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The Birth of the Super Antihero: How They Made the Uproarious First Season of ‘The Boys’

Back in 2019, Amazon’s irreverent series—which kicks off its second season on Friday—turned the industrial superhero complex on its head

Amazon/Ringer illustration

While making the first season of The Boys, executive producer Eric Kripke received a note from Amazon Studios about the fourth episode’s script. “There’s not enough superhero story in this,” he recalls the memo saying. Then he had an epiphany: We should do the plane.

In Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson’s bleakly funny comic book of the same name, which takes place in a world where the costumed good guys are actually pretty bad guys, there’s an incident involving superheroes being dispatched to save passengers on a hijacked transatlantic flight. The ensuing stupidity and recklessness of the “supes” leads to a horrific tragedy—what unfolds is so ugly that when Kripke got the job as showrunner, his friends wondered whether he’d shy away from bringing the sequence to life: “People who know the books responded with, ‘I dare you to do the plane scene.’”

In the face of his bosses’ request, he eventually accepted his pals’ challenge. The slightly stripped-down plane story line—the downright grotesque version of it in the mid-2000s comic features a whole team of incompetent superheroes and takes place on 9/11—follows two characters: Queen Maeve, a Wonder Woman clone who’s struggling with disillusionment and alcoholism, and Homelander, a Superman knockoff whose upbringing and powers have turned him into a violent narcissist. When the anti-superheroes enter the jet, it appears that they have the situation under control. One terrorist gets sucked out the door. Maeve (Dominique McElligott) snaps another’s neck. Homelander (Antony Starr) shoots laser beams from his eyes through a hijacker’s chest. As everyone on board collectively breathes a sigh of relief and claps, Homelander confidently announces, “It’s all over. It’s all safe. It’s gonna be fine.” Then, with his blond hair tousled, he mugs for both the crowd and the camera.

After giving a little girl a thumbs-up, Homelander goes into the cockpit with Maeve, where—oops, an unaccounted-for assailant has killed the pilot and has a pistol to the first officer’s head. Spooked, the gunman kills the officer, and in the process, shoots out the cockpit window. Incensed and hyperactive, Homelander retaliates by bisecting the goon with his laser eyes … which also inadvertently destroys the plane’s controls.

What happens next would never occur in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is the point. After a pained Maeve implores Homelander to use his super strength to lift the plane, he scoffs and asks, “How? There’s nothing to stand on. It’s fuckin’ air.” And besides, by then he’s already made up his mind. “From his perspective,” Kripke says, “none of these people are worth saving.”

The decision is profoundly cynical but to Homelander, it’s an absolutely necessary calculation based on the potential for a public relations disaster: He knows that if they save some but not all of the passengers, the survivors may expose the heroes’ cruel incompetence. As the imperiled folks begin to realize that their supposed saviors are going to abandon them, Maeve attempts to pierce Homelander’s callousness. “It was important to me that Maeve’s humanity comes through,” says director Fred Toye, who shot the scene over four days in a fuselage trucked up from the United States to the show’s set in Toronto. “You have one Greek chorus in the room.” Still, Maeve can’t even get him to muster enough empathy to leave with two children. “What,” he says, “so they tell the world that we left the rest of them to fucking die?”

As people plead for their lives, Homelander looks at Maeve, says, “Don’t die with them,” and holds out his hand. “She grabs his hand and recognizes she’s not them,” Toye says. “She’s not with them. She is this monster. She’s gonna have to accept that.”

In the scene’s final moments, Homelander and Maeve watch as the plane that they damaged, and then failed to guide to safety, crashes into the ocean below. The wreckage is an answer to the question that Kripke often asks: “If you had those powers in the real world, how would you really act?”

When Kripke started on The Boys in 2016, the year that Marvel’s two releases grossed a combined $1.8 billion at the box office, he hoped to subvert a genre that had long since become pop culture’s most lucrative force. “I started this show heading in, just wanting to take the piss out of superheroes,” he says. “That was the initial idea.” His ambitions grew, however, when he started to see that the source material was more relevant than he could’ve imagined.

“We all kind of quickly realized what a perfect metaphor it is for the exact moment we happen to be living in,” says Kripke, who also created the television series Supernatural, Revolution, and Timeless. “The blend of authoritarianism and celebrity and how it’s all packaged in social media, The Boys is about all of these things.”

The title of the show, whose second season premieres on September 4, refers to the vigilantes that set out to take down the Seven, a popular superhero squad that has been utterly stripped of heroism and is financed by the shady Vought Corporation, which tightly controls every aspect of its existence. It is a story about amorality and capitalism, a spin on the age-old concept that power corrupts all.

