The opening words to the first issue of The Boys comic is “I’m gonna fuckin’ have you. You cunt” which are spoken by a character we only know as Butcher, as he watches a superhero fly over him in the sky. It’s Garth Ennis setting out his stall from the get go and showing that this wasn’t going to be your standard superhero comic, and as the issue continued it becomes clear that Ennis has a real disdain for superheros, that this was a dark and twisted satire on what life in a world where such beings exist might be like.
The tv series? Well, this seems to be a completely different kettle of fish. This is only a review of the first episode so perhaps things will become more twisted along the way, indeed if it’s in any way faithful to the comic than it surely must do, but despite the occasional use of the word cunt it’s a toned down affair, far less perverse and vicious in it’s take down of superheroes and superhero culture. There is satire to be found here as a group of superheroes called The Seven recruits a new member in the form of Starlight (Erin Moriarty) but who are mostly obsessed with how much money they’re earning from the latest blockbuster, and Vought, the corporation that funds their world is largely only interested in how popular the heroes are and how much money they generate, but it’s blunt and on the nose and lacking the subtlety of the comic. Which is really saying something as the comic was one of the least subtle things that Garth Ennis has ever written. In it he relished ripping in to superhero culture, portraying them as egotistical, petty, and out of control childish monsters who should be feared enormously, but that element is mostly missing in the tv series so far.
Alongside the story of Starlight we get the comic’s main plotline, which features a shy, retiring guy called Hughie (Jack Quaid, annoyingly playing it as an American instead of as a Scot) whose girlfriend Robin is viciously killed by accident by a Flash style superhero called A-Train. Hughie’s struggling to cope but is then approached by the mysterious Billy Butcher (Karl Urban), who asks for his help in bugging The Seven’s headquarters as Hughie has the opportunity to meet and get an apology from A-Train, be it a forced and unbelievably weak one. It should be a story which is truly affecting, but most of the time it’s rather average and not particularly gripping, which given how great the comic is came as a huge surprise.
This tv version is created by Eric Kripke, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, the latter two being also responsible for the tv adaptation of Garth Ennis’s Preacher and it has a good few of the problems that that series did during it’s first season. As with Preacher it’s major mistake is making the characters so unsympathetic, which is quite the feat given what we see Hughie go through. In the comic he’s a sweet, kind, confused guy who isn’t sure if this is the life for him, and given what he’s been through your heart should break for the poor man, but his character is so blandly written, and his grief so temporary, that it’s hard to care for him. It’s set up in the first scene that he’s someone who never takes life by the horns, and that certainly applies to the comics version too, but whereas in that Hughie takes ages to decide whether to stick with Butcher or not, here he has a five second panic then slips in to full on spy mode, and acts as if he doesn’t have a care in the world, afterwards boasting to Butcher about how great a job he did. Hopefully they’ll explore the character more and his relationship with Starlight will make him more sympathetic, but it’s a real disappointment that right now he’s borderline unlikeable.
Equally problematic is Urban’s take on the role of Billy Butcher, as he plays him as if he’s a playground bully, a thug who doesn’t give Hughie any reason to like him. He’s here to do a job and he doesn’t care how it’s done, and the series is a much lesser creation due to this, and it’s difficult to see why the grieving and supposedly shy Hughie would go along with him so quickly. Urban’s normally a strong actor but here he’s all over the place, his attempt at an English accent is appalling but worse is that he’s all macho and violent but that’s about it, at least until towards the end where he shows a hint of a slightly more likeable side, but it’s only the tiniest you can imagine. In the comics Butcher is in no ways a man you should admire or consider worth spending time with, but he’s at least honest with Hughie, and gives him a real reason as to why he needs a guy like him along for the ride.
When it comes to the superheroes the tv show disappoints here as well, as a lot of the time it’s gone far softer on them than Ennis did. For instance in the comic when A-Train kills Robin he casually utters “Get the fuck out of my way” whereas in the series he seems panicked and initially shocked by what has happened. Yes, there is a revolting and quite frankly horrible scene between The Deep (their take on Aquaman) and Starlight when she’s just about to join The Seven, but it was so much worse in the comic, and really showed just how fucked up and cunt-ish all the heroes were rather than just one of them. Sure, we get to see a bar where heroes take time out and indulge in all manner of kinky stuff, but it’s nothing compared to the monstrous behaviour the comics version showed, so the satire of this disgracefully horrible world is muted enormously.
The one thing the tv series is doing well right now is the action scenes, the murder of Robin at the beginning is a shocking and appalling event that is even more distressing than in the comic, and at the end the big fight scene involving Hughie, Butcher and the superhero Translucent is extremely fun to watch. Also fairly well done is Starlight’s tale and she’s a greatly needed likeable character, but she shouldn’t be the only one, and that they got these couple of elements right doesn’t even come close to making up for the mess they’ve made when it comes to the characterisation of Hughie and Butcher – if the series is to work this really needs to be rectified over the next couple of episodes, and quickly too.