The perfect show for this brutal, stranger-than-fiction era, Amazon’s The Boys takes a simple conceit — how would superheroes behave if they really moved among us? — and pushes it to uproarious extremes.
The series, which is based on a D.C.-imprint comic by Garth Ennis and recently aired its second season, follows an Avengers-style team called The Seven, led by the preening and murderous Homelander (Antony Starr) — a blonde-pompadoured blowhard who wraps himself in Old Glory and claims only he can save the world, but secretly fantasizes about laying waste to protesters with his heat vision rays. Sound familiar?
The Hollywood Reporter caught up with the show’s 46-year-old creator, Eric Kripke (also creator of the long-running CW hit Supernatural), to explore the show’s anti-fascist underpinnings, its jabs at Hollywood cults like Scientology and NXIVM and why Marvel movies led to a leader like Donald Trump. [Some season two spoilers follow.]
The second season of The Boys was as much a social commentary on our current, insane era as it was a thrilling superhero saga. How much do you think about current events when you write the show?
We think a lot about current events, but obviously we can’t predict the future. This is the same shit now that was happening when we wrote it in 2018. People forget that two years ago we were still dealing with cops pulling over African-American men, an incredibly amount of xenophobia and “there’s good people on both sides” of white nationalism. Maybe the Proud Boys weren’t a household word, but Charlottesville was.
We write a lot about what frankly frustrates us. We’re living in the world’s dumbest dystopia — and we happen to have lucked into a show that is the perfect metaphor for this exact moment. Not by design. I think we discovered it. And because we have that, we sort of feel both an obligation and sort of a gleeful mischievousness to chase that down as far as we can and really talk about the things in the world that are really bothering us.
You grew up Jewish in Ohio, right?
Isn’t that where Superman came from? Two Jewish guys from Ohio?
Yeah, I guess so. Yeah.
I was thinking about that as I watched the show’s Nazism themes boil to a head this season. Does any of The Boys come out of personal experience? And speaking of Supermen, where does Homelander lie on the spectrum of white nationalism?
A few things: The myth of superheroes themselves — though often created by young Jewish writers in the ’30s and ’40s — doesn’t really apply as cleanly today, because there’s these undeniable fascist underpinnings to it. They’re there to protect white, patriotic America. That’s what they were designed to do, that’s what they do. They’re protecting the status quo. When the status quo is problematic, suddenly they become adversarial — not your hero. And I think it was written by a lot of people who at that time were trying their level best to fit in and vanish within white, American society.
But we just don’t live in that time anymore. So the myth of the superhero taken straight, that’s where it starts to become fascist. Because they’re protecting a world that doesn’t and shouldn’t exist. Superheroes are inherently MAGA. In terms of Stormfront, there was nothing specifically personal behind it. It was just, I hate Nazis. I hate alt-right white nationalism. I hate racism in all of its forms.
Yet the show has still managed to be accused, mostly on Twitter and other social media forums, of promoting “anti-white bigotry.”
It’s frankly stunning to me that it’s a “controversial” choice to make Nazis your villain. I’d have accepted the opposite. I’d have accepted, like, “Hey man — are you really sure you wanna go with such a cliché?” I’d say, “Fair point, let’s talk about that.” For some reason, now it’s an “edgy” choice. So welcome to 2020.
I was really interested in exploring what modern white supremacy looks like. Because in The Boys comics, the character Stormfront is just a straight-out Nazi. But the white supremacy I see in the modern day is cloaked in social media. They’re often very attractive young people who were using social media better than we are and presenting themselves as free thinkers and outside the box — when really they’re just peddling the same shit people have peddled for thousands of years.
There’s a few things that resonated with me this season that I’d like to talk about: First is the Church of the Collective. Is that something from the comics or your own creation?
We came up with it. It’s a combination of a couple different Hollywood fringe religions or cults. There’s a little bit of NXIVM in there. Everyone says, “Oh, that’s Scientology.” It’s actually a smoothie of a bunch of different ones. It mostly came about because we love writing for The Deep. For us, The Deep is the Forrest Gump of Hollywood trends. So in season one, he was embroiled in a #MeToo moment. And in season two, we’re like, “All right — he should be like Allison Mack and go join a cult.” And then in season three he’s gonna be like Leah Remini in fighting back against the cult. He’s just going to keep blowing through these different Hollywood points. The idea of him trying to self-realize when he’s just such an idiot was entertaining to us.
You don’t see Hollywood dealing much with body shame, especially as it pertains to men. I know people who have benefited from ayahuasca trips and those kinds of truth-telling drugs, and I couldn’t help but think that The Deep really did have a personal breakthrough there.
