Growing up is hard to do. There are so many moments of opportunity and wonder; so many raw indignities and sticky situations. I mean, the sheer audacity of one’s menarche, just showing up unannounced! The cresting intensities of shame over one’s size and shape and place in the world! To become a promising young adult, you need both vigilance and flexibility: One minute you’re warding off peer/parental pressure that threatens the soft fontanelle of the self; the next you’re caught in the logistical/emotional tangle of making out with someone on a hard twin-extra-long dorm room bed. And even if you manage to stagger through all those challenges, there’s a bonus round—in the form of a creeping realization that the very authorities who spend their lives overseeing people and institutions might be busy undermining them, too. Welcome to maturity, baby.
In the new series Gen V, which premieres on Amazon Prime this Friday, the cocky coeds at a primo institution of higher learning called Godolkin University confront every one of the above awkward milestones—each with an unusual flourish. That’s because these characters, played by actors including Jaz Sinclair, Lizze Broadway, and Chance Perdomo, aren’t just driven by ambition, or even typical late-adolescent horndog hormones. (Though of course there’s plenty of that, too: One of the show’s marketing partnerships is with Astroglide, after all.)
No, what really distinguishes the “God U” youths is that they are also vessels for a heaping dose of something harder, something faster-higher-stronger, something called Compound V: the expensive, experimental elixir that has given all these students advanced special powers—whether they like it or not. One can spontaneously ignite. Another wags a prehensile tail. Yet another plays bibbidi-bobbidi-boo with blood plasma. Instead of attending classes on trigonometry and English lit, they take crime fighting and personal branding.
Godolkin, in other words, is a school for emergent young superheroes. And Gen V is itself a chip off the old block of a bigger super-antihero franchise, The Boys, whose presence looms watchfully over the new series like a group of grownups inquiring what exactly one plans to do following graduation, hmm?
The Boys graduated from comic book form to TV in 2019, and since then, Amazon Prime has aired three seasons of the peppy, gory show, drawing many millions of viewers. (A fourth season is in postproduction and should air in 2024.) And over the years, the universe around the show has expanded. Creators solicited a loosely connected series of animated shorts set in and around the Boysphere called Diabolical, which came out in 2022. This summer, several The Boys characters were added as playable options in the video game Call of Duty.
And now, with Gen V, the show’s creators have distilled the harsh world of The Boys into a red Solo cup, topping it off with some sweetness and asking audiences to give it a hearty chug. As it turns out, the concoction packs a strong punch.
If the IP underpinning The Boys were an actual boy, he would be old enough to think about applying to Godolkin University by now. The comic book, created by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson, was first published in late 2006, via WildStorm, an imprint of the sprawling DC Comics. In early 2007, though, DC—the ancestral home to Superman and Wonder Woman and so many other mighty icons—abruptly announced it would cease the production and distribution of the series. Issue #6 of the super-antihero title was out on shelves at the time; issues #7-10, which had been expected, were put on indefinite hold.
A couple of weeks later, Ennis spoke with Publishers Weekly to theorize about what went awry. Or actually, who: the very archetypes who are supposed to be forces for good. “You can have comics where people do awful things to each other, like Preacher,” Ennis said then, referring to an earlier project of his about a possessed but mortal man of the cloth. “But you can’t have a comic where super people do awful things to each other.” Not on DC’s dime, anyway.
In the wide world of The Boys, the heroes—or “supes,” as they are called—possess various lifesaving/life-altering powers and properties that enable them to, say, zoom or blast or harness energy or shape-shift or control minds. (Not all the mutations are quite so ideal: One comic book character has to go through life with sledgehammers for hands; another one’s “power” is the extremely acidic nature of his barf.) Armed and saddled with these resources, which were given to them by Compound V, supes carry out acts of bravery and peacekeeping around the planet. And some of them—particularly “The Seven,” a sort of bickering Justice League–like syndicate—amass mega-celebrity status.
Standard stuff! Except that at the same time, the characters are constantly doing “the most ghastly things, and behaving in the most awful way,” Ennis said. They maim; they murder; they terrorize innocents and cover up crimes. They fill aching inner voids by lording their powers over civilians and sometimes one another. They are propped up by a big bad conglomerate called Vought International that has tentacles in all sorts of major industries and halls of power, from Vought-a-Burger to Vought News.