Superheroes Who Aren’t Heroic is an interesting (if unoriginal) premise, but what makes The Boys different is that it explores the reasons they lack the capability to be benevolent. What the show hypothesizes is that dropping corporate-controlled, all-powerful beings into a country plagued by addiction, militarism, misinformation, racism, sexual abuse, and xenophobia would have dangerous consequences. Superhero stories often assume that their protagonists are incorruptible forces for good. In the universe of The Boys, the most extraordinary Americans aren’t just susceptible to American pathologies—they’re the result of them.

“The fact that the supers are these gigantic, empowered monsters is only a natural by-product of American industrialism,” says Toye, who in recent years has directed episodes of Westworld, Snowpiercer, and the slightly adjacent superhero satire Watchmen. “And this corporation that runs them as the face of heroism, kind of mirrors a lot of the industries that we have, including entertainment. And it’s only just one shade darker than the reality that we’re experiencing.”

Consider: For Captain Marvel, whose title role is a fighter pilot played by Brie Larson, Marvel Studios partnered with the U.S. Air Force. The 2019 blockbuster was partly filmed at Edwards Air Force Base, an Air Force ad ran before screenings, and there was a flyover at the premiere. Needless to say, it’s not difficult to envision how the military might use a real superhero. The Boys spends its time imagining how such ethical dilemmas might play out. “I’m incredibly lucky that when I read Twitter and get enraged every morning, I have a place to put it,” Kripke says. “I have a job where I can process it.”

The showrunner and comics obsessive is a longtime fan of Ennis’s work, especially Preacher, a title about a rural Texas holy man who’s possessed by a disturbingly unholy force. “Which blew my fucking mind,” Kripke says. “So I would just go to comic shops—remember those?—and grab everything the guy ever wrote. And that’s how I found The Boys. And loved it, because it was just so shocking and irreverent.”

In the mid-2010s, after learning that Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s production company, Point Grey Pictures, was developing a Preacher TV series for AMC, Kripke asked one of the producers, his friend Ori Marmur, to meet. “He’s like, ‘What’s up?’ And I was like, ‘I just want to say fuck you for giving Preacher to somebody else,’” Kripke recalls. “And he’s like, ‘Well, we have The Boys, you want that?’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, I totally want that.’ And that was really it. Seth and Evan were circling it around the same time. And then we all just kind of came together.”

Rogen, Goldberg, and Kripke teamed up on the project for Cinemax before Amazon eventually acquired it. (Absurdist comedy king Adam McKay had tried and failed to make a movie version of The Boys before superhero blockbusters like Deadpool and Logan drew studios to R-rated comic book flicks.) The eight-episode first season, which premiered in July 2019, has a cast that’s more sprawling than most big-budget superhero movie ensembles.

The show’s de facto lead is Karl Urban, who plays Billy Butcher, the bitter, violent head of the Boys. Coming off of Thor: Ragnarok, the Kiwi actor was impressed by the production’s scope. “The super suits, for example, were proper Marvel quality,” says Urban, whose character’s East-End-by-way-of-Wellington accent has been dubbed “Cockwi.” “And as far as first impressions go, I remember being relieved that I didn’t have to walk around with some male version of a camel toe going on in my costume.”

The Boys are initially rounded out by Fast & Furious and Avatar’s Laz Alonso, who plays family man and reluctant collaborator Mother’s Milk, and Israeli TV star Tomer Capon, who plays Frenchie, a ruthless mercenary who likes to bake madeleines.

For the most part, the Seven are not masterminds. They are, by design, rather pathetic. Jessie T. Usher, the star of the LeBron James–produced Starz series Survivor’s Remorse and the Shaft reboot, plays A-Train, the world’s fastest man. To maintain his ludicrous speed, the Flash-like hero injects copious amounts of Compound V, the drug that’s the source of the supers’ power. To prepare for the role, Usher read up on steroid use. “What was most helpful,” he says, “was reading about how athletes who had abused substances felt after their careers were over.”

Gossip Girl’s Chace Crawford plays A-Train’s buddy, the Aquaman-esque the Deep, a spoiled bro who beneath his predatory bravado has severe body image issues caused by certain aspects of his fish-like anatomy. “I kind of wanted to make those moments real and vulnerable and not glib and not shy away from that,” Crawford says. Of course, there are several occasions when his character devolves into comic relief.

“In the show, we apply the most stringent reality we can,” Kripke says. “We’re always trying to ground things. We’re always trying to make it feel completely as it exists in our world. With this glaring exception of the Deep—for some reason we have this tolerance for absurdity that works with that character that works with no other character.”

The Deep is ridiculous. But not all of the characters in The Boys are. The source of much of the show’s humanity can be seen in the traumatized electronics store employee and new recruit to the Boys, Hughie (Jack Quaid), as well as in the naive new member of the Seven, Starlight (Erin Moriarty).

