I was introduced to the new Amazon Prime show “The Boys” at San Diego Comic-Con this year and was immediately intrigued. I went to the “activation experience,” which took you inside the first episode of the show and let you help some of “the boys” solve a superhero-related crime. That’s right, the superheroes in this show aren’t exactly the good guys. In fact, they’re a bunch of assholes. Most of them anyway.
Propped up by big corporate money and power, the “Supes” are essentially the worst kind of fabricated and manufactured celebrities, their personas carefully constructed to appeal to the unsuspecting masses as the only hope for an increasingly frightened and powerless humanity. If that sounds a little too close to real life right now, that’s exactly the point.
That’s the premise of the comic on which “The Boys” is based, and the premise of the Amazon series as well. The show has something to say about who holds power in our current culture and how they wield it, including the role of social media and propaganda in shaping people’s views and keeping them in a perpetual state of fear – which makes a superhero who swoops in to save the day and claims to be able to keep everyone safe very appealing indeed. It’s a dark, gritty, cynical world that “The Boys” inhabit, but it reflects the fear-mongering and online manipulation that is all too real, that make people long for “saviors” and turn the other way when those saviors turn out to be the actual monsters.
All that hits a little too close to home, and if that’s all the show was about, the darkness would be too much to take on top of the overwhelming dose of darkness I get every day through every type of media. What makes “The Boys” instead as hopeful as the traditional superhero tropes it subverts were intended to be is the existence of a resistance. In the tradition of “Supernatural’s” Sam and Dean, the resistance comes in the form of a bunch of just plain humans, who nevertheless are willing to go against the odds and try to do what’s right. Instead of taking out demons and wendigos, the Boys are going after the Supes. Outgunned in terms of powers and definitely the underdogs, nevertheless the Boys are every bit as invested in the “always keep fighting” mantra that has made “Supernatural” such an inspiring show. I’ve only watched one episode so far, and I’m already rooting for them.
For a show whose first episode begins with an ultraviolent occurrence and includes a decadent sex-fueled club scene and some full-frontal (equal opportunity) nudity, “The Boys” tackles complex and relevant themes with a surprisingly deft hand. Main character Hughie, whose quest for revenge is instigated by one of the Supes callously running through his girlfriend at super speed and exploding her, has his trauma examined instead of just tossed out there as an explanation for what happens next. And while everyone on the show seems to live somewhere in the morally ambiguous grey area that I love seeing characters struggle through, that goes for the Supes too – or at least one of them.
The premiere episode also takes the time to examine new Supe Starlight’s recruitment into the elite “Seven”. Presented as young and naïve and fully buying into the cult of celebrity that she thinks she craves, but Starlight soon finds that the Supes are not who she thought they were when she had that poster of The Deep on her wall. It’s a pointed commentary that was fascinating to me as a psychologist who’s studied celebrity and fandom for the past decade plus. What makes it even more interesting is that there’s significant sexual assault-based trauma for Starlight that happens with that realization, and it too is not glossed over but explored realistically. That story line pulled on my heartstrings more than anything else in the first episode, and anchored the show in a feminist slant while critiquing the misogyny and power dynamics inherent in that world – and our own.
At the Comic-Con press room, Erin Moriarty (who plays Starlight) said she loved the fact that you initially believe that Starlight is going to fit into the familiar stereotype, but it turns out she’s a lot more than that. So far, one episode in, she feels like the moral compass of the show, along with Hughie, who she just so happens to meet on a park bench as they struggle to come to terms with their respective traumas and how those traumas have changed how they view themselves.
“The Boys” is executive produced by Seth Rogen and Eric Kripke, based on the comic series by Garth Ennis. It stars Karl Urban (Billy Butcher) as leader of the Boys, along with recently traumatized Hughie (Jack Quaid). The rest of ‘the boys’ are Karen Fukuhara (The Female), Laz Alonso (Mother’s Milk), and Tomer Kapon (Frenchie). The Supes include Anthony Starr (Homelander), Dominique McElligott (Queen Maeve), Jesse T. Usher (A Train), Chace Crawford (The Deep), Nathan Mitchell (Black Noir) and Erin Moriarty (Starlight). Elisabeth Shue plays Madelyn Stillwell, the corporate PR person who pulls the strings with a chilling smile.