And—most problematically, from DC Comics’ perspective—they “look a bit too much like the company’s regular output,” concluded Ennis in 2007 as he pondered what to do next. “That just will not fly.”
Ultimately, The Boys found a different distributor and ascended regardless, publishing 72 print issues. And Adam McKay was at one point slated to helm a film version of the IP, but it never panned out, in part because studios worried it sounded too much like the sardonic 2009 film Watchmen. Instead, years later, a group including showrunner Eric Kripke and producers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg brought the story of Homelander and Starlight and Hughie and many, many others from the page to the screen.
Brutal, merry, sososo gruesome and routinely way over the line, the series has since established a name for itself as a ruthless critique of the comparatively square superhero entertainment–industrial complex exemplified by DC and Marvel. And in doing so, The Boys set in motion a sprawling multimedia expansion of its own.
Here’s the question now: With the growth of the franchise—with the very fact that it now makes sense to use the word “franchise”—does The Boys risk becoming the very thing it mocks? “We’re trying really hard to not be scum-f*** sellouts,” Kripke told Entertainment Weekly in May 2022, when Season 3 of The Boys was coming out. He was talking about possible spinoffs: “We’re trying really hard to make sure that each show or each idea would be something we just want to do on our own anyway, whether The Boys was connected to it or not.”
Gen V was already in the works at the time, as a sort of proof of concept. The idea was loosely based on a comic book plot line about a group called the G-Men, which was itself loosely based on lampooning the idea of the X-Men. The beauty of the mostly siloed-off school setting included the ability to exist in conversation with, but not be hamstrung by, the goings-on in past and future seasons of The Boys.
But the idea of a college-age show was particularly appealing because it enabled creators to play around not just with superhero arcs, but also with generational coming-of-age tropes—things like gossiping and sneaking around and dodging one’s parents and hugging toilets and blacking out. (The collegiate setting also allowed for the shoehorning in of an ambitious number of dicks.)
“If the college show works, then maybe there’s appetite for more,” Kripke told EW last summer. “But I think we’re in no rush because this only works if each show is totally different than the other.” So whether audiences will get more Gen V—or more spinoffs, generally—will depend on how this season is received (though there were rumblings earlier this year that a Season 2 writers room, under the stewardship of Michele Fazekas, was already being assembled).
But I’d quibble with Kripke’s assessment that Gen V is “totally different” than what we’ve seen of The Boys so far—because there is one attribute that all the best supe-related content shares: a focus, above all else, on the who of the story. Sometimes it feels like calling The Boys, or now Gen V, a superhero satire or send-up doesn’t get it quite right. Sure, the show often pokes fun at the conventions of the genre, but it really gets rolling when it does the opposite: daring to take the fictional constructs of its world extremely seriously, all the way to their sometimes upsetting, often illuminating conclusions. Of all the shocking physical displays throughout Gen V, nothing chilled me to the bone more than a moment in which the show demonstrated what could happen if a classic throwaway taunt from one sibling to another were to come true with no take-backs.
A particularly interesting quirk of Gen V—as opposed to early seasons of The Boys—is that no one is really under the impression that they came by their powers divinely; everyone seems to understand that their own parents probably made a buck by subjecting their babies to Compound V, which implies its own set of horrors.
It’s in these sorts of moments that Gen V is most successful. While the show is sometimes a little bit heavy-handed in the way it tackles topics like eating disorders and self-harm, it is often good at letting things breathe when it comes to the ramifications of being superhuman at a tender age. The Boys has already primed viewers to see just what kind of havoc too much strength and power can wreak; Gen V takes these same struggles and places them in the bodies of impulsive, moody, horny young adults, with predictably chaotic and compelling results. All narrators are unreliable in this telling; all motives are malleable. The supes don’t behave badly just for the hell of it—they behave badly because to live that life would be hellish.
The good news is, you can emerge from a crucible relatively unscathed. Just ask anyone who has ever gone through the transformation of growing up, superpowered or otherwise. Gen V—like The Boys before it—traffics proudly in the creation of out-of-this-world, hyper-fictional, larger-than-life characters and stories. But because those stories are so deliberately messy and gross and uncomfortable, they also wind up feeling personal all the same.