There is extreme television, and then there is The Boys. The new Amazon Prime Video series, which chronicles the immoral exploits of a group of superheroes, features so much violence and gore that it makes Game of Thrones look like Paw Patrol: Pups Save the Direwolves.
Yet, as bloody as The Boys is – and with one scene featuring a Flash-like character who runs over an innocent bystander and leaves nothing but viscera-coloured mist in his wake, it is absolutely grotesque – the drama cannot hold a severed head next to the series’ oozy source material, the comic book series of the same name written by Garth Ennis and illustrated by Darick Robertson.
Ennis and Robertson’s original work, which launched publication in October, 2006, before wrapping its 72-issue run in November, 2012, asks the question: “What if superheroes were … bad?” Today, that’s a familiar query to television and film audiences, posited by everything from Suicide Squad and Brightburn to the many iterations of Watchmen (the latest of which, a stylish and expensive HBO series, premieres this fall). But when Ennis and Robertson’s work first appeared on comic book stands, it made a hyperbolic, vomit-inducing impression.
Ennis and Robertson’s superheroes were not just poor role models – they were full-on psychopaths, so convinced that their powers made them superior to the rest of humanity that they regularly engaged in sexual assault, mass murder and even (in one infamously gruesome moment) cannibalism.
The Boys’ thinly veiled approximations of Superman/Captain America (The Homelander in Ennis’s world), Batman (Tek Knight), Wonder Woman (Queen Maeve), Aquaman (The Deep) and the X-Men (G-Men) pushed the limits of the comic book form as far past the edge of the envelope as possible.
With the series’ publication, Ennis not only confirmed that he possessed the sickest mind in the medium – quickly one-upping his own work on the gleefully sacrilegious Preacher – but also that the industry had finally produced the one comic book property that no Hollywood studio would ever be able to touch.
So much for that theory.
With every cable channel and emerging streaming service hungry for zeitgeist-catching content to lure in curious subscribers, there are no longer limits as to what is or is not too graphic for the small screen. And while the eight episodes of Amazon’s The Boys don’t touch the comic’s more outrageous moments – say, the time when about 150 superheroes lose their heads in one skull-exploding second – producer Eric Kripke does indulge a healthy amount of Ennis’s more stomach-churning set pieces. All of which is perfectly fine with Ennis.
“There will always be things that you can’t put on TV, and the show simply won’t be able to handle some of the book’s more extreme elements,” the Irish writer says in an interview. “That said, it’s managed to cook up a few fairly feisty moments of its own.”
One moment, taking place inside a hijacked commercial airliner, is both impressive in its fidelity to Ennis’s source material and terrifying for the exact same reason. But there are original-to-the-series horrors, too, as when Kripke and his team produce a scene in which a female Wolverine-like superhero squishes her lover’s head like a grape. The result is messy and juvenile, but also frequently and perversely captivating – a paean to bad taste that asks viewers to expect something awful, then delivers something even worse. It is extreme television expressly made for these extreme times – an ugly, hungry culture demands just as ugly and hungry an entertainment to satiate it.
It is hard to imagine the work existing a decade ago, which is precisely when director Adam McKay (Anchorman, Step Brothers) attempted to adapt it for a feature film. That effort didn’t make it far.
“I can’t remember who wrote the script for the McKay film, but it was extremely ropey stuff,” Ennis says. “Definitely for the best that it didn’t happen.”
Instead, it was McKay’s sometime collaborators and old hands adapting Ennis’s work, Preacher producers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who picked up the project in 2015 with the aim to make it for the small screen, where it was increasingly clear there were fewer limits and more money to throw around. First, Cinemax approved the series, but in 2017, Amazon Studios picked up the project as the streaming service continued its hunt to produce its own Game of Thrones-like sensation.
While the Toronto-shot The Boys is too niche and too, well, gross to approximate such a world-conquering phenomenon, its premiere this past weekend has already proven successful enough for Amazon to order a second season. And it has turned Ennis, who is watching AMC wind down its adaptation of Preacher, into the most unlikely of Hollywood-friendly forces.
"I'm content to let the book be the book and the show be the show. I've told my story, is the way I see it," says the writer, who adds that, unlike others who have entered the business, he has yet to be soured by the ups and downs of Hollywood adaptations.
"I'm happy enough," he says, "to entertain offers on other material."
The Boys is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video
Live your best. We have a daily Life & Arts newsletter, providing you with our latest stories on health, travel, food and culture. Sign up today.