As a passionate “Supernatural” fan, I was interested in “The Boys” because it’s produced by Eric Kripke, who created the characters I love so much on “Supernatural.” I asked him a question at the press room for The Boys at Comic-Con, but couldn’t wait to talk with him some more about his new show and its similarities to his first ‘baby’, “Supernatural.” We’ve stayed a little bit in touch over the past decade but having a chance to actually chat was a treat.
Eric Kripke: Hey Lynn, how are you?
Lynn: It’s been like ten years since we’ve had an actual conversation!
E: It probably has been, but I follow you on twitter and we’ve had some twitter conversations and emails and you seem like you’re doing great, so I know what you’ve been up to. And thank you so much for all the support over the years.
L: Pretty sure I should be thanking you – I’ve written six books about your show (“Supernatural”) that helped me get tenure and promotion to professor. Thank you for that!
E: Well, you’re welcome!
It really had been a while. I first chatted with Eric Kripke way back in 2008 when I began researching and writing books about fandom and celebrity, mostly focused on the show he created that I had fallen head over heels in love with, “Supernatural.” We did a few phone interviews and met up at Comic-Con that year to chat some more. We talked a lot about fandom and of course about fannish creativity and fanfiction.
Eric’s first question: Am I ever in it?
Me: Umm, I guess? I may have run across a few…
Kripke: Oooh, is it porn? You have to send me that!
Fast forward to 2019 and Eric’s Reddit AMA when someone asked him if he’d read any “Supernatural” erotica…
L: I had to laugh when I saw you mention that fic with you and Jared from back in the day (laughing). I mean, what you said is true, you were assertive in it…
L: I had forgotten what it was actually about and was like OMG that’s right…
E: Yeah (laughing) I’ve never forgotten it, it made a major impact that’s for sure.
L: Well, either you’re welcome or… I’m sorry?
E: (still laughing) Yeah right, I think a little of both.
Side note: Eric has always been fine with fans “playing in his sandbox” and understands transformative works as a sign of affection for his characters and his worlds. There’s a whole chapter on our early conversations about “Supernatural” in Fangasm “Supernatural” Fangirls if you’re curious.
L: Anyway, “The Boys!” I’ve watched the first episode, I’m a bit old school in that I like to watch one at a time and space it out and sort of digest it. I LOVED the first episode and I think other “Supernatural” fans will really love the show too. There are some similarities to “Supernatural” for sure.
E: Mm hmm
L: For one thing, the protagonist is sent on a hunt for revenge because the love of his life is violently killed – Mary burning on the ceiling is an iconic image for “Supernatural”, and so is Robin being decimated and Hughie standing there still holding her bloody hands!
E: Hmm. That one, I mean yes, now that you’ve pointed it out, there are similarities to that. Robin dying in The Boys is taken almost frame for frame from the comic book so it’s funny, that hadn’t really occurred to me about that connection, because in The Boys the instigating incident is so infamous for anyone who’s a fan of the books. It was my job to capture it as faithfully as possible and that’s mostly where my head was, but yeah. Also, I think where they’re similar is there are a lot of tonal and thematic similarities. In a lot of ways, The Boys is a hard R “Supernatural.”
L: (silently) A hard R “Supernatural”….ohgod yes please…
E: And it’s funny because you don’t even realize these things until it’s hindsight. I don’t set out to say oh I’m gonna make something for “Supernatural” fans, I just make stuff – the only person I really try to please is me. But because I love “Supernatural” and those are the kind of things that I love, I guess it stands to reason that if left to my own devices to make another show that I put all my love into, it will have some similarities.
L: That makes sense
E: What The Boys is really ultimately about is these kind of very down to earth middle class blue collar people taking on these arrogant ultra powerful forces that are overwhelming and all powerful. In “Supernatural” it’s angels and demons and (laughing) God…
E: And in The Boys, it’s the sort of pantheon of superheroes. The incredibly big guy with magical powers basically is something that I’m clearly interested in. I think I really like the idea of blue collar no bullshit guys taking on and puncturing these huge myths and kind of having to bring them down to earth just through their own wits, because they’re outmatched…
L: Yeah, and that’s all they have, their own smarts.
E: And that says something to me, I think, about the world. Like we’re always up against these seemingly insurmountable forces, but there are things we can do to get some equality. You just have to – it’s not easy and it’s not fair – but you just have to keep banging away at it.
