Column by Rob Salkowitz
Posted by Rob Salkowitz on August 31, 2020 @ 6:26 pm CT
Even from the time the adaptation was announced, I found myself wondering, "Did Amazon actually read the comics? Are they sure they want to put this on TV?" But I think Season One managed to do justice to the spirit, and often the letter, of the Garth Ennis-Darick Roberson comics series (now published by Dynamite Entertainment) while updating a few of its naughty aughties themes to our more up-to-the-moment dystopia. It also upped the ante for these kinds of adaptations, proving (along with Watchmen) that the superhero genre still had a few tricks up its sleeve despite comprehensive exploitation across all media over the last decade.
Last November, I had a chance to visit the production set of The Boys in Toronto for a behind-the-scenes look at the show and conversations with the cast. I was sworn to secrecy for months, but now the lid is off. So here are some tidbits that you might not have gotten from the previews or the online panels.
Quaid said he’s a fan of the comics and has struck up a friendship with Boys artist Darick Robertson. Apparently, after he was cast, Quaid was concerned that fans wouldn’t accept him because he wasn’t Simon Pegg. Robertson showed Quaid the first concept sketch he did of the character Hughie, which actually looked more like Quaid. "He posted it alongside a picture of me at a movie premier when I was 19, and it was a weird blend of me and Simon. It was a big moment – it made me feel at home. Just him bringing that out was very cool."
Only 26 when he was cast, Quaid didn’t really know what to expect, beyond a gig on what looked like a cult series for one of many aspiring streaming services. When The Boys blew up, and is now Amazon Prime’s breakout hit, he started to realize what he was in for.
"My little sister is 13 and very much not allowed to see this show,” he said. "But some of her friends saw my picture on her Instagram and said, ‘Oh, Hughie!’ like they all were big fans. I’m not sure how I feel about teenagers watching this show, but it means we’re a success for sure."
He also says he is both amazed and baffled by the way fan culture has taken stories from the set, including a weird practical joke where Urban brought a birthday cake for Quaid when it was not his birthday, and turned them into objects of lore and ritual. "Now, people are coming up to me with birthday cake at conventions for no reason." The Boys have broken containment!
Shawn Ashmore is Lamplighter, and He is Stoked! If you’re familiar with The Boys JLA-gone-wrong supergroup The Seven, you may recall that Lamplighter was the Green Lantern analogue whose resignation prompted the team to recruit young Starlight (played by Erin Moriarty).
Not much was heard about him in Season One, but he plays a pivotal role in the later episodes of Season Two. Ashmore, best known as Bobby "Iceman" Drake in the first X-Men trilogy, was brought into the play the troubled ex-Sevener.
"He’s a bad dude," said Ashmore. "I think he stays true to who he is in the books. Story-wise, it’s a little bit different, but he’s not a nice guy. He has some habits that are pretty dark."
Dark habits in The Boys? Shocking!
Ashmore, who says he’s a lifelong comics, sci-fi and fantasy fan, says he find the blend of serious superheroics and mean-spirited satire to be a refreshing change from the straight-up comic adaptations seen elsewhere, including the ones he was a part of, even before he was invited to join the cast. "It’s not that I'm getting sick of what we're seeing, but I was excited to see that when I watched the show I didn't know what to expect, you know? So the artwork, I was like it's a superhero show I'll check it out. But then, the sense of humor, the sensibility, the darkness, the violence, mashing that all together I was like, well, this feels like something different."
Black Noir Speaks! The Seven’s more lethal version of Batman, Black Noir, has been seen but not heard in Season One, although he is the one member of the group who seems to command the respect of the otherwise arrogant sociopath Homelander (Anthony Starr).
Nathan Mitchell, who plays Black Noir in a full face mask and body suit, promises that we should watch closely for a "new dimension" to the character that is closely tied in to plot developments, and that we’ll be seeing him in action a lot more. He’s mum on whether we’ll see him without his mask. Mitchell said he enjoys playing a character who gets to do his talking through subtle gestures and body language. He also likes the anonymity he still enjoys – unlike others in the cast – and the surprised reaction he gets when he reveals his "secret identity."
Starlight Steps into the Spotlight. Erin Moriarty plays April January, aka Starlight, and her journey from ingenue to double agent is one of the dramatic centerpieces of the show. As in the comic, her relationship to Hughie is the one warm, human element to a story otherwise not notable for its generosity of spirit or its likeable characters.
Her story arc in Season One touches on the #MeToo movement, a new element that the showrunners introduced to bring the original content up to the moment. It also deals with her emergence into the public eye and all that comes with it, which parallels Moriarty’s own rise to fame as a member of the hit show’s cast. Luckily, she said, the latter experience has been much more positive.
"Fame, or pseudo-fame, or anything of that kind can be bizarre and overwhelming," she said. "You just try and feel it into your work. But there is a huge difference the environment on the show is a supportive one. It’s really lovely, we’re like a family off set."
Moriarty says her character arc in Season Two involves working through the betrayals she experienced in Season One, from her teammates, her family, and from Hughie. "She has to swallow all that for the sake of continuing her objectives, which is to save the world and make it a better place."
She also spoke about Starlight finding common ground with her teammate Queen Maeve (Dominique McElligott) following a storyline that explored how male-dominated corporate culture conspires to keep women isolated and competing with one another. "In Season Two, they are both going through a lot. You get the sense they are there for each other. Season 2 involves more of that dynamic and more towards the end, them stepping up and helping each other while the male figures in the show are continuing to try and stifle them."
Season Two also introduces a third female member of the Seven, one who projects a completely different vibe than Starlight or Maeve, and tees up a nice competition with Highlander for his sociopath-of-the-year award.
Avoiding the Sophomore Slump. Because The Boys was based on a property that wasn’t well-known outside of comics, the first season took a lot of people by surprise. Now it’s a known quantity that has set a pretty high bar for outrageous plot twists and transgressions against the expectations of the superhero genre.
Showrunner Eric Kripke says he feels the pressure to exceed those expectations in terms of action and impact. He’s also keenly aware that the show, whose shooting wrapped up shortly before the pandemic, will drop right into the middle of the US election season. He said he is prepared on both fronts, with a couple of set pieces (including the much-talked about "whale scene" seen in previews , see "’Boys S2’ Final Trailer and Key Art") that will satisfy the hardest-core action fans, as well as some storylines that take on hot-button issues.
The unexpected success of The Boys Season One proved to be a boon for Amazon Prime Video, for the superhero genre that needed a good kick in the ass, and for the sales of The Boys Omnibus Editions from Dynamite, which climbed up the best-seller charts a decade after the series wrapped up.
Though most of 2020 hasn’t exactly gone as planned, the revival of the show for a