Imagining a world full of superheroes, probably doesn’t lead one to the conclusions drawn in the many, many adaptations of mainstream comics offered in TV and film today, where hope and optimism pave the way for progress. That reality would probably be a bit closer to what Amazon’s The Boys offers in its cynical, blood-soaked first episode, “The Name of the Game”: set in our current state of late-era capitalism, it presents a world where heroes have become a byproduct of society, rather than an embodiment of what it aspires to be.
There’s plenty to like about the “The Name of the Game”: the few fight scenes are absolutely fantastic, and the world-building is first-rate – but it’s not a guarantee The Boys can truly entrench itself as the true antithesis to the mainstream superhero story.
This transforms the deification of superheroes into much more sinister than aspirational; though time will tell whether this idea contains enough depth to build an entire series around (or be able to excise some of the comic’s deep flaws, which are on full display here), “The Name of the Game” is a strong introduction to this strange, hyper-violent world.
As a strong counter to the Marvel and DC cinematic universes, The Boys goes out of its way to convey its cynicism in its first hour, eliminating the layer of remove often offered from the actual physical and moral consequences of having heroes who save the world. “The Name of the Game” makes this world feel alive and parallel to our own, where the best superheroes (or “Supes”) of the world have consolidated their brands under the behemoth Vought International, who – on their face, at least – act as publicists and managers for their 200+ plus powered clients, led by The Seven (themselves an assemblage of nods to iconic mainstream heroes, like an Aquaman knockoff named The Deep).
To give context and weight to this premise, The Boys smartly focuses itself on a non-hero: Hughie Campbell (Jack Quaid), a retail employee whose girlfriend was brutally killed when A-Train, The Seven’s version of the Flash, accidentally runs through her (he later notes to a friend that he swallowed her molar “like it was a bug on a windshield”). Angered by Vought’s offer of a measly settlement and binding non-disclosure agreement, a saddened Hughie seeks vengeance; and finds it waiting for him, in the form of Billy Butcher (a gleeful Karl Urban, rocking a terrible English accent), a stranger with a penchant for “spanking the [super-powered] bastards when they get out of line.”
Centering Hughie in the narrative makes a natural entry point for world-building: as he navigates his first experience in the superhero industry, he quickly realizes the moralistic dreams of the supposed protectors of his world is built on a false premise (as if the movie posters, branded products, and utter lack of bad publicity wasn’t a massive hint). And it’s in those moments where “The Name of the Game” really feels like it has a grasp on something substantive, beyond just grounding the “heroic” acts of superheroes in empty nihilism. At one point, Hughie’s father (Simon Pegg) tells him “he’s just not a fighter” – when The Boys pushes against the lines drawn between pedestrians and superheroes (in ways other than the saccharine “anyone can be a hero!” message), it can make for pretty affecting material.
However, The Boys initially seems held back by some of its source materials more indulgent, misogynistic bents: the two driving events of “The Name of the Game” are completely engineered by violence against women, which is, at the same time, realistic and exploitative. As broad device for storytelling, it seems natural the scales would be tipped against the women of this world, super-powered or not, but “The Name of the Game” centers its entire hour around two violent acts: one where a woman dies, another where the primary female protagonist (a young female superhero named Starlight) is sexually assaulted by her peer.
The Boys had a problem with this during its 72-issue run: whether it was Starlight’s sexual assault (or repeated threats thereof), or using the murders of a gay man and a trans woman for the basis of plot arcs, these horrible acts against marginalized communities often only seemed to exist to give their male characters some semblance of humanity, an 80’s action movie vibe that’s entirely distonal with the modern world The Boys (the series) sets itself in.
It’s hard to ignore how much “The Name of the Game” foolishly plays itself into that same corner early on: though the death of Hughie’s girlfriend at least gives the story a bit of noir edge, the sexual assault of Starlight feels grossly exploitative, an all-too-accurate recreation of Harvey Weinstein-isms that feels appropriately uncomfortable – but at the same time, portends a lack of self-awareness that could be extremely limiting (and disappointing) if it is the defining ethos of the series.
(seeing there are six male executive producers – including Ellis and Robertson), with only two of the 12 writing credits attributed to women, makes me even more nervous about how The Boys will handle some of the stories it may draw on in the future.)
The other half of “The Name of the Game” centers on Starlight, the big-eyed, small town hero finally getting her big break as part of the infamous The Seven. Erin Moriarity’s performance may just be the very best of the series (though Antony Starr’s few scenes show he hasn’t lost that Banshee touch): she threads the needle between the many trite character beats offered her in the series premiere – a performance that stands out even more after the aforementioned sexual assault (a scene that is interesting in theory, and borderline exploitative in its deployment), where Moriarity gives Starlight a sense of resilience in the face of great trauma, a rather moving portrayal of someone trying to keep a straight face while everything inside them burns and anguishes.
