How ‘The Boys’ Became a “Perverted Wizard of Oz” — With Superheroes
The Amazon series is "a funhouse mirror of the world we’re living in," showrunner Eric Kripke tells Inverse.
Fatal facesitting. A projectile dolphin. A bomb in a superhero’s rectum. Karl Urban firing a laser-eyed baby like a gun. Amazon’s latest series The Boys boasts unfiltered gore and bat-shit crazy twists, but it’s also got a lot of heart — the same kind of heart that showrunner Eric Kripke brought to shows like Supernatural and Timeless.
Based on the controversial comic book written by Garth Ennis (published from 2006 to 2012), The Boys skewers the now-ubiquitous superhero genre by depicting caped heroes as they probably would be if they existed in reality: pretty fucked up. The Seven, Ennis’ twisted version of the Avengers or the Justice League (featuring characters evocative of Aquaman, Captain America, and Wonder Woman) are finally challenged by the Boys, a scrappy, eccentric group who have it in for the corrupt superheroes of this world.
As announced at San Diego Comic-Con last week, the show has already been renewed for a second season, ahead of the eight episodes of its first season dropping on Amazon on Thursday night.
Among The Boys cast is Urban as the Boys’ leader, Billy Butcher; Elisabeth Shue as the Seven’s evil bureaucratic manager; and Jack Quaid as Hughie, who gets roped into the Boys’ resistance/revenge efforts after his girlfriend becomes gruesome collateral damage in a superhero mission. Simon Pegg plays Hughie’s dad — a casting success fans of the comic series will appreciate since the comic’s Hughie was illustrated to look like Pegg. Timeless fans will also recognize Malcolm Barrett in a small role in the second episode that was expanded later in the season because, as Kripke tells *Inverse, “he nailed it.”
Along with time travel drama Timeless and long-running brothers-hunting-monsters series Supernatural, Kripke’s credits also include post-apocalyptic show Revolution and the 2018 spooky family film The House with a Clock in Its Walls. There were days when he was working on scripts for both House with a Clock and The Boys. “I would be like, “Remind me not to drop any f-bombs in my children’s movie,’” Kripke, 45, recalls.
A few days after taking The Boys to San Diego Comic-Con, Kripke expressed his glee at working on a project in which he can finally let out his “filthy sense of humor” in a phone call with Inverse.
Read on for what Kripke had to say about dealing with the 13-year-old comic book’s chilling resonance with today’s world, bringing Pegg onto the show, and how The Boys would be different if you couldn’t binge it on a streaming service.
This interview contains some spoilers for The Boys comic book and Amazon series.
Tell me about how you came aboard The Boys.
I’m a huge Garth Ennis fan and so much of his work was so influential on Supernatural. Preacher and Hellblazer are just all over Supernatural. When they announced they’re making a Preacher TV show I took a meeting with a buddy of mine who is one of the producers on the show. He works for Neil Moritz. So we sat down, and he said, “Hey man, what’s up,” and I said, “Hey, I just wanted to say fuck you for giving Preacher to somebody else.” And he said, “Well, you know, we’re getting The Boys. Do you want that?” And I said, “Oh totally! I want that.”
How did you convince Garth Ennis that you were the right guy for the job?
I had dinner with Garth, and I think we got along really well. I don’t think I was in a bake-off with other people. I think it was just “let’s see if we get along and this makes sense.” I find him so smart and lovely and everything I hoped he would be. As he was kind of feeling me out, he asked me, what did I think of the story? And I said, “I think it’s actually a really sweet story. I think buried underneath all the gore and violence, there’s a lot of really tender relationships, and that’s what I want to dig out.” He sort of took a beat. He said, “I know. It is really sweet. Why doesn’t anybody see that?” So we just really connected on what the spirit of this thing is.
You had to capture Hughie and Robin’s relationship and make the audience root for them really fast in the brief scene they have together before A-Train bursts through Robin. How did you go about getting that right?
The big goal for that scene, exactly as you say, is you just had a page and a half or two pages to fall in love with these two characters and feel like they really are fleshed out humans who are going to have a great future before you rip her away. I tend to — and mileage varies and every writer’s different — I tend to do that by putting vinegar in a relationship. I think it never quite works when everything feels too perfect. A relationship that feels lived in and they can give each other shit and she can wish he would stand up for himself more — all those things make it feel a little bit more real. And I think she was one of the only people who ever believed in him. And so all those little details just make her death all that much more tragic.
Was that a little nod to Supernatural in the second episode — the shot up at Hughie, Butcher, and Frenchie from the trunk of the car?
Yes, in hindsight that’s exactly what it was. But it’s funny actually — Matt Shakman directed that. He directed that episode brilliantly. And I happened just not be there [on set] that day. I had to get home back to LA for my son’s birthday. And he did it not knowing that that was the classic Supernatural shot. And so when I saw the dailies, I said “Thank you — you just made a great reference to Supernatural.” And he’s like, “I did?” So it sort of came up through fate, I suppose.
"I felt like we needed a really strong everywoman entry point into the superhero world.