“You’re kind of looking at this world with fresh eyes as if you’re the audience,” says Moriarity, whose character is a middle-class Iowan named Annie January. “And then you get exposed to the extent of how dark this world is.”

If Hughie and Starlight are the show’s conscience, then its shriveled heart is Homelander. Starr, a New Zealand native whose last major role was the lead in Cinemax crime thriller Banshee, landed the juicy part after making an audition tape while filming an indie movie in the desert. “The role needs to be this really charming, American boy scout but revealing the cracks of sociopathy beneath it,” Kripke says. “He really latched onto that ‘farm boy handsome, but there’s something really wrong there’ vibe. I think he made it undeniable.” To the showrunner, the character has shades of both Superman and “a certain combovered president”—someone simultaneously powerful and weak.

“He really loves the Trump metaphor, which is helpful to a point,” says Starr, whose disturbed character, the audience eventually learns, was raised in a lab. “But bizarrely I think there’s more dimension to Homelander than there is to real-life Donald Trump.”

Homelander literally wraps himself in an American flag—his red-white-and-blue cape has stars and stripes just like Old Glory. At Vought headquarters, he’s spotted staring closely at his own oversized portrait. “He emerged mostly from this character who is disassociating from his own humanity and finds what’s human about him really distasteful and ugly,” Kripke says. “But he’s inherently human, so every time he acts like a human, he hates himself more. It’s this mix of power and total empty blackhole neediness.”

“It’s eerie to see [Starr] do something that kind of shakes the room and they yell, ‘Cut,’ and his energy doesn’t change,” Crawford says. “And you’re just like, ‘Man, they really got the right guy for the job.’ He is in no way a psycho but this is believable for me. If he had these powers, I’d be scared.”

In a recent video call, when I asked Starr how he switches on his character’s terrifying smugness, his face briefly turned serious. Then he deadpanned, “What smugness?”

New to The Boys? A warning: The violence isn’t sanitized like in most Marvel movies. In the first few minutes of the hard-R pilot, A-Train accidentally speeds right through Hughie’s girlfriend, Robin. The impact doesn’t just kill her; it disintegrates her. All that’s left are her disembodied hands, which Hughie is still holding.

“That was the scene I used to elevator pitch my friends,” Quaid says. “It was a very hard show to describe because it had so many aspects to it. But as soon as I just described that scene, they’re like, ‘We get it. Superheroes cause collateral damage. They’re real.’”

In truth, the damage the series’s superheroes cause is not simply collateral. It’s quite often on purpose. The same issues of venality, misogyny, and domineering that plague American workplace culture also exist in the world of The Boys. After Starlight joins the Seven, the Deep tells her that to stay on the team, she must perform oral sex on him. If she doesn’t, he threatens to claim to Homelander that she attacked him. “It’s a singular event that has me abruptly introduced to the extent of the corruption,” Moriarty says. In another scene, when the mayor of Baltimore threatens to blackmail Vought with his knowledge of Compound V, Homelander personally wrecks his plane, which has a young boy on board. And that’s just in the pilot.

It’s clear from the outset that the Seven’s righteous image is a front to conceal their true objective: to amass money and power for their corporate overlords. Led by company vice president Madelyn Stillwell, who Academy Award nominee Elisabeth Shue infuses with just the right amount of calmly calculated malevolence, Vought tries to insert itself into the American military’s chain of command. To gain enough influence to do that, its stars must shine as brightly as possible.

The superheroes are pushed to at least look like they’re trying to save the world, because that results in good P.R. In fact, the supers follow a crime-fighting schedule so that all instances of do-gooding are captured and then posted on social media. There aren’t just movies about superheroes; the superheroes appear in them. And when Starlight goes off script at a Christian festival and speaks openly about her sexual assault, Vought responds by forcing the Deep to film a vague apology straight out of the famous abuser playbook—before banishing him to Sandusky, Ohio. But instead of actually promising the survivor of his heinous assault justice or support, the company opts to market Starlight as an icon of women’s empowerment.

Even missing supers are exploited to save face. When the invisible Translucent is nowhere to be found for weeks, a Vought copy writer suggests this: “All we can say is he’s fighting MS-13.”

As brutal as The Boys can be, it is satire—sometimes a hilarious one at that. “It’s gotta be fucking funny and entertaining and you have to know that,” Toye says. “I do think having a sense of humor means a lot when it comes to working on The Boys.”