L: I think that message, that “Always Keep Fighting” mantra, is one of the things that made “Supernatural” really strike a chord with people. When it premiered, the world was changing. The internet, social media, the ability to manipulate in frightening ways through technology – that was all happening. So I think that everyman theme resonated with people. But maybe even more now. And I think this show really tackles all of that. I mean, I’ve only watched one episode and it’s already taken on capitalism, Hollywood, fame, social media manipulation, sexism, misogyny, homophobia – and that’s only the first episode!
E: Right. Yeah, and it only gets worse from there (laughing). When I started “Supernatural”, I was a kid, I was 30 years old – I mean that seems like a kid now.
L: Oh yes, that’s a kid…
E: And I didn’t spend an incredible amount of time thinking about politics or the world that my children will grow up in, because I didn’t have any yet. I was just trying to make a scary show and put into it stuff that I emotionally felt was right. And I think now I spend a lot more time worrying about the world we’re in and how – look, whether you’re left or right wing or conservative or liberal – we’re in a world in which we’re completely inundated by social media and corporations, massive frankly God-like corporations, using those mediums to manipulate us to work against our own best interests.
L: Scarily true.
E: Instead of coming together. So to me, what “Supernatural” kind of ended up being about and what The Boys is really about is real people taking on that machinery because that machinery is manipulating us and turning us against each other and making us scared and angry. Instead of what we should be, which is a community of people trying to help each other muddle through all this bullshit.
L: It works so well on that level. I think you found the right balance – and maybe the comic does too – hitting it in a way that it comes through clearly and persuasively but not like you’re being hit over the head with it.
E: I wish I could take credit for that. I think the comic tees up the metaphor in a way that made it easy for us to look smart. Just the core notion of superheroes as celebrities and as highly profitable commodities, you know, and the timing of all that with everything that’s going on in the world. Not just in superhero culture or pop culture, but in the world, it really lines up.
E: The best episodes of “Supernatural,” the monsters and the creatures they’re up against were always metaphors for something. We started with, what are Sam and Dean going through, and now how can we come up with a creature that personifies that?
L: YES. So much yes.
E: Similarly, in this show, the superhero metaphor really works for this kind of really glib slick surface appearance-oriented world we live in. Everything is just about how you project to the crowds versus what’s really happening behind the scenes. When you’re a superhero show, you can say oh, that’s a story about masks. It all just lines up.
L: It does
E: It was one of those things. At first, I just took on “The Boys” because I thought it would be fun to take on the superhero genre, but the more we dug into it, the more we realized it was just a perfect metaphor to describe the world we’re living in right now. The other thing is, I think what “Supernatural” fans will really recognize is that the theme is the same. The theme of “Supernatural” and the theme of “The Boys” is the thing that I most value, which is family and loyalty to your friends and pulling together in tough situations and showing your humanity and vulnerability and just sticking together. That’s the closest thing I’ve got to a world view.
L: Yes, that comes through in all your shows.
E: We were very careful to balance the universe of the show so that it’s not just a completely nihilistic universe, but it’s one that’s guided by moral law so that it doesn’t just feel like a grim death trip. I wanted it to feel like there’s hope in there if you make the right choice, and the right choice in the show is always whoever chooses loyalty to the group and the family, however you define your family. Those are the ones who tend to be on the right path in the show, and those who turn against that or betray that tend to get punished. So I think people will see that theme, and the balance of the tone, even though it’s a much more R rated version. There’s a lot of laughs, and there’s a lot of horror (laughing)
L: Oh god yes there is!
E: And there’s a lot of emotion. It’s funny reading online how dark everyone thinks the show is. And I think “Supernatural” fans will see this, because I see this, I’m like huh, I actually think it’s a really sweet show…
L: (laughing) I mean, people say that about “Supernatural” too. I wrote this book with the actors, Family Don’t End With Blood, about how inspiring the show is to both the fans and the actors on the show, and if you don’t know what the show is really about underneath, it’s like, inspiring? Touching? It’s a horror show! But it’s so much more. And it’s that combination that makes it compelling.
E: Yeah, there’s no question that “The Boys” is ultra-violent, but to me the violence reads on the same level of like a Sam Raimi movie. I don’t look at violence as horrific, I look at it like a guy who’s a horror fan, like’s that’s cool or funny. So my take, when I watch the episodes, is sometimes oh that’s so sweet, like I really love the relationships between those characters. Hughie and Annie are so sweet, they really care about each other. What I tend to take away is, this is a hopeful show with a lot of heart. And I think “Supernatural” fans will see that, whereas I think the sort of non “Supernatural” civilians (both laughing) in the world see more the darkness and the violence, we see the family and the heart of it.