What’s behind you and the writers making Starlight a more prominent character than she as in the comic series?
It was really important to me to really muscle up Starlight into a main character. In the books, she’s probably more of a supporting character. It was important to have more female characters and stronger female characters represented in the story because I’m looking to appeal to all audiences, and I want everyone to be represented. The way that Hughie is an everyman entry point into the Boys, I felt like we needed a really strong everywoman entry point into the superhero world.
In the comics, she doesn’t really have much of a backstory outside of having an ex-boyfriend. So this idea of she probably rose up through the pageant circuit — the books have superhero pageants, and those are all part of their world, and we just basically took that and we said, okay, well, Starlight would have been a part of that. And she would have had a stage mother and she would have had all the complications and conflicts of growing up as a super JonBenét Ramsey. And it just gave us history and conflict and different layers to play with her. And gave her more agency she is trying to figure out, what does she want out of life? Just the same psychological exploration I would do with any main character.
Tell me how you went about handling Starlight’s sexual assault — the opportunity and, I think it’s fair to say, the responsibility of adapting that part of the comic amid the #MeToo movement.
Yes, it’s very fair to say it’s a responsibility. I would say one of the very very first questions the producers and I explored when we took on this job was ‘Are we going to depict that scene?’ And I’ll be honest, I was really nervous. Through a series of long conversations with all the producers on my team but with a lot of very strong and very smart women — and by the way this was before the Me Too movement. This was about a year before. I was coming at it from “Am I being exploitive? Are we being gratuitous?” And the women [producers] around the table said, “No, you have to do it. It’s actually responsible, and this is actually something that really happens.” And again, a year before MeToo I said, “Who has some version of this happened to?” And every woman in the room raised their hand. And so from the beginning we felt this kind of intense — I felt and they did too — this intense obligation to get it right. And to not play it for shock but to play it as the horrific situation that it is. And how [Starlight] can fight back after it. And through a lot of long conversations with a lot of different people from a lot of points of view, and with Erin Moriarty, the actress, we really worked hard to get it right. Because it was certainly the heaviest scene I’ve ever done. And I did feel a responsibility to mount it correctly.
We were in the middle of breaking the season when the Me Too movement began. At the time the original storyline was Starlight was going to get payback on the Deep but through sort of behind-closed-doors corporate maneuvering. A lot of my female producers said, “Y’know, she’d really be risking a lot to go public with that because so many of us have tried, and we’re either not believed or we’re shamed.” And then the movement happened and to the good of society as a whole, suddenly there was an outlet to speak publicly about this stuff. And so our actual storyline changed in real-time because of events that were happening in the world. So suddenly instead of her dealing with the Deep behind closed doors, she gives that speech at the Believe Expo and then publicly outs him as a predator. Even when we began the season, we didn’t think that was possible and an option for her, and then we did. I think it’s just an example of how much I think this show tracks with what’s really happening in the world today.
"Our actual storyline changed in real-time because of events that were happening in the world.
With much of The Boys feeling resonant with what’s going on in this weird time, weird being one word to describe it —
So weird. This is a deeply weird time.
Yes, so deeply weird — do you and the writers ever have conversations about keeping the show from being too on-the-nose-relevant?
We have that conversation a lot. We don’t want to be the Law and Order-ripped-from-today’s-headlines version of the show. But by the same respect, the show lines up with what’s so uniquely strange about this moment — the crossover of celebrity and politics and money and power and social media and fame. And how badly that toxic cocktail is fucking over the regular guy. We had sort of a unique ability to talk about it but through the guise of a really entertaining fun superhero show.
Amid that kind of heavy, serious content, it looks like you must have a lot of fun making this show too.
Yeah, I’m having the time of my life. I’ve never had this much fun on a show. Look, in part because of some of the heavy elements. We get to comment on the world we’re living in. And then there’s a part of the show that’s just completely fucking insane. Which is just watching dolphins shoot through a windshield and fatal cunnilingus and hilarious commercials and advertisements for shitty reality shows. It’s not a dark [writers] room. We spend the vast majority of our time in the room laughing our asses off about whatever insane thing somebody’s pitched. So it’s a great place to work.
As much as the show’s been promoted as full of hard-R, bonkers content, people who have read the comics know it’s been toned down from what Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson put on the page.
"If we translated every single thing that was in the comic, I think we would be a hardcore pornography.
Yeah, I mean I think if we translated every single thing that was in the comic, I think we would be a hardcore pornography [laughs]. Look, Garth is an edgy fucking writer. Really, really smart, but really edgy. Ultimately, as violent as the show can be and for as crazy as the show can be, we actually really are hoping to appeal to a fairly broad audience. We think anyone who would enjoy Deadpool would enjoy this show.
To me the guiding compass of the show is, What would happen if superheroes really existed in reality? And we’re going to present that notion with an unflinching eye. And if that means that something horrific happens, we’re gonna show it. If it is crucial to the story and the characters and if the story can’t be told without it, then we’re going to include it. But I’m also not going to drop in crazy-ass shit just to do it or just because I can. I’m trying to keep a really tight discipline on the storytelling and making sure that every piece is a vital piece to the larger picture.
