‘It Scared the Shit Out of Me’: Showrunner of ‘The Boys’ on Giving the Good Guys Powers — and More
Eric Kripke goes deep on the twisted superhero saga’s evolution from Season One to now — including the fate of that giant penis prop
In any other cultural moment, the satire embedded in Amazon Prime’s endlessly entertaining, blood-spattered superhero show The Boys might seem heavy-handed. But in 2022, its near-nihilist depiction of a deluded public rooting for an all-powerful class of elites who couldn’t care less about them almost feels like a documentary, albeit with superpowers, eviscerations, and really weird sex stuff thrown in.
In the show (based on, and vastly improving, an indie comic series co-created by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson), the sinister Vought International dominates both pop culture and the wider world with actual, real-life superheroes (almost none of whom are actually heroic), created with a power-generating serum known as V. The titular Boys are a group of powerless supe-haters, led by William Butcher (Karl Urban), fighting against grim odds to take the “heroes” down.
In Season Three, with new episodes currently streaming on Fridays, the most terrifying of the supes — the evil-Superman-like Homelander (Antony Starr) — is giving angry populist speeches and has started pontificating on a Fox News-style station, to boot. (And for good measure, the closest thing the show has to an AOC has turned out to be an evil, head-exploding superperson as well.)
In a recent conversation with Rolling Stone, showrunner Eric Kripke explains the show’s political analogies, the fate of the already infamous giant-penis prop from this season’s debut episode, the adaptation process, why the writers think of Barack Obama while they make the show’s most disgusting scenes, the upcoming college-show spinoff, and more.
You’ve said you were concerned while writing this season that it felt too easy and fun. What was that about for you?
It’s not supposed to be easy. It’s always supposed to be fun. But you get a lot of the fun out of the camaraderie of the writers room, and joking around and laughing. The actual process of breaking the story is hard. Challenging and exciting, but really hard. And usually you can draw a pretty straight line from the harder a season is to break and figure out, the better it is in general. And this one just came really fast and naturally. So, I was nervous. Because it was too easy. Each episode, we were like, “Yeah, that’s cool. And then it goes there and then we’re on to that.” It laid out in a way so clean for us that there wasn’t a lot of hand-wringing or second-guessing, which behind the scenes caused me to do a lot of hand-wringing and second-guessing. Because if it’s not hard, the superstitious [part of] my brain triggers.
I’m not a superfan of the Boys comic books, but the way that you’ve adapted it and wildly altered it is fascinating. It almost seems like you tore the whole series into individual panels and you just pull in those panels whenever you need them. Do you have a whiteboard or something of elements from the comics that you want to use someday?
No list on a board. But the writers and I, in between seasons, read the whole books again, start to finish. And generally, the rule that at least has worked out so far, is if there’s a moment that we particularly love, and remember, and is in the front of our brains, we’ll do it. We’ll find a way. What you said, I think that’s right, which is, we sort of tore apart the structure and put it back together again. That was out of necessity. The Boys as a comic is a very episodic story. It would have been a really good X-rated CSI. But the necessity of streaming is you need to tell one continuous story over eight episodes. So the thing that’s always brand-new is that spine. You know: What are they doing? What are they looking for? Where are they going? What’s the plan? And then, on that spine, we start plugging in all the things we loved and remembered, and nods to the fans. So I always say we create this sort of new erector set, but then we flesh it all out with all the bits from The Boys that we love.
A great example is that you just finally pulled in an element that was in the comics from the beginning, by giving your civilian heroes superpowers via a temporary version of the V serum that’s the source of all the superhero abilities. How did that work for you?
You know, in the comic, it’s not temporary. They shoot up and give each other boosters every so often, but the Boys have superpowers from page one in the comic. And that was something that [executive producers] Seth [Rogen] and Evan [Goldberg] and I felt really strongly about. Because if we’re telling a story about underdogs and the blue-collar against the most elite One Percent of the One Percent, it cannot be a level playing field. Our guys have to be regular humans figuring out how to take down characters that are just infinitely more powerful than that. That’s the metaphor of the world we’re living in. Then we were in Season Three and looking for a way to shake the snow globe a little bit and give us a new wrinkle to play, and the notion arrived that we’ve earned the right to give [Boys leader] Butcher powers. And it actually it scared the shit out of me. Because you’re fucking with the fundamental DNA of the show. Anytime you’re under the hood into the core of the engine, that’s really scary.
