Spoilers follow for both the comic book and the television adaptation of The Boys.
Every few years or so, a comic book or movie or TV show poses the question, “What if superheroes really existed?” Sometimes that’s just a way of asserting that this superhero story is not little kid stuff, despite being about people who fight crime in capes and tights. Sometimes it’s a slightly more interesting version of “Who would win in a fight between Batman and Superman?” in which one of the superheroes has been swapped out for Richard Nixon. Occasionally, though, it’s a great starting point for satire, not just because the conventions of superhero stories are so ripe for parody, but because gaming out how our existing institutions might behave in a world with one big difference from ours—superheroes, for instance—can be an extremely effective way to criticize the way those institutions are behaving in the here and now.
The latest show to pull off this trick is Amazon Studios’ The Boys, showrunner Eric Kripke’s adaptation of the comic book series created by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson. The premise is pretty familiar “who watches the watchmen” stuff—a ragtag team of normal humans, each with their own reasons, take on the superhero-industrial complex—but the execution is unusually strong. Still, that’s not to say it’s perfect. On the one hand, The Boys is an expert deconstruction of superhero stories, with an appropriately wintery view of institutional power, be it corporate, governmental, religious, or caped. On the other hand, it’s an adaptation of a comic book series that launched in 2006, and to watch it in 2019 is to be forcibly reminded how much things have changed since then.
In part, that’s because the protean and tenacious institutions the comic book took aim at have adapted since the Bush years, and in part, that’s because The Boys was already something of a throwback the day it was published. Like Preacher, another Ennis co-creation, it was a self-consciously “adult” comic book, with everything that implied at the time: explicit sex, graphic violence, and surprisingly high levels of ambient misogyny, racism, and homophobia. (The violence and some of the sex made it to TV; the other elements mostly did not.) But from that somewhat disreputable pedigree has emerged some terrifically entertaining, relentlessly tasteless television, the kind of series that will launch into a depraved superhero orgy or an even more depraved United 93 pastiche at the slightest provocation. The Boys isn’t consistent, but at its sharpest, it captures our current cultural and political rot in a way less nihilistic shows have not.
The most obvious thing that’s changed between the first issue of The Boys and its television debut is that superheroes have taken over pop culture. It’s hard to remember the before times now, but Iron Man didn’t kick off the Marvel Cinematic Universe until 2008, and the DC Extended Universe didn’t arrive for five years after that. Ennis and Robertson assumed that superheroes would be monetized the second they appeared, but working in the heyday of Blackwater, the natural business model was defense contractors, not movie studios. Superheroes are a cultural force in The Boys comics, but they’re still essentially comic book characters, not the undisputed rulers of film and television. (That honor goes to Michael Bay: When we do see a movie premiere in the comics, it’s for Pearl Harbor 2.) Amazon’s show, meanwhile, is emphatically post-MCU: The first shot is a Marvel-inspired sequence in which thousands of comic panels dissolve into the logo for the fictional Vought Studios, and the second is a bus ad for a superhero movie called Translucent: Invisible Forces 2. As Madelyn Stillwell, a villainous executive played by Elisabeth Shue, says at a Vought shareholders meeting, it’s a good time to be in the superhero business. And the show’s professional sports–flavored vision of that business—assigning crime fighters to cities in exchange for concessions from local governments that Dan Snyder could only dream of—is satisfyingly vicious.
The show’s increased proximity to the entertainment industry—plus all the horrible things we’ve learned about that industry in recent years—also lets Amazon’s version of The Boys address the #MeToo movement in a surprisingly direct and effective fashion. Over the course of the pilot episode, Annie January (Erin Moriarty), a sweet kid from Des Moines, Iowa, who can shoot beams of blinding light from her hands, gets the full star treatment: She successfully auditions to join Vought’s premier superhero team; she finally pleases her stage mother (Ann Cusack); she gets flown to Manhattan and driven around in a limo; she gets a dedicated handler (Colby Minifie, oozing resentment); she’s promised television appearances, movies, merchandising, and astonishing amounts of money; she gets to meet her delightfully named childhood heroes—a Superman type called Homelander (Antony Starr), a Flash type called A-Train (Jessie T. Usher), a Wonder Woman type called Queen Maeve (Dominique McElligott), and so on—and, oh yeah, she gets blackmailed into performing oral sex on an Aquaman type called the Deep (Chace Crawford). In one of the show’s better throwaway jokes, she pukes afterward in one of Vought’s unisex bathrooms: It’s a proudly progressive company, except for all the sexual assault. That plotline exists in the comics, but it doesn’t cause much trouble between Annie and her employer. Instead, it’s mostly a device to cause tension between Annie and her victim-blaming love interest (played by Jack Quaid on the show). Employees have a few more cards to play now, and the show smartly incorporates that reality.
But when Annie starts playing those cards, the seams created by refitting a 2006 series for 2019 really start to show. Annie is an evangelical Christian, and she chooses to break her silence about being assaulted onstage at the “Believe Expo,” a youth revival where superheroes cheerfully explain that their superpowers mean they were chosen by God. The mood is extremely Bush-era, faith and imperialism and homophobia balled up into a soft-rock, white jeans nightmare. The endless sense of grievance that mysteriously appeared in much white evangelical discourse after Nov. 4, 2008—for purely theological reasons, surely!—just isn’t present. Even same-sex marriage—something evangelicals have mostly abandoned fighting—seems like an open issue, judging from the merchandise booth. But the most striking thing is the way Vought endlessly defers to white evangelicals—keeping gay superheroes in the closet, making sure another superhero doesn’t admit she’s had premarital sex, letting one of their stars advocate “praying away the gay”—in a way secular media hasn’t really done since they discovered there was more money in inclusivity than bigotry.
Which brings us to the biggest challenge in adapting The Boys for television in 2019, one that Amazon’s show never quite overcomes: adjusting for the election of Donald Trump. There’s a scene in the very first issue of the comic book that illustrates the problem pretty clearly: The director of the CIA—played by Jennifer Esposito on the show, although she seems to have been demoted—says, with a completely straight face, “The President is a man of total moral integrity.” That statement is no longer operative, to put it mildly, and it’s not just because the living embodiment of pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth is living in the White House. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney were not moral paragons—they killed many, many more people than Donald Trump is likely to manage—but their supporters kept up appearances in a way that now seems quaint and has been proven to be unnecessary. In the comic books, it’s the president who’s a ruthless Halliburton stooge and the vice president who’s a moron, but everyone operates under the assumption that if the president’s corruption or the vice president’s stupidity were publicly exposed, it would hurt them. The public simply wouldn’t stand for it.
But Donald Trump is the total package—corruption and stupidity, with racism, misogyny, and a frequently alleged tendency toward sexual assault thrown in as a bonus—and he’s headed toward his fourth year in office with a strong chance of at least four more. The main plot of The Boys, like every conspiracy thriller, superhero or no, is built around the idea that someone, somewhere would care if the conspiracy were exposed. Even the show’s subplots—closeted superheroes, performance-enhancing drugs, what really happened aboard a hijacked plane—depend on the idea that if the truth were known, something would happen. But nothing will happen. There’s one superpower that beats heat vision, superstrength, invisibility, and even the ability to communicate with fish: complete and utter shamelessness. Still, if you’d like to spend some time in a world where supervillainy can sometimes be countered by superheroism, you could do a lot worse than The Boys.