He did, for like a minute. And then in the next episode, Homelander was like, “Cover your gills, they’re disgusting.” All the progress he made melted right off him right there in that moment. But that’s a pretty good microcosm of how we attack the show, because we really start character first. We said, “OK, he needs to have that conversation with somebody. And I don’t remember who because the room is a hive mind, but someone said, “Let’s put him on shrooms and have his gills tell him.” And after everyone was done laughing for 30 seconds, I say, “Absolutely, but only if they can sing to him. And they have to sing, ‘You Are So Beautiful.'”
The Boys does a great job of depicting things that are almost too insane to believe. And yet there they are. I’m thinking for example of the whale scene. Is there a line that for whatever reason you can’t or won’t cross?
I don’t find there’s a line. I think it has to give us something for the story. We try really hard to not just be shocking gratuitously. Craig Rosenberg, who wrote that episode and also brought you such hits as “dolphin through the windshield,” he pitched that to me maybe 10 times and each time I was like, “I feel like we did the sea mammal thing and it just feels like we’re just going bigger.” But he came at me again and he’s like, “Well, we are telling of Hughie’s darkest journey in his moment – at the darkest moment he was really is in the belly of the beast.” Once he told me that, I was like, “OK. We’re doing it.”
Do the effects and art departments ever look at the script and say, “There’s just no way. We can’t do that.”
No, no — we have an amazing production designer, Arv Grewal, who rubs his hands together with glee at the thought of pulling off stuff that he’s obviously never pulled off before. We have a few insane things coming in season three that he was just over the moon about. Some of the wildest shit I’ve ever even contemplated. Now, the line producers are like, “What the hell are you doing? We’re spending how much on this whale?”
Do you stay within the same budget each season? Or do they give you more money to play with each season?
We got a little more money between two and one, but it still wasn’t enough. I’ll put it this way: We went a certain amount over budget season two, because that’s what it really costs to make the show. But now we know how much it really costs to make it and that’s what we got for season three.
What do you think are the shortcomings of Marvel and D.C. movies and TV shows that you were trying to correct with The Boys? For example, I’m thinking of that interview that Stormfront and Starlight do where they’re cheerleading about female empowerment — “Girls get it done!” — and how it reminded me of that one shot towards the end of Avengers: Endgame of all the female superheroes.
People might be surprised to know this, but I’m actually a fan of the Marvel stuff. The filmmaking is often impeccable. I actually really enjoy the humorous tone that a lot of them are written in. They’re snarky and fast and glib and I like that style. My issue with them are not the movies themselves, but that there’s too many of them overall.
I sort of believe it’s dangerous, not to overstate it or be overdramatic, but it’s a little dangerous to train an entire generation to wait for someone strong to come in and save you. That’s I think how you end up with people like Trump and populists who say, “I’m the only one who can come in, it’s going to be me.” And I think in the way that pop-culture conditions people subtly, I think it’s conditioning them the wrong way — because there’s just too much of it. So I think it’s nice to have a corrective, at least a small one in us, to say, “They’re not coming to save you. Hold your family together and save yourselves.”
As for “girls get it done,” a lot of that came from our executive producer, Rebecca Sonneshine, who came in after the weekend Endgame opened. She was just furious. I saw it, too, and I was like, “That was the dumbest, most contrived—” And she’s like, “Don’t get me started.” She found it condescending and I agreed. So that just created for us a target, a satirical target. When there’s something really ridiculous in either superhero or celebrity or Hollywood culture, we’ll immediately go after it. It’s an easy shot.
It seems like everything in the superhero realm causes all kinds of backlash these days, like the Joker controversy for example. By tipping all these sacred cows, are you worried about a backlash hitting The Boys?
I don’t have control over that. As a writer, you can drive yourself crazy trying to worry about what the reactions will be. The truth is we’re firmly within the superhero genre. We have action scenes. We have superheroes fighting. People are launching lasers and shit at each other. The world is at stake. We have all of those things. We’re just deconstructing it as we go and playing the thought experiment of “what would they really be like in this world?” So I think the show works for people who love superhero stuff and people who hate superhero stuff.
What can you tell me about the spinoff?
First, it didn’t come from Amazon telling us, “Hey, you’re a hit, you must do a lot more of the same.” It came from me, [The Boys executive producers] Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg and Craig Rosenberg just talking. We stumbled on to this corner of the universe that we really loved and we took it to them. So it’s a college show. It’s a Vought-owned college where young kids with powers are trained as to how to be proper superheroes, all leading to an NBA-style draft at the end of the year. It’s sort of like a college sports show meets Fame, because they also have to go to acting classes and marketing classes. It’s going to be a very character-driven, hopefully incredibly realistic, college show.