You thought it could potentially ruin the show, like Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd finally hooking up on Moonlighting?
Exactly. So this is where the idea of “temporary V” comes from. Which, frankly, to me, if you look at that hard enough, you can see the hands of the screenwriter on that idea. Because I was so scared. I was like, “I can’t give them V and change the show, forever. It won’t work.” We would be giving Felicity a haircut. And I don’t want to do that. So we compromised on this temporary V. And what I liked about it was, one, it was fucking temporary. And two, we could tell a story about drug addiction, except they’re literally getting addicted to toxic masculinity. It could come at great cost, and you could watch a degeneration of the characters.
Do you think you’re doing classic rock a service or disservice by making Hughie, who’s kind of a lovable dork, the avatar of it on this show?
[Laughs.] Look, I love all of that music. And Hughie is the hero. And even though other people on the show might deride him for it, it’s done with so much love. I think it’s very telling that the most likable character on the show is the one who is rocking the shirts of the bands that I liked the most.
I know Billy Joel approved the extensive use of his music in the show. Do you have any sense if he actually watches it?
I haven’t spoken to Billy, but I have spoken to his manager, who said that they’re thrilled with it and loved it. When we first needed the music, Season One hadn’t even aired yet. And so we’re calling and we’re saying, “Hey, we kind of want to do a rock opera with Billy Joel’s music in this show you’ve never heard of that’s about superheroes fucking.” And the manager was like, “Who are you guys?”
There’s a mention of a Rolling Stone Hot Issue cover with Homeland and Starlight as the year’s hot couple, despite the fact that it’s a totally fake relationship.
How many other Rolling Stone covers do you think we’ve been suckered into running featuring the heroes over the years in this universe?
Unfortunately, there’s probably been too many. I’ll answer your question with a question: How many Rolling Stone covers have featured people idolized by the public but in private, were just the biggest assholes? [Laughs.] That’s about how many times they had the supes on there.
The evil-Superman-style character Homelander is becoming more and more of a direct Trump analogue this season. What was your thinking there?
He’s always been a Trump analogue for me. I’ll admit to being a little more bald this season than I have in past seasons. But the world is getting more coarse and less elegant. The urgency of our team’s writing reflects that. We’re angrier and more scared as the years go on, so that is just being reflected in our writing. But part of it is where Homelander’s story naturally goes. He has this really combustible mix of complete weakness and insecurity, and just horrible power and ambition, and it’s just such a deadly combo. Of course he would feel victimized that people are angry that he dated a Nazi. All he ever wants is to be the most powerful person he can be, even though he’s completely inadequate in his abilities to handle it. So it’s white-male victimization and unchecked ambition. And those issues just happened to reflect the guy who, it’s just still surreal to say it, was fucking president of the United States. And it’s a bigger issue than just Trump. The more awful public figures act, the more fans they seem to be getting. That’s a phenomenon that we wanted to explore, that Homelander is realizing that he can actually show them who he really is and they’ll love him for it.
Barack Obama has praised The Boys in one of his periodic lists of culture he enjoys. Are you able to believe he actually loves this show?
I have no reason not to believe it. I mean, he didn’t have to put us on his list! It’d be weird if this was the show he chose to front about, because it’s kind of a show that is delivered to you in a brown paper bag [laughs]. You have to be a little brave to say that you that you watch this show, so I can’t imagine him lying about it.
And when you’re putting together some of the more disgusting scenes, do you ever think—
You know, more than once in editing and post-production on the exploding penis sequence [this season], the thought has come up many times. Like, “Can you imagine President Obama watching this scene right now? And what he must be thinking?” I really hope we make his list again. But I also understand why we might make a “Dear God, I’ve made a terrible mistake” list. I feel like it could go either way.
The giant-penis prop itself didn’t explode, so you could have held onto it. Do you still have it somewhere?
