‘The Boys’ take on corporate superheroes for hire in comic TV adaptation

When I watch TV, I’m not a very political person. Yes, I know everything is political, but really, I just want to relax. That said, the political side of some forms of escapism is, well, inescapable. The Boys is like that. It’s rip-roaring action fun, but also a very dark comedic look at U.S. corporate capitalism and mass-media politics.

For those who came in late, The Boys started life as a series of comic books by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson. Ennis is a very funny writer of action comic books, who started out writing about “the Troubles” in Northern Ireland (where he was born), before moving on the long-running dystopian British series Judge Dredd before making his name with Preacher, a dark and absurd comic version of The Da Vinci Code. Ennis has had fun with both of the major groups of superheroes, writing the hilarious Hitman for DC (Batman, Superman, and Green Lantern all make very funny cameos) and freshening up Marvel’s Punisher character, which allowed him to be hilariously disrespectful to Spiderman, Daredevil, and various other longstanding Marvel heroes.

The Boys is a fresh twist on the idea of a superhero story in which the superheroes are real, fallible people, who have to pay bills, watch TV, get old, and deal with life the way the rest of us do. It’s an idea that goes back at least to Alan Moore’s Watchmen (1986), but Ennis does a great job with it. Superheroes are a real thing and they make a fortune for Vought, the company that sponsors them. The “supes” can turn invisible, fly, run faster than a speeding bullet, and all the other comic book tricks; they rescue people and fight crime; make movies and sell t-shirts, soft toys, lunch-boxes, and all the other merchandise that we are so used to from Marvel and DC—so far, so boring. However, since these superheroes are real people, the unchecked power they have corrupts them, as unchecked power does, and they abuse it horribly.

One day, a careless supe accidentally kills someone near and dear to Hughie, our hero, played by Jack Quaid, and he falls in with a team of renegades called “The Boys,” led by the menacing Billy Butcher (Karl Urban) whose mission is to keep the supes in line. Vought is making obscene amounts of money from the movies and merchandise associated with the superheroes but has its corporate eye on the real prize: defense contracts. Superheroes are not allowed in the U.S. military, but Vought wants some of the action that is doing so well for Boeing, Raytheon, and McDonnell-Douglas. So while Vought is trying to out-do the established defense contractors in charming and corrupting politicians, “The Boys” risk life and limb trying to get the dirt on the supes, in an attempt to stop them becoming part of the military-industrial complex and having even more power and even less accountability.

Vought is already super-wealthy, like Disney if Disney had actual superheroes at its disposal, but like all such companies, wants to be even richer.

We are saturated with the narrative that competition between companies is what makes capitalism good, despite all evidence that companies are in business because they want to win, not because they enjoy competition. That’s why Disney bought Marvel studios rather than coming up with their own caped heroes, and also why Virgin complains about a lack of competition until they get the right to fly to a particular airport, after which they complain about the possibility of new competition. Like the large corporations that run the U.S., Vought isn’t in business because they love the competition that large companies like to talk about when justifying their profits: They’re in business to win, and if they can get defense contracts, they won’t have to earn it anymore.

In this respect, the original books are much more political, sketching Vought’s background as a long-term defense supplier that corrupts politicians into giving them contracts for fighter planes that don’t perform against the Japanese during WW2, and later machine guns that look a lot like the M-16s that in real life didn’t work anywhere near as well in Vietnam as the AK-47 did. Ennis is quite the war buff and knows his military history well.

That said, the TV series is plentiful political. Vought schmoozes and blackmails its way to the serious money in defense contracting, but there’s a strong hint that the company might also be in the business of manufacturing enemies that only they can fight, something not unknown in the history of U.S. capitalism. Imperialism gets an outing too, as the U.S. establishment and Vought show no hesitation in using liberation struggles and religious sectarianism in South America and the Middle East for their own purposes.

Like Hughie, Butcher dislikes the supes because he’s seen what they can do to bystanders. A theme Ennis has returned to over the years is the collateral damage that would be inflicted by actual superheroes, and one particularly funny and moving scene involves Butcher and Hughie dropping in on a support group for people damaged by superheroes (suffice to say, it’s not a good idea to be romantically involved with someone who turns into ice at moments of excitement).

The main target for The Boys is a very Avengers-like super team called “The Seven,” consisting of Homelander, a sort-of fascist version of Superman; Queen Maeve, a cynical Wonder Woman who drinks too much; The Deep, who can talk to fish like Aquaman and has similar problems getting respect from the other heroes; A-Train, the only Black member of the team and who can run as fast as thought; and Translucent, who can turn invisible. The latest member of the team is Starlight, a wholesome middle-American heroine who can blind people with electricity.

Would you enjoy The Boys as much as I do? Well, if you like the recent deluge of superhero movies and wouldn’t mind a very witty and dark version of that, yes indeed you would, providing you don’t have a problem with copious amounts of violence and swearing in your entertainment.

Despite the very over-the-top action, the characters are all quite three dimensional. There’s a moving scene where A-Train, wearing civvies on a day off, is given an unusually long glare by a security guard in a shop, because he’s Black. A-Train is one of the bad guys, but his pain at this piece of all-too-common, everyday racism is very convincing.

If you’ve read the comic books, and wonder if the show measures up, wonder no more. It does. Book adaptations are always tricky, you can’t just film every page faithfully and expect it to look as good on the screen as it does on the page. Speaking as a hardcore Ennis fan, I can say that the TV series is different to the books but so good that if someone were to make a book that just followed the show, I wouldn’t know it wasn’t by Ennis.

Season One finished with a colossal surprise/cliff-hanger. Season Two came out on Sept. 4. Episodes are available on Amazon.

Guardian, The Workers’ Weekly


Floyd Kermode
Floyd Kermode

Floyd Kermode is a culture reviewer for Guardian The Workers' Weekly in Australia.