She shows pain, but not overwhelming weakness or melodramatic depression: though it is extremely frustrating that the only way My Boys knew how to show that strength is by her character being raped, the early collection of scenes suggests that experience is not going to be the whole of Starlight’s character. If The Boys wants to truly right some of the wrongs in the source material, it begins with Starlight – and finding something beyond “she’s mad about being forced into oral sex” is deathly important in building out a three-dimensional person, an essential component to making this series work.
Without Starlight’s character, there’s not a whole lot for The Boys to moor itself to: there’s an incredible stacking of the proverbial deck against superheroes in this first hour, and she is the lone character who exists outside that cynical bubble. Her journey is bound to be the most important of this first season, a character who will ultimately reveal just how dark and bleak this series is willing to go. On a narrative level, we can already tell there’s no hope for sunlight or happiness for many of our characters: Starlight is a wild card in this equation, giving her the position as an important proxy in giving definition to The Boys‘ sensibilities.
There’s plenty to like about the first episode of The Boys: the few fight scenes are absolutely fantastic, and the world-building is first-rate. And it doesn’t feel like The Boys is emptying its creative deck in the first hour, either: be it Antony Starr’s performance as Homelander, or the larger narrative at play with Vought’s political machinations, there is plenty of potential hinted at during the show’s very busy first 60 minutes.
But the show’s title may end up being more representative of the show than it should, even if it sheds some of the misogynistic, redundantly bleak aspects of its source material. If this is just another story of men fighting other men over who is right until the end of time, The Boys is never going to be able to entrench itself as a fundamentally different take on the superhero ethos, no matter how effective this first hour is at stripping away the inherent emotional, sexual, and moral sterility of the iconic stories it’s satirizing.
- I’m very interested to see what gets adapted into this show (already renewed for a second season, by the way): the pilot suggests there are such big changes being made to the core formula, and I think many of them could be for the better – though I do wish The Deep wore a mask he said couldn’t be removed because of an “Atlantean” curse. Plus, The Boys has an incredibly deep bench of entertaining small characters, and I’m intrigued to see what fits into this revisioning of the series.
- There is a superhero in The Seven named Translucent, whose whole character is “asshole who hangs out naked in the bathroom.” Charming.
- Antony Starr is barely in this episode as Homelander, but goddamnit, I can’t wait to see the different shades he’s going to give this character. Those who haven’t seen his performance on Banshee have no idea what they’re in for.
- Though he’s given the least desirable role in the premiere, Chace Crawford’s portrayal of The Deep is powerful, in its toxic masculinity and casual abuse of power. He’s just personable enough to make the inevitable turn later on a bit more sinister and revealing than the writing gives it.
- It’s been a while since I read an issue of The Boys – was Translucent a character in the original series? I have absolutely no memory of him, if he was.
- There’s a lot of room to explore the gender and racial tensions of say, a city being assigned a black superhero to protect them, or how the public views a woman superhero of tremendous power as somehow lesser than her male counterparts. Jury’s out on whether The Boys will engage with any of these ideas, though.
- Vought’s rep Madelyn (a wonderfully cast Elisabeth Shue) pitches the mayor of a city on bringing in one of their (more “urban-friendly”) heroes for the cost of $300 million a year. When he tries to negotiate, she has Homelander blow up his plane (which has a child on it). Pretty cut and dry personification here, but it gives appropriate stakes to the core conflict: these people have so much money and power, they don’t give a fuck about wiping elected officials (and their families) off the face of the earth.
- The Boys begins with an invisible dick joke, and hinges a climactic moment on someone getting electrocuted through their asshole (and also features a shot of a hero shrinking like Ant-Man, and diving headfirst between a women’s legs). Just in case you’re wondering why I’m worried about the show’s “edgy” tone moving forward.
- There’s little-seen of Queen Maeve, the leading female in The Seven – it’s impossible to get a grasp on the character, save for the telling “don’t let them see you like this” line to Starlight in the bathroom, a cliche phrase that still carries a hefty amount of emotional weight to it in that scene.
- Very interested to see how the television series adapts the “Compound V” story – needless to say, it is much more integral to the story than its pair of offhand references here might suggest.
- Best fake hero names in the first episode? I’m going with Black Noir and Nubian Prince (which is exactly as cold and exploitative a name as it sounds).
- Welcome to reviews of The Boys! Reviews of each episode will publish through the day today and tomorrow. I’ll be reviewing each episode after I watch it, so please be considerate and don’t spoil anything for future episodes in the comments below.