As Netflix’s acquisition of MillarWorld has demonstrated, the superhero gravy train shows no signs of abating anytime soon. Movie studios and TV companies continue to scoop up every available comic book property they can get their hands on searching for the next big hit. However one such property that somehow remains to be adapted is the cult Garth Ennis series The Boys.
Although director Adam McKay (Anchorman, Talledega Nights) was linked with a big screen version back in 2010, the property has more recently been optioned by the Superbad team of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. In April 2016 the pair announced plans to bring the story to the small screen following their critically successful adaptation of Ennis’ more famous Preacher series. Since then though, nothing further has emerged. This is, to say the very least, a huge oversight that needs to be instantly corrected. The Boys is the comic book adaptation we both need and deserve, and we need it immediately.
The story is set in a world where superheroes are rife, but rather than being clean cut, all conquering and respectable, as their PR image conveys, they are mostly psychotic sexual deviants created for profit by a private corporation. The ‘supes’ desperately need to be kept in check and The Boys, led by the vengeful and charismatic cockney Billy Butcher, are the covert CIA team tasked with policing them.
The Boys is, on the surface, a teenage boy’s dream. Being an Ennis story it is jam packed with sex, violence and all manner of imaginative debauchery. However, The Boys also contains intelligent commentaries on subjects as diverse as government conspiracies, male bonding and the consequences of capitalism and war. Given the current oversaturation of the superhero market the timing for a live action version of The Boys is perfect. Not only that but, done properly, The Boys could be the best comic book adaptation yet. In fact, if they get it right, this property has the scope to fill that huge Game of Thrones shaped hole that will be in your life come 2019. Here is why:
Although much of the content of The Boys is almost celebratory of its juvenile attitude, there are some incredibly deep and compelling themes being explored beneath the onslaught of cartoon ultra violence and explicit sex. Ennis, as he has shown in his other work, manages to disguise intelligent and thought provoking ideas amongst the litany of bloodshed and boobs.
The Boys examines the role that corporations and corruption play in western government with a delicate touch and doesn’t shy away from expressing the author’s disdain for war. In the nameless representative from Voight-American Ennis created a perfect characterisation of the blameless elite businesses, whose cost cutting exercises and personal indulgences in profit and reputation costs lives.
The subject of male relationships and searching for acceptance amongst one’s peers is explored through Hughie’s insecurities and Butcher’s relationship with his father. It tackles homophobia, forgiveness in relationships, the corruption caused by power and systematic child abuse. It even presents a reimagining of 9/11, which deftly and momentarily touches on the perspective of a fighter pilot tasked with bringing down a New York bound airliner. Due to the nature of the world in which these ideas are being explored, the fact they are wrapped up and presented in a superhero parody story, means that they can be hard to find amongst the humour, action and downright silliness of the story. However, they are there in spades and, as Game of Thrones has shown, including intelligent allegorical commentaries on society can send ‘nerdy’ genre adaptations hurtling into the mainstream.
A Refreshing take on the Genre
Given the heavily populated nature of the live action superhero genre you would think that a more subverted take on it would have arrived long before now. Whilst Kick-Ass and Super were both entertaining and insightful attempts at this, both were set in a world where superpowers didn’t exist and normal folk were taking up costumed heroing as a pastime. Deadpool certainly took a more irreverent and knowing approach, but it still existed within and abided by the wider rules of the X-Men cinematic universe.
The Boys would differ in that having superpowers seems to have a more damning impact on the majority of those that possess them. Supes are not cast as saviours, or even as dark and misunderstood; in this universe superhuman beings are, for the most part, a problem. They range from woefully incompetent to downright evil and are the perfect study in how fame, fortune and power can corrupt. The sexual depravity, sense of entitlement and detachment from reality that is displayed by the superheroes featured in The Boys echoes (and is perhaps inspired by) stories of real world celebrities. This perspective of what unchecked heroes could become should they inhabit the ‘real world’ would breathe fresh life into what is becoming a somewhat formulaic and repetitive medium. Casting pretty much all of the superhumans as the villains of the piece and the normal folk as the (somewhat dubious) heroes might just be what would make this show a breakout hit.
It is ideal for television
The Boys is a self-contained story spanning 72 issues and with a definitive ending, rather than an open-ended comic book publication. This means that, unless a studio completed a significant hatchet job on the story or committed to making a franchise, it is simply too big a story to be confined to a 90-minute movie.
The success of Preacher, along with the rampant popularity of the Marvel Netflix series, has demonstrated that there is a taste for grown up comic book television shows. Whilst the prevalence of sex, swearing and particularly grisly bloodshed could have been an issue in the past for any network outside of HBO, modern streaming and on-demand services provide the potential producers with much more leeway.
As this is a universe inhabited by a vast array of super humans, one of the concerns would be whether or not the production values would be able to credibly portray such a world. Granted, there are elements of the comics that may need to be altered or left out due to a television budget, but the essence of the story should remain. The financial constraints that used to be associated with television are not always as much of an issue now, and shows like Supergirl and Arrow have shown that television can do superpowers with a bit of style.
The very essence of The Boys is that it flips the conventions of what the audience expects of good and bad. However, this is not simply a matter of the good guys being evil and vice versa; the characters in The Boys have a level of moral complexity that rivals those in The Wire.
Although Butcher is essentially the square jawed hero of the piece, his violent tendencies, all encompassing hatred of super humans and habit of manipulation make his motives questionable. The Homelander, the Superman of this universe, has been raised in the care of a corporation being groomed for his role. So, whilst he is undoubtedly the story’s main villain, his motives and actions are fuelled by his upbringing and manipulation. Even an inherently ‘good’ character like Starlight/Annie January does not get out of this clean – she first appears as an idealistic and somewhat naive young hero who has just been promoted to super team ‘The Seven’, but she then immediately has to make a choice between her morals and beliefs and advancement in her chosen field.
Not only that, but the consequences of the choices these characters make are laid bare. Absolutely no one gets away clean or is able to take the moral high ground, and that always makes for excellent television.
The Boys is a bombastic and outlandish comic book story that many will no doubt take at face value – on the surface it can be seen as an in your face juvenile wet dream, crammed full of depravity and extreme violence that simply services the urges of teenage boys. For that reason alone a version that is faithful to the comic could turn some viewers off. However, it is much more than that and, if those deeper themes can be translated into the television version with the same skill that they were the comic book, then it could perhaps be the most thought provoking superhero adaptation to date.