In the same episode as the plane crash, there’s a B plot about the Deep—who Crawford plays like Stifler from American Pie if he could talk to fish—attempting to save a dolphin from a life in captivity in an ersatz SeaWorld called Oceanland. After Toye and the production team figured out that a CG dolphin wouldn’t work for the rescue sequence, they scoured Toronto and found the owner of a realistic puppet that had been used in a pomegranate juice commercial. “I came down to the studio and watched them test it,” says Toye, whose wife Sandra is an animal rights attorney, “and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, this is genius.’” Scored to “Wannabe” by the Spice Girls, the scene ends with a collision causing the dolphin to fly through a van window and onto the highway, where a truck runs it over.

It’s this kind of over-the-top, tragicomic set piece that The Boys does particularly well. Toye attributes the show’s unique tone to Kripke, who has managed to keep it from veering into pure silliness or nihilism. “I think the success of the series has a great deal to do with Eric’s personal history with the superhero genre,” Toye says, “and his ability to turn it on its side because of his deep knowledge of the inside of it.”

Still, the cast describes Kripke as the opposite of a Comic Book Guy style know-it-all. When Alonso read a scene where Mother’s Milk explains why he’s risking his life to rejoin the Boys, he thought that it needed to be tweaked. “I felt very passionate about adding a little bit more of a Black man’s plight on this planet and in society’s voice to that monologue,” the actor says. “And Eric allowed me to rewrite it. He said, ‘Send me what Mother’s Milk would say. Let the character speak.’ And I wrote the monologue and he loved it. And the next thing you know we got a copy of the script that day as we’re shooting other scenes with the new monologue in there.”

And speaking of the Spice Girls: When Urban first learned that he would be trying to motivate his teammates with a pep talk that name-checked the ’90s pop stars, he was skeptical. “I just thought that was ridiculous,” he says. “I had this conversation with Eric. He’s like, ‘No, no, trust me, it’ll be good.’ I was like, ‘OK.’ And so I went away and I said, ‘If we’re gonna do this, we’ve only named three Spice Girls. We’ve gotta go into detail about what the other Spice Girls were up to.’ We thought it’d be really funny if all of a sudden Butcher became very specific about what Ginger Spice was up to, and what Posh was up to ...”

There are moments in The Boys—Hughie blowing Translucent to bloody bits with explosives that had been shoved into the superhero’s rectum; Butcher smashing the face of double-crossing telepath Mesmer, who’s played by Haley Joel Osment, into a sink in a public bathroom; Butcher employing a Compound V–weaned baby with laser eyes as his own personal death machine—that border on gratuitous. Yet it’s always hard to look away.

“Seth Rogen, Eric Kripke, they all have this kind of perverse sense of humor that pushes the line,” Alonso says. “They push it right to the very, very, very tip of offending you and every now and then they’ll cross it but that’s what I think people come to the show for.”

“It’s frightening but it’s also kind of alluring,” says Karen Fukuhara, who plays the Female, a traumatized character with superhuman abilities that are the result of a cruel experiment. “They’re horrible people, but somehow you’re still so drawn to the character and you’re interested in what they’ll do next.”

To its benefit, The Boys plays with, makes fun of, and at times ignores its genre’s typically rigid conventions. That leads to a level of twistiness that’s just not found in many comic book–based films and TV series. “I think that’s kind of what makes our show a little different and special,” Fukuhara says. “Every character’s trajectory and action is unpredictable. I think with a lot of superhero movies or shows you can kind of tell what they’re gonna do, because the [heroes] are at the core good people.”

The show’s transgressiveness, however, wouldn’t be as entertaining or effective if it weren’t counterbalanced by genuine, if unsubtle, social commentary. The second season introduces a new member of the Seven played by Aya Cash from FXX comedy You’re the Worst. If you want a clue about her character’s motivations, her name is, welp, Stormfront.

The Boys may hit the audience over the head with its message, but that’s on purpose. Kripke and Co. have made the determination that it’s best to take on America’s glaring, deep-rooted problems with a sledgehammer, not a scalpel. Case in point: the end of that fourth episode in Season 1. As investigators arrive at a rocky shore near the plane crash site, Homelander surveys the scene while trying to look somber. When a cable news reporter notices him, he asks for an interview.

“They didn’t have to die,” Homelander says, feigning tears. “We arrived three minutes after the plane went down. And why? Because we’re not in the chain of command. If NORAD called us before the scrambled jets, then we could’ve saved them.” With those gathered on the beach cheering, the lying hero ends his speech by shouting, “Whoever did this to us will hear from all of us!”

This, Toye says, is “heroism turned upside down.” But as evil as Homelander is, his playbook feels familiar. After all, powerful people using emotional pleas to push violent agendas is a long-standing American custom. If superheroes did exist, there’s little reason to believe that they would buck that tradition. A world with them would probably look almost identical to a world without them.

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