L: I think you can see that even in the first episode. I found Annie’s (Starlight) story very powerful. She’s smacked in the face with reality and endures a serious trauma, and it makes her question whether she’s the strong person she thought she was. That’s what trauma does to people, and I found that story line so relatable, as a woman or as anyone who has experienced trauma. It does that, it messes with your sense of self, your identity.
E: Thanks. That story line is in the books, but I have to say, the books are a product of their time, written in 2006-7, and I think the books did that story line for shock value.
L: Oh, it didn’t seem that way in the episode.
E: No, exactly. We felt like if we’re gonna take that on informed by the #MeToo movement and how more aware everyone is, we felt we have to play it really seriously and responsibly and really like the horror movie that it is. One adjustment we made from the books is, I think we really muscled up Starlight as a character. We made her a lot stronger, gave her a lot more agency, because it’s important to me that just because you’re hopeful doesn’t mean you’re naïve, and you can still be really strong and good. It was important to me that we demonstrate that at least one superhero has that notion and holds fast to it even though she’s tested. And you’ll see in future episodes, even though she’s challenged on every level, she never loses her faith in God or her faith in people. I’m catching a lot of shit because we’re taking some shots at Christianity and similar to what “Supernatural” did, taking some shots at angels and God, and I’m like, I don’t take shots at religion, religion is great. You believe in a higher power and you have an organized universal view, that’s terrific. I have no problem with religion, I have a problem with organized religion.
L: And what it’s manipulated into?
E: It can be another con that people use to manipulate other people and squeeze money out of them, and that’s hypocritical. That’s the organized religion that’s depicted in the show. But importantly, Starlight never says fuck that whole thing, she says I love God and all this is bullshit!
L: And I think that changed, like you said, the balance of the episode, the tone of the episode, and I thought it worked well.
E: Yeah, thanks.
L: As a psychologist who studies fandom and celebrity for a living, thanks for providing me with another psychologically complex feast.
E: We’re definitely trying for “The Boys” to be – there’s a lot of iceberg under the water, we’re working hard to put that there.
In addition to that deeper story flowing beneath the surface of adventure and irreverence and just plain fun, there are other similarities to “Supernatural”. Billy Butcher drives his own version of a sweet ride, a classic Cadillac which is just as much of a ‘boat’ as the impala. Music is also important to “The Boys,” just as it is in “Supernatural”, only this time it tends toward punk instead of classic rock. Similar to “Supernatural”, the music plays an integral part in setting the scene and the tone of the show. Chris Lennertz, long time composer on “Supernatural”, is doing the music for “The Boys.” I chatted with him at Comic-Con
Chris Lennertz: There are things that are universal in the way Eric tells stories and the way that we tell stories together, and that is on the surface for example “Supernatural” is about fighting demons, but really it’s about brotherhood and family. And “The Boys” is a show that’s super violent and super offensive and crazy but at the end of it, there’s this team of ‘the boys’ who are trying to take down the bad guys and they become a family trying to take care of each other.
He also said that both shows engage in social commentary – with “The Boys,” like maybe I should rethink how I take in social media or think about heroes, there’s a lot of subtext in both shows. (You can watch the full conversation with Chris at the video link below)
L: Will there be any little “Supernatural” Easter eggs or shout outs in The Boys? I noticed in the pilot, there’s a moment when one of the characters who’s like a brother to the other yanks him into an open doorway backwards by his collar, and I immediately thought of that scene where Sam yanks Dean into the open hotel room door the exact same way.
E: (laughing) Right.
L: Is that like a shout out?
E: Yeah yeah yeah. It’s more like – and you’ll see, there’s a shot in the beginning of episode two that “Supernatural” fans will really notice — which is, it’ll be down through a trunk shot and Butcher and Hughie are at the trunk and they shut the trunk.
L: Oh, I love it I love it!