What has it been like to work with Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen as fellow producers on this with their experience adapting another Garth Ennis comic book to screen?
They’re amazing. They’re funny as shit, and also the thing that people don’t realize about them is they’re incredibly disciplined with character and story — you have to be to be operating at that level. They were incredibly useful because — Garth writes really dense and nuanced stuff where there’s backstories on top of backstories. It’s sometimes challenging when you’re making a dramatic script to kind of untangle that a little bit — how do you dramatize it when you don’t have the ability of constant flashbacks, for instance, or interior monologues? So they were really good at — on Preacher, for instance, they had to kind of slow down and start the story earlier. We had to do the same thing [with The Boys]. Garth throws you so in the deep end of this world, and we needed to slow down. The world doesn’t know about Compound V yet, and this version of The Boys aren’t together yet. We could slow down and have the time to understand a little more of how this world worked and dramatize it with the time and space it needed.
Do you think you would have made the decision to not bring all the Boys together in the first episode if this were a show that aired weekly?
"Let’s just do a perverted Wizard of Oz where they’re picking up new people along the road until they form their team.
No, if this was a network show where you had to hook someone immediately and we were beholden to ratings, then you would have to introduce all of the Boys earlier. I’ve made those shows, and you have to introduce everybody right away. In some earlier drafts, we did, and the deeper we went, we’re like, “Boy, we’re just not taking the time to understand Hughie or Starlight or Butcher. We’re just so rushing to jam everybody in.” And then we looked at each other and said, “Well why the hell are we doing that?” People are gonna finish this — they’re at least going to watch one or two episodes — usually a couple in a sitting. We talked about it as “Let’s just do a perverted Wizard of Oz where they’re picking up new people along the road until they form their team.” And I think that structure works a lot better for us. Everyone has to be introduced properly and get the audience to fall in love with them as characters.
Tell me about getting Simon Pegg on board for this in a different role than he played, so to speak, in the comic.
It came from interviews I had read because he’s been asked the question forever, “When are you going to play Hughie?” And over the years — because I think they’ve been trying to adapt this since 2006 when Garth wrote it — over the years, he went from “Someone make this movie. I’d love to play Hughie” to “I think I’m aging out of it, but I’d really love to play Hughie’s dad.” And so when we got greenlit, I had my casting director reach out to his gang and said to them, “I don’t know if Simon’s serious about wanting to play Hughie’s dad, but if he is, he’s got the role if he wants it. Just let us know.”
That was really it. And to his incredible credit, the word came back from his representation that he really wants to do this and will carve out the time to do it even though he was traveling the world promoting Mission: Impossible [— Fallout]. He was busy. It impressed the shit out of me. And I think I think it just shows how much he cared about the comic and cared about the fans of the comic, and even though he couldn’t be Hughie he could at least be Hugh Campbell Sr. ’Cause I think so many people wanted to see him in that part. So at least he gets to do a version of it.
It was weird hearing him with an American accent.
Yeah, I know. We talked a lot about “Well, we should just have him be Scottish the way the character Hughie in the comics was.” And for a minute, we were doing it before we realized he keeps looking at Butcher like Butcher’s an alien, and he wouldn’t do that at all if he were raised in a Scottish household. He would say “Oh, hey, our families both come from overseas,” and he would have connected with Butcher — Hughie would have — in a way that wouldn’t have made sense for the story. So we realized that we needed Simon[’s character] to be completely American.
Is there anything from the comic series you wanted to do in the show but couldn’t or didn’t for whatever reason?
The only thing — and we’re addressing this in a way in Season 2 — is it’s a little bit of a bummer to not have Butcher’s dog, Terror, be one of the main characters. He’s makes a cameo — he shows up in the flashbacks. And we’re bringing Terror in in season 2 a little bit. It humanizes Butcher in such an interesting way to give him a dog that’s always there that he loves, and it would have been great for the character. But we are just living in the reality of television production. It’s so hard to film this show anyway with all of our challenges — we couldn’t bear an animal actor that isn’t listening and doesn’t care what the director is saying. We just didn’t have the resources to do that properly.
When you screened the first two episodes at San Diego Comic-Con, what got the biggest vocal reaction from the audience there?
They seem to really laugh and respond to the crazy-ass shit. Like Robin exploding, the superhero sex club, the ass bomb — I think they tended to love the crazy shit.
What stands out the most from your experience of promoting the show at Comic-Con?
Just being able to present the first two episodes to the fans at the fan premiere and speak to them and introduce the actors to them. I think the thing that’s really special about Comic-Con — I was talking to Antony Starr [who plays Homelander] about this, and we both agreed — it’s the way that fans are so genuine, and they just love you, and you love them, and there’s no pretense, and there’s no reservation, and there’s no anything but just pure enthusiasm. Feeling and hearing how enthusiastic they were and then how excited the actors were to be there for them, that’s a lovely moment.
The Boys is streaming now on Amazon Prime.
This interview was edited for clarity and length.