change much. The Boys season one loosely follows the comics, though it skips a lot of the side-missions and lesser heroes. In fact, while the loose structure of the plot and the character-interactions follow the story, the storytellers made quite a few changes. Still, many elements of the comics remain.
The core cast of The Boys are as they appear in the comics. Mother’s Milk, played by Laz Alonso, is a family man, though his daughter in the comics is much older. The meet-cute between Jack Quaid’s Hughie and Erin Moriarty’s Annie takes place on a park bench when the two are at a low point, and the on-screen trivia Amazon Prime embeds in their videos said it was important for the producers to capture this moment as it happened on the page.
Annie, also known as Starlight, faces a much worse criminal “initiation” into the Seven, which we will discuss further below. The heroes themselves, known as The Seven, are all faithfully transported from the page to the screen. Their appearances may differ, but their attitudes remain about the same. Fans of The Boys comic will find season one to be familiar enough that they recognize the story. However, there are more than enough differences for people who know the story inside and out to have a brand-new experience.
What is Different from the Comics?
In The Boys season one, much of what transpires in the story differs from the comics. One major change in the series is that the superheroes created by Vought-American have no connection to the military. Rather, their desire to be a part of the military machine and the DoD budget is their main motivation for all that they do. The other major change is that rather than being a government-sanctioned group, The Boys spend all of season one working as freelancers, motivated by vengeance and loyalty to both Butcher and his predecessor, Mallory. This adds an extra layer of tension to the story, meaning that The Boys have to hide their actions from what passes as the law on this world. They are also far less efficient at harming the costume heroes, who they call “Supes.” In fact, The Boys are almost constantly outmatched in all of season one, getting one over on the Supes purely by accident.
What we get in The Boys season one is a clever melding of themes and details from the comic series into a mostly new story. Whereas the comic series frequently laid out the Supes’ motives, in graphic detail, this series keeps those motivations close to their chests. The main driving force behind what happens in the first season is the desire for Vought-American to earn a defense contract for superheroes. This works both because we see it as a naked play for easy profit, and that the superheroes involved think of their business as a game. Even though one of their own is taken out in a brutal way, the idea of fighting America’s wars excites them. So much so, that they end up creating the biggest risk they’ll face, terrorists with powers. Unlike the comics, superheroes are exclusive to the U.S., at least they were.
Who Are the Villains in Season One?
In The Boys Season One review we have to talk about who the villains are. There is the Deep, who forces Starlight to perform a sexual act, but is sent to Sandusky, Ohio to be himself violated and then shave off all his hair. A-Train is junkie who murders both his and Hughie’s girlfriends, but he’s also an allegory for the aging athlete desperate to stay relevant. Queen Maeve is complicit in all of the Seven’s bad deed, but she feels trapped despite her power. She can’t be with the woman she loves, and she can’t be the hero she wanted to be when she started. Black Noir? Well, he doesn’t do much in season one, but if the show plans to pull the same twist as the comics, the reason why will become clear. Nonetheless, the show attempts to paint the seven as villains but provide an emotional justification for their behavior.
There are three clear villains in The Boys season one. The first two are Elizabeth Shue’s Madelyn Stillwell and Antony Starr’s Homelander. Stillwell is not aware of all the misdeeds of her superheroic charges, but none are too terrible for her to ever turn on them or the company. Homelander also wants to please his makers, but it is his relationship with Stillwell that drives him. Part mother, part lover, Stillwell is ultimately brushed aside, and Homelander’s plans are all that will matter. The final villain in the show is Butcher himself. He’s routinely shown to be singularly driven by vengeance with no loyalty or altruism to speak of. When faced with his ultimate failure, he kills an innocent just because he was too cowardly to let Homelander finish him off. Unless the show plans to undo this death (which they might), Butcher’s already a baddie.
The Casting Couch Meets Superheroes
In the wake of the Me Too Movement, a depiction of the way in which sexual assault is used against ambitious women can feel gratuitous. Ironically, the scene in the series where Starlight is forced to blow her way onto the Seven is less gratuitous in the comics. It raises the question if these sorts of scenes raise awareness about an unspoken issue or merely exploit it for easy emotional stakes. The so-called “casting couch” was something of a big joke until two or so years ago. Scenes like the one Starlight undergoes were meant to showcase that it’s not a joke and it’s terrible. In the books, the sexual abuse of Starlight was just another way to show that these men were monsters.
Yet, The Boys season one makes an interesting choice here. Rather than having the entire male contingent of the Seven involved in the assault of Starlight, it’s just a single character. Then, he’s later punished (as Starlight’s public relations stock rises) and sent away to languish in a small town with no crime. We then seem him sexually abused, followed by a kind of emotional breakdown. What’s curious, however, is if today’s audiences are willing to sympathize with a man who ostensibly committed sexual assault the first time we met him. In fact, the whole storyline feels out-of-place among the larger themes found in season one, even if it’s ambitious in its efforts to humanize a person who does what he does.
Ultraviolence With Superpowers
Of course, human life isn’t worth much in the world of The Boys. Season one starts with Homelander and Queen Maeve, played by Dominique McElligott, stopping an armored car robbery about to crush some kids. They kill the criminals and pose for selfies. Throughout season one, The Boys shows us graphic and violent deaths and beatings. Hughie’s girlfriend Robin is liquified in slow-motion. A low-level superpower is viciously beaten to death, the destruction of his head graphically, sickeningly realistic. The Boys season one leans into the gore and the ultraviolence, both as an aesthetic and tonal choice. Again, like John Wick, they make the gore seem almost beautiful. The violence is like a dance. It also tries to realistically portray what a fist that can punch through solid steel would do to a human body.
Yet, as is the case with most ultraviolence outside the pages of Anthony Burgess’s literary work, it only serves to desensitize the viewer. Complete with on-screen fun-facts about how the effects were achieved (mostly practically), by the end of the series you don’t feel the brutality of a person getting their eyes burned out of their sockets. Rather, you both regret the loss of the actor for the second season and check the fun-facts for insight into how they pulled off the great effect. The only other option for the series would be to raise the stakes with the violence, but since they started at such a high level there is nowhere for them to go. Still, this is something that will surely continue in the series but it’s impact and reception may lessen over time.
What The Boys Season Two Has In Store
Now that we’re through The Boys season one review, let’s look ahead since Amazon announced the series earned a renewal even before its premiere. There are two main threads the storytellers are likely to pull for the next season. The first comes from the comics themselves, while the second is an original element added to the series. The latter development is far too spoilery to show in detail, but it will change everything about Billy Butcher and his motivation for bringing down Supes. Also, his relationship with The Boys will be vastly different than it was in season one. How this team will change and what Butcher’s role will be in the group is likely to be a big part of season two.
The main thing we’ll likely see in season two comes from the comics, because they seem to be setting this up fairly clearly. As mentioned above, the motivation for wanting to fight America’s war seems to be solely driven by greed on the part of the Vought-American corporation. The actual motivations of the heroes, specifically Homelander, are not really explored. This will probably change, because Homelander likely has big plans for what his place in the world will be now that he can do whatever he wants with no oversight. Done right, this change in Butcher’s story and the adherence to Homelander’s could help this series surpass the quality of the original comics.
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Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. The first books he read on his own were comics, and he's loved the medium ever since. He is the greatest star-pilot in the galaxy, a cunning warrior, and a good friend. His book "What I Learned: Stories, Essays, and More" is available in print from Amazon and from all electronic booksellers.