E: I mean, look, I’m on the show, Phil Sgriccia (long time “Supernatural” producer/director) is a producer and director and there the whole time, so it’s kind of inevitable that stuff works its way in there. I don’t think we sit down to say like hey let’s for sure make sure there are these nods in the show, because we’re stressed and it’s late and we’re working 17 hours and just trying to get our day shot. But when there’s a moment when we know that Butcher needs to pull Hughie into this club and the blocking’s there and it has to be in that world anyway, we klnda wink at each other and do these things. The best “Supernatural” reference for me – and I think there are a bunch in there — I have to admit probably half of them are just kind of on the verge of being subconscious because it’s just things I like!
L: That makes sense and I guess at this point, those are just things I like too.
E: A lot of it is just because of my taste, so when people are recognizing things from “Supernatural” they’re probably recognizing like oh that’s just Eric – but I will say, you’ll see in Episode 8, the one I was directing, it was kinda important to me that we needed this kind of high powered government official to go toe to toe with Elisabeth Shue, so we brought in Jim Beaver.
L: Oh yay!
E: To play the secretary of defense… Robert Singer.
E: Yeah so Jim came in for me and we had a little name plate that said ‘Robert Singer’, and we’re actually gonna bring him back in Season 2 — so Bobby Singer lives!
L: I love that. My daughter was watching “The Boys” with me and she said you know, that’s the way Sam and Dean would act and talk in real life, they really need to put them on that show so they can act like Sam and Dean would really talk and act.
E: Right, exactly. We have to do a rated R “Supernatural” for sure.
L: Um yeah Eric, pretty sure there’d be a lot of people standing in line for that!
L: Or just bring them over to “The Boys!”
E: I mean, we’ll see what they’re doing, but I’ve chatted with Jensen a little bit over the last couple months and he’s like, how’s “The Boys” doing? And I said it’s so cool, it’s so fun and so filthy and like when you get done with that other short term show you’re on, come on over and play with us…
L: (laughing) You know they would love it!
E: My guess is they’ll wanna sleep for a year, but I’d be happy – no, I’d be proud – to bring Jared and Jensen into “The Boys” if they wanted to do it.
L: Fingers crossed. So, last question, and this one’s more about “Supernatural.” Jensen Ackles said that he struggled a bit with the ending of “Supernatural” and you were really able to help him see it differently. What stuck out to you in that ending that made you feel okay with it, as the creator of these characters and this world?
E: It was interesting because, the truth is, the ending that I probably originally had in mind when I was starting the show – we’ve pretty much spent it one way or another in story. It was probably not viable from Season 7 on. I think I kinda made peace with that, that we’ll never be able to do it because we’ve done versions of it here and there over the seasons just because inevitably a show goes on that long, you use every possible story.
L: That makes sense.
E: So when he pitched me the ending I was like – it was new to me, the first time I’d heard it – so I said give me a day to really think about it and get back to you. And I thought about it and I thought about it – (laughing) I’m sure much to Andrew and Bob’s [showrunners] chagrin because they’re doing all the work – but I sat down and really thought about it because, you know, I love the show. And I thought okay, at this stage, if I were to come up with an ending, what would my ending for the show be? And I went through all of these different thoughts and angles and I ended up calling back Jensen and saying, we’ve got the perfect ending, man. I really went through some others – I tried to top it and I couldn’t – and I think for one main reason. So I give those guys a lot of credit because I think they really landed on the right ending for the show. And what I would say is – what I said to Jensen is, without spoiling everything – is like, I think after everything they’ve gone through, the thing that Sam and Dean deserve more than anything is peace.
L: (nodding because I suddenly couldn’t see my questions written down in front of me anymore…)
E: And without spoiling anything, I can say that this ending gives them peace. Their lives and their adventures are so painful and angsty…and like, just the idea that they get an ending that they have peace and some sense of resolution, I think it’s the thing they deserve. And the thing the fans deserve most of all.
L: (a few tissues later) Thank you so much for taking the time to chat, I enjoyed it every bit as much as I’ve enjoyed all of our chats. I’ll send you that copy of ‘Family Don’t End With Blood’ I promised you.
You can get your copy of Family Don’t End With Blood at all fine book stores or even here.
E: Oh that would be amazing, thanks Lynn!
L: Anything else you wanted to say?
E: Don’t watch it with your kids, but I hope “Supernatural” fans give The Boys a shot, because I think they’ll see a lot there that’s familiar to them.
Full Interview with Christopher Lennertz at Comic-Con
The Boys Press Room At Comic-Con
Check out “The Boys” on Amazon Prime Originals – and look for Season 2 coming soon!