So this is hilarious, but there came this very sad day where the production designer called me and said, “We’re out of stage space. The penis is massive. We have to tear it down.” And I said, “No, we have to find a place to store it.” And my producer’s like, “I’m not spending thousands and thousands of dollars just to store this giant penis for posterity. So unless you want to put it in your backyard, it’s done.” And I would say I went so far as to mention it casually to my wife just to take her temperature. But there was just simply no place to put it. So sadly, it was destroyed.
I know you learned from your work on Supernatural to be careful what you say about how many future seasons there will be, since it ended up going on forever. But how many seasons are you concretely thinking ahead about? That is, assuming you get renewed, unless that’s already happened.
No, it hasn’t happened yet. But we’re hopeful for Season Four and thinking about it in earnest with the hope that it happens. It actually is similar to Supernatural, but I was just so wildly wrong about that. I have what I would consider a cocktail-napkin sketch of what the big-picture story would be. But tangibly, I’m only thinking about the season ahead. I’m totally irritated by the notion of that you might need to go through more than one season of a TV show to start to be entertained by that fucking story. You know, like, I’m old-school that way, coming out of network television. Every episode needs to tell a story. And then each of those stories needs to build up to a season-wide story. And then that season’s one story needs to fucking end. And then the next season, you can start a new one that builds off that. The whole idea of “I’m actually making a 20-hour movie?” Fuck you, you’re in the TV business. You’re in the entertainment business, and it’s your job to be entertaining. Every season, it gets harder, for sure. But it gets harder in terms of character arcs, and not repeating ourselves and plunging into sort of deeper levels of psychology. That’s the challenge.
How often do you get a note from your parent companies? If you made an episode where there’s a problem at Vought warehouses with treatment of workers, would that be a step too far? Are there things you just can’t do?
I have not reached any pushback from Sony and Amazon on anything we wanted to do. I’d say the most extreme we’ve gotten is this season, and they said, “Hey, can we put some kind of viewer advisory about the Deep’s [sexual relationship with an octopus?]” And literally, that was it. That’s the most I’ve ever had in three years. Internally, the writers are really wringing their hands over all of it. As crazy and as insane as the show is, we sincerely worry a lot about being exploitative and gratuitous, and making sure that it feels like a heightened show and not like soft-core porn on late-night cable, you know? So we worry about it a lot.
Do you ever worry that both the people making the show and the viewers — and I implicate myself as a viewer here — are having our cake and eating it too? That we’re enjoying the condemnation of all this stuff while also enjoying watching depictions of it?
I think that’s exactly what this show does! But I don’t view that necessarily as a bad thing. I take issue with movies and TV shows that show violence that’s clearly meant to be enjoyable or exciting and then condemn you for enjoying the violence. I find that hypocritical. I don’t think this show does that. I think this show is a deconstruction. We are a superhero show, but we deconstruct and break down and shine a light on the complete fucking absurdities of a superhero show and poke a lot of fun at what it is to be a superhero, and how stupid that world is, and how horrible they’d be as people.
You’re doing this spinoff show from The Boys — set in the same universe, but at a Vought-run college. Are there specific college- or high-school-based shows or movies that are serving as models there?
We more compare ourselves to the things we’re not. I think we aim to tell a very gritty and real college experience through the metaphor of the superhero lens. But we’re not like Undeclared, which was a straight comedy. And we’re not Euphoria either, which got to a level of darkness I don’t think we’re doing. We’re just somewhere in between. We’re really trying to be safely within our world but tell stories that the mothership just simply could not tell. And have new characters that are every bit as appealing, but couldn’t be in the other show.
The one lesson I’d certainly taken away from Marvel and what a brilliant job Kevin Feige does is he busts his ass to not repeat himself. Especially in the early days when there weren’t quite as many [projects] but each and every hero had a totally different-feeling movie. You go from a World War 2 movie to a political thriller to a John Hughes movie. And so, if anything, what we’re trying to do is that. We have an R-rated universe that’s sexually explicit. But what’s a totally different show that could live in that universe? And it’d be an interesting experiment to see if people like it. I love it, but we’ll see if people love it.
Do you anticipate cameos from the Boys cast in that new show?
Yeah. Without spoiling anything, I think there will be several very, very cool cameos. Because it’s a Vought-run college, so crossover with Vought characters is inevitable, really.
From Rolling Stone US.