Superheroes are bastards — but don't take our word for it. In Amazon's The Boys, the world's greatest team of costumed crimefighters, the Seven, have bought into their own hype and celebrity status. As a result, these egomaniacs would rather indulge in their own perverse desires and dark impulses than save the day. For showrunner Eric Kripke, the creative force behind Supernatural and Timeless, The Boys, which premieres later this July, provided the opportunity to put a twisted spin on the current superhero explosion.
"If you look at the superheroes as sometimes they are a metaphor for celebrity, sometimes they are a metaphor for politics, and sometimes they are a metaphor for professional athletes, they are this endless fountain of stuff that we can comment on what's really happening in society," Kripke tells SYFY WIRE on the show's Toronto set.
Based on the highly graphic comic books by writer Garth Ennis and illustrator Darick Robertson, the TV series of the same name mostly follows a group of blue-collar vigilantes called "the Boys" who are tasked with keeping the Seven in line and exposing their sociopathic tendencies. It's a thankless job, but for some, such as their leader Billy Butcher, played by Karl Urban, it's personal.
"Here's what I really responded to," Urban notes during a brief break from filming. "We have so many television shows and movies out there that are predominantly focused on the stereotypical perception we all have of superheroes. What intrigued me was reading this material and that being completely flipped and seeing that these superheroes were tragically flawed and often anything but heroic. That appealed to me. It appealed to me the fact that it was a story essentially about the little guy taking on the man."
Out on location on a warm August afternoon, Urban is filming a scene where the Butcher introduces the Boys' latest recruit, Hughie (Jack Quaid), to a mysterious figure. Described as an "ordinary dude in extraordinary circumstances," Hughie's been dragged into Butcher's vendetta. To complicate matters, he soon finds himself torn between the Boys' mission and matters of the heart.
"Hughie learns a lot about himself through his relationship with Billy Butcher and Starlight, played by Erin Moriarty, and there's some conflict that happens with the three of their characters," Quaid says. "He's going back and forth between these two worlds. He starts to actually fall for one of the superheroes, and that's a big conflict for him, since he's also trying to get revenge in some ways on these guys."
On the flip side, the Female (Karen Fukuhara) stands out as the most brutal member of the Boys. The silent but deadly type, she relishes in eviscerating the enemy, ripping off faces or gouging out eyes. It would be easy to simply depict her as a killing machine, but the writers went to great lengths to infuse her with more personality and humanity.
"That was also my worry, just to be the protector of the group or the muscle of the group, but Eric and I spoke about the Female and her purpose and what she is within our TV version," Fukuhara explains. "He said, 'We want to explore what she would be like if she wasn't forced into a world of violence — and same with Frenchie — and how both of these characters struggle with their identity and their purpose and how they find it together.'"
The Boys won't shy away from the comics' mature or violent content, either. The comic introduced the Seven by having members Homelander, A-Train, and Black Noir demand oral sex from another hero, Starlight, or she would be kicked off the team. It's a disturbing sequence that especially hits home in the MeToo era. The show makes some changes to the scene, like swapping Homelander for the Aquaman-inspired hero the Deep, as played by Chace Crawford.
"That's the type of show they want to make," Crawford says. "They want it to be edgy and real and face things like that head-on. It's a jumping-off point for both our characters because of the downfall that he has. She becomes stronger because of it."
"I'm really not interested in shocking for shock's sake," Kripke says, explaining where he draws the line on the show's carnage and sex. "That's to me when it becomes exploitive. I'm not just there to make your jaw drop and say, 'Oh my God. That's so f***ed up.' I always try to attack everything from a point-of-view of character and start there and then let them be my guide. It's like, 'OK, I can have something insane happen to this person if it's going to tell me something about this person or make me really feel for this person, good or bad.'"
A self-proclaimed "crazy Garth Ennis fan" obsessed with The Boys, Kripke couldn't be more thrilled to be adapting the source material. However, in the end, it was the complex characters, "telling stories about family, whether related by blood or otherwise," and the depraved setting that truly hooked him.
"I really wanted shocking shit to happen around every corner," Kripke continues. "But I really wanted to tell a story about this group coming together and the loyalty that they have for each other and their relationship. In the middle of all the blood and sex and everything, for instance, Frenchie and Female have the sweetest story. That combination is right up my alley. I use the metaphor frequently of 'I like to create a very wholesome Christmas tree. And, then, I like to hang pornographic ornaments on it.' That's a nice summation of my tone."