WARNING: The following review contains spoilers for the pilot episode of The Boys, debuting July 26 on Amazon Prime.
As Preacher approaches its fourth and final season, the pair who brought it to AMC, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, have begun another TV adaptation of a dark and edgy Garth Ennis comic: The Boys. Eric Kripke, the creator of Supernatural, joins Rogen and Goldberg as a showrunner on the Amazon Prime series, though, needless to say, you probably shouldn't be expecting a lot of crossover from the Supernatural fandom in The Boys' audience.
Cynical to the extreme and more than willing to offend, Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson's The Boys was divisive, to say the least; people either love it or hate it. Having only seen the pilot episode, written by Eric Kripke and directed by 10 Cloverfield Lane's Dan Trachtenberg, it's hard to say where audiences will fall on that divide with regard to the streaming adaptation. It's a well-produced, well-acted pilot, but there are numerous warning signs that indicate the show might not be able to do justice to the comic's heaviest material. It'll be best to give the series a few more episodes to prove itself, mostly because the pilot itself feels so incomplete.
The first hour of The Boys is all set-up, and it's clear there's a lot more set-up to come. The pilot doesn't even have the time to introduce "the boys" themselves, the story's central vigilante group fighting corrupt superheroes. Instead, it mainly focuses on establishing the series' world, in which superheroes are corporate figures and utterly unheroic, along with its two main characters, Hughie Campbell and Annie January/"Starlight."
Hughie, played by Jack Quaid, has reason to hate superheroes. In the first few minutes of the pilot, the speedster A-Train kills Hughie's girlfriend by running through her. The hero says it was an accident and offers to pay out, but Hughie is understandably suspicious even though he and his dad (played by Simon Pegg, whom the comic design of Hughie was modelled off of) need the money.
The "accident" attracts the attention of Billy Butcher (Karl Urban with an over-the-top British accent), a hard-edged man claiming to be a government agent keeping tabs on superheroes, who recruits Hughie on a mission to place a spy camera in the headquarters of the elite hero team The Seven. Billy confirms Hughie's suspicions, that The Seven are up to no good, and while mild-mannered Hughie is initially reluctant to take a stand, by the end of the pilot, Hughie is ready to join forces with Billy. Meeting and finding out more about Billy's titular team will have to wait until the second episode.
The story of a mild-mannered nerdy man recruited by a hardened badass and given the opportunity to take a violent stand against a corrupt society has many obvious pop culture parallels. The Matrix is an obvious one directly referenced multiple times throughout the pilot. Fight Club might be a better parallel based on the trajectory of the source material, though, with Billy possibly being just as, if not more morally bankrupt than the society he rages against. You could see it as the evil alternate-universe twin of Amazon's other superhero satire, The Tick. Both mock the popularity of superheroes and the genre's troubling underpinnings, but whereas The Tick's ridicule comes from a place of love, The Boys' comes from a place of hatred.
What's really going to make or break this series is how it handles Starlight's story. Starlight is by far the most likable character on the show; a new recruit for The Seven, she's the only one with any of the idealism that made the superhero genre appealing in the first place, a perspective that will be necessary to prevent the show from sinking into complete overwhelming nihilism. Erin Moriarity gives a compelling performance that treats her trauma and crushed hopes seriously.
On the flipside, however, the way the show itself handles Starlight's #MeToo story could threaten to ruin the show entirely. While Starlight's response to sexual harassment is handled with relative maturity, the sexual harassment scenes themselves are played for laughs. While the show is smart enough to not make the victims of harassment the subject of mockery, the trust that the show will prove capable of handling of such delicate content is something the pilot fails to earn.
If the goal of The Boys' pilot is to make viewers want to watch the second episode, consider it a success. If the goal is to make us confident in the series' enjoyability, consider less successful. The cast and production work are strong, and its satirical ideas have potential. Criticism of the public's worship of corporate-controlled superheroes is as relevant as ever in the wake of Avengers: Endgame's box office records, and if it doesn't completely bungle its #MeToo commentary, it'll be impressive. The concern remains, however, that The Boys is going to be too clumsy and over-reliant on shock value to be deep, and too overwhelming nihilistic to be fun.
Season 1 of The Boys premieres on Amazon Prime on July 26.