When the television adaptation of The Boys hits Amazon Prime this week, showrunner Eric Kripke says that the series’ main aim is to show “superheroes as insecure, fucked-up, self-serving and selfish as real humans really would be if given super powers”. How does that feel? According to Jack Quaid, who plays main character Hughie: “Gooey.”
Created as a comics series in 2006 by writer Garth Ennis and artist Darick Robertson, The Boys centres on a team of non-powered humans who’ve decided to keep the world’s most popular and powerful superheroes in check. Those superheroes — banded together as a superteam called the Seven — enjoy adulation and excesses in line with top-level celebrities, not caring about anyone who gets hurt.
Hughie gets recruited in The Boys by black-ops agent Butcher (Karl Urban) and becomes part of a nasty, violent campaign to make the Seven accountable for all the collateral damage they leave in their wake.
Last week, Kripke, Quaid, Urban and the series’ other co-stars held court at a press conference during San Diego Comic-Con. Asked about partnering with Amazon, Kripke said that the mega-corp’s giant coffers have allowed the show to feel “as outrageous as [it] wants and needs to be” and on par with big-budget films operating in the same genre.
“This one cannot feel like a parody, it has to feel like the real thing,” he said “Amazon has the resources to give us that. And creatively, they’ve just been amazing. They’ve really given us the chance to make this really strange, perverted show.”
Part of what’s “strange” and “perverted” about The Boys is how it critiques hero worship and celebrity obsession culture. Erin Moriarty (Jessica Jones) plays photon-powered character Starlight, and said she didn’t know quite how deep the show would go when she signed on.
“When you’re sent a script that’s called The Boys, you kind of make an assumption about it,” she began.
“The first assumption I made was that it was going to be this kind of superhero drama that adhered to that stereotypical formula. And the second assumption I made when I read the name ‘Starlight’ was that she was going to fit into that box that we’re all really familiar with — and she doesn’t.”
“She doesn’t know the world that she’s getting herself into and then she’s smacked in the face with reality,” Moriarty continued.
“It turns into a really morally ambiguous situation, and I really like that, here, you’re presented with this young woman who we all know — we see it from her eyes — she’s a good person. We can’t dispute that. And, you know, good people can make bad decisions in the moment out of our own visceral reactions.”
Like Starlight, Quaid’s Hughie finds himself entering into a new reality where he learns the truth about the Seven. His journey starts with an awful loss when speedster A-Train runs through his girlfriend Robin and liquefies her right in front of his eyes. Kripke says he always viewed that scene as vital to the Boys’ ethos, something he doubled down on after talking to Darick Roberston.
“When we were having really early conversations, I asked, ‘What’s important to you?’ And he said ‘Please, the most important thing is that A-Train runs through Robin.’ And I was like, ‘Well, that’s really important to me, too, and we’re definitely going to do it.’ Just because, to me, that really sets the tone of what this show is going to be.”
Quaid told the audience that day of filming was a mix of experiences. “[It was] really gooey. Lots of stuff shot with an air cannon,” he said. “But, despite all the special effects, it was a really important scene. It’s crazy, but it sets my character on his entire journey, so it was one of the most challenging, but one of the coolest and most surreal days I’ve ever had on set.”
Despite the fact that The Boys is a dark satire set in the superhero genre, Karl Urban said he sees a thread of commentary in its DNA.
“What really appealed to me about the show [is] these blue-collar young men who decide to take on the Seven with no superpowers. I was very intrigued by how you sustain that conflict. You know, people scream ‘power’ [when] you turn on the TV these days and see the current events. But our show’s a comedy. It’s really a comic book genre and really, a comic book movie.”
Laz Alonso, who plays Mother’s Milk, said that he thought about situational ethics while filming the series. “Mother’s Milk is pretty much the moral compass of the Boys in his logic and way of thinking,” he offered. “But their ‘normal’ is so ridiculous that even as morally upright as he tries to be, they still have to justify all kinds of fucked up shit.”
One of the show’s most violent characters is the Female, played by Karen Fukuhara, who previously wielded a samurai sword as Katana in Warner Bros’ Suicide Squad and voices Glimmer on Netflix’s She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. Fukuhara saw a primal need in her character’s motivation, and that of the rest of the team.
“I think we’re all survivalists, and what we’re doing, it all comes down to survival,” she said.
“All the things we do to various people is for a reason. For my character, it’s usually about survival. What’s different about the comic book version [is that] it isn’t just a feeling or physical need or desire, it’s because she needs to stay alive. So that’s how I survive, playing the character.”
Inner conflicts about their actions roil inside both teams on the series; Kripke said that he still sees the Boys as heroic because of how they deal with those conflicts.
“The Boys are the heroes because they stay together and they show each other loyalty and they’ve got each other’s back and they’re willing to admit vulnerability and weakness,” the showrunner observed. “They’re scared and outmatched and outgunned, but, you know, they’re taking on these powerful forces.”
Those powerful forces are superheroes who represent the worst of humanity’s collective id. “So, overall, what we’re really trying to do is [ask] what is the most brutally realistic depiction of superheroes in the real world?” Kripke said.
“And with superheroes as insecure and fucked up and self-serving and selfish as real humans really would be if given super powers, they’d all be super Bill Cosby. Sick. So... did I say something? Was that too soon? Too soon for all you fucking Bill Cosby fans in the audience?”
After the groans and chuckles died out, Kripke reiterated that this take comes from behaviours observed amongst the rich and famous: “Those people often behave in really awful ways that you want to be unflinching about.”
Staying on the subject of powerful people behaving in awful ways, Kripke didn’t shy away from linking the show’s ambitions to current political realities. “Especially in this day and age, what I love [about] the heroes of this show [is that they are] people who can express vulnerability and weakness and be imperfect,” he said.
“The villains of the show are these sort of slick people who can stand in front of the world and refuse to admit any sort of weakness, and somehow think projecting or demonstrating strength at all times is good, when what it is is dictatorial and autocratic and total bullshit.
“So, the people who appear strong in the show are actually quite weak. And the people who appear weak in the show are actually quite strong. Because, we all need each other as people.”
Kripke succinctly summed it all up this way: “If [superheroes] were real, they’d be dicks. Here’s the team that fights them. And you can watch the show and have a blast at that level. But we spend a lot of time building the iceberg under the water with the emotion and the satire and with the thematics to make sure there’s a real deep level if people want to explore it.”
The Boys is streaming on Amazon now.