What would a superhero be without a theme tune? Imagine Superman as a buff guy in uncomfortably tight Spandex, minus the all-encompassing aura of wholesome goodness. With Avengers: Endgame becoming the highest grossing movie in history, the superhero takeover of popular culture is complete—but how would we consume these vigilantes without the glossy packaging? Back in 2006, renegade Irish writer Garth Ennis created indie comic series The Boys—featuring an America with grubby corporate superheroes drunk on their own power—but it is only now, with the absolute ubiquitousness of superheroes, that a television adaptation makes sense.

The Boys, an Amazon Prime Video show, is a dialled-back take on an excessively violent (and compelling) comic, which is saying something, considering that the first season features a pulverized dolphin and a superhero with plastic explosive shoved up his posterior. There’s obvious satire, with superheroes—called supes—existing like a calculatedly bred master-race, and controlled by the sinister Vought International, but this is more than that. It’s a solid drama about the nature of celebrity and the power of perception—not to mention bloody vengeance.

Hughie, a salesman at an audio-video store, looks like Jimmy Olsen come to life. He’s a harmless geek holding hands with his girlfriend on the street, objecting to her objections to Billy Joel, when a superhero called A-Train runs through her. She explodes in a mist of blood and bone, with Hughie left holding her dismembered hands. As he learns, great power and corporate responsibility don’t quite go together as well as the Spider-Man line.

That’s when a man who calls himself Billy The Butcher shows up, with a plan to take down the superheroes. A-Train is part of The Seven, Vought’s version of the Avengers/Justice League. These supes, appearing on cereal boxes and talk shows with Jimmy Fallon, are this world’s megastars, and Vought stage-manages everything, including which missions they should run, based on which rescue will appeal to the widest demographic.

Annie January is a bright, blonde, Church-loving new entrant to the Seven—as the superheroine Starlight, she’s just made it to the big league. Her widened eyes become increasingly narrow as she learns how petty and self-motivated the superhero game is, and how frequently she’s coaxed into compromise by the corporations. Ah, what would even be the point of a girl named Annie if we weren’t continually made to wonder if she were okay?

“The Boys" of the title are, of course, The Butcher’s recruits—Hughie, a weapons expert called Frenchie, a mysterious woman called The Female (in the comics) and a calm hulk nicknamed Mother’s Milk—but it may as well be a reference to the boys’ club the superhero game is, with most women sidelined and subjugated, even when they look like Wonder Woman. Meanwhile, a Vought boss, played by Elizabeth Shue, treats America’s favourite superhero, Homelander, like a little boy.

Karl Urban is a revelation as The Butcher, channelling Brad Pitt from Snatch while giving the ruthless character enough amorality to keep the audience guessing. Tomer Kapon has fun with the Frenchie stereotype—he calls Billy “Le Charcuter", and his backstory is studded with Gauloises—and Laz Alonso is ice cool as Mother’s Milk, a muscular no-nonsense man who ducks away from the ultraviolence to call his wife and plead that she not watch the next episode of Downton Abbey and get ahead of him in their binge.

Jack Quaid is a sufficiently vanilla Hughie, thrown in the deep end and learning to navigate this gory world, while Erin Moriarty’s Starlight seems mousy till she gets furious, and her eyes and character light up. Karen Fukuhara is perfectly mysterious as The Female, thoroughly charmed by a comb. Shue does her coldest Sharon Stone impression, while Simon Pegg shows up as Hughie’s hapless father, a nice nod to the Hughie of the comic books being modelled on Pegg.

Adapted by Eric Kripke, the show is loyal to the Ennis books but thankfully not as barbaric. The comics were meant to shock fans of sanitized superhero fare, but television needs to resonate beyond that. The plotlines run deep here, dealing with subjects like workplace assault and the bubbles we create: New York and San Francisco are described as “liberal retreat jurisdictions", for instance, polling differently from the America around them even as supes feature in pay-per-view events and sneaker deals.

Despite its Greatest Hits soundtrack, The Boys has a markedly grungy feel, trying to look like an undersaturated David Fincher film, against which the stretchy, garish superhero outfits stand out, and have the whiff of a porn-parody. It’s about scrutiny, where a hero is instructed to wear an objectifying costume to remain part of The Seven. She has a run-in with the slimy aquatic guy on the team, who classifies himself as “the diversity hire".

“What are you, a fan?" growls one superhero when Hughie asks about him being friends with another. The comic books are lying, telling stories of crime-fighting camaraderie while Vought International is rearing A-listers for export to the military. The supes cry over tragedies they cause to convince people how much they are needed. The news may be fake, but the idea of being lied to by our comics is particularly depressing. Buying an A-Train lunchbox is worshipping a false idol.

The idea of a company that commands and punishes superheroes isn’t far-fetched. Supes might not exist but their pay-offs do. A few years ago, when Marvel Comics wasn’t getting the film rights to bring the Fantastic Four into their cinematic universe, they punished the characters by axing the comic books. It isn’t just about what makes a hero. It’s about what a hero makes.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.

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