The Boys is clearly inspired by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen, but the Amazon TV adaptation perhaps owes more to the 2009 Zack Snyder film. Originally published in 1986, DC's Watchmen comics were nothing short of revolutionary, taking a distinct, ambitious approach to the world of superheroes. Set in an alternate United States that had seen an epidemic of masked vigilantes and won the Vietnam war, Watchmen explores the lives of a retired crime-fighting team in a manner far removed from the traditional Marvel and DC output.
With its comic book legacy unrivaled, Zack Snyder took Watchmen to the big screen in 2009, and while the movie version proved highly divisive, the director's efforts are commendable considering many thought Moore and Gibbons' original was impossible to film. A decade later, a brand new live-action Watchmen is on the way, this time in the form of a HBO TV series.
Another popular and influential comic book that was recently afforded the TV adaptation treatment is Garth Ennis and Darrick Robertson's The Boys. Intended by its author to "out-Preacher Preacher," The Boys is another prime example of a subversive take on the superhero template. After attaining popularity in the comic world, a live-action version of The Boys spent years in production before finally falling to Amazon, who released the series earlier this year to a hugely positive response. Certainly, elements of the Watchmen story can be found in both versions of The Boys, but the TV show shares more in common with the spirit of Zack Snyder's movie.
The Boys Comics Are Inspired By The Watchmen Graphic Novel
On a core level, both The Boys and Watchmen are rooted in the same ideals and anxieties. The basic concept of Moore's story is to pluck superheroes from their bright, fun-filled, idealistic origins and drop them into a real-world setting - and not just real in terms of the every day minutiae of retired life and parallels to genuine historical events, but in terms of the politics, corruption, greed and power that all too often shape the course of human history. From this seed of an idea, Watchmen determines that superheroes may well be a menace to society and this attitude is perfectly summed up in the immortal line, "Who watches the Watchmen?" Not all of the masked vigilantes in Alan Moore's world are troublemakers, but their misadventures are enough to sway public opinion in opposition of the entire superhero breed.
Thematically and conceptually, The Boys follows a similar creative track. Moving (far) away from the idea that superheroes are wholesome role models, The Boys season 1 explores the more realistic notion that crime-fighters would prioritize lining their pockets and boosting their brand over apprehending evil-doers or facilitating justice. Upon this corporate backdrop, The Boys shares Watchmen's key message: that superheroes can't be trusted and, in a sense, acts as somewhat of an answer to Watchmen's question. Who watches the Watchmen? Why, the Boys do, of course.
Compared to their respective live-action counterparts, both The Boys and Watchmen offer a little more brevity and fantasy in comic form. The original Watchmen famously features a giant alien squid designed by artists in its finale, and the tone is also noticeably lighter than in Snyder's intense take. Likewise, The Boys is far more "out-there" in its printed form, with a floating superhero skybase, heroes from other planets and Terror, a dog that's been trained to hump on-command. The setting might be more realistic than Metropolis or Gotham City but, as with Watchmen, Ennis and Robertson allow for moments of fantasy in their cautionary superhero tales.
Amazon's The Boys Has More In Common With The 2009 Watchmen Movie
While The Boys and Watchmen have a number of unshakable parallels, the approach taken in Amazon's live-action adaptation is more akin to the 2009 Zack Snyder film than the original comic books. Amazon's The Boys is a reasonably faithful interpretation of its source material, but does make a series of significant alterations. The role of the Vought American corporation is accelerated, the Boys rarely go toe-to-toe against their super-powered enemies and some of the more fantastical story elements are removed entirely. On TV, The Boys also ramps up the political and social commentary present in the comics, drawing parallels to global conglomerates, the foibles of social media and corruption within U.S. politics. All of this serves to make Amazon's The Boys a more grounded and relatable experience than the original.
These changes partially mirror the way Zack Snyder reworked Watchmen for the big screen. For his first DC superhero effort, Snyder stripped out most of Watchmen's humor and color, replacing it with the trademark urban grittiness that would later form the backbone of the DCEU. By rewriting the ending to blame Dr. Manhattan for the climatic attack, the 2009 film adaptation also ensures the theme of superhero distrust remains prominent throughout the plot.
The Boys Continues Watchmen's Legacy
Without being at all derivative, The Boys is carrying the torch and continuing the spirit of Watchmen. Both screen adaptations saturate the color of their comic originals (in the literal visual sense and in figurative thematic terms) in order to deliver a stark realism. Upon these darker backgrounds, both Amazon's The Boys and Snyder's Watchmen explore their central themes of corrupt, unreliable superheroes and immoral political maneuvering.
The two stories also take delight in being gleefully subversive and deliberately violent. Just like Watchmen was originally billed as an original, alternate visualization of a superhero-filled world, The Boys is being hailed as the perfect antidote to the current swathe of superhero movies and the family-friendly, Disney-owned Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Also significant are the real-world contemporary happenings that the audience carry into their reading or viewing experience. The social effectiveness of the Watchmen comic series was amplified upon its initial release in the 1980s by genuine fears and criticism over world leaders such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. The Watchmen movie, meanwhile, arrived right at the end of George Bush's reign as U.S. president and the controversial Iraq war that defined his tenure. "Who watches the Watchmen" might be directed at superheroes in a narrative sense, but it was always intended as an allegory for the figures of power in real life.
In a similar fashion, Amazon's The Boys arrives during one of the biggest periods of political and social upheaval since World War II. With Donald Trump in the U.S., Brexit and Boris Johnson in the U.K. and a general rise in far-right wing populists across the globe, The Boys' exploration of suspect politicians, social media manipulation and powerful figures with hidden agendas are worryingly relevant. If Watchmen was designed as a bleak commentary on real-life world leaders, The Boys provides a glimmer of hope that even though "supes" may be diabolical, they aren't untouchable.
The Boys season 2 is currently without a release date. More news as it arrives.
Watchmen premieres October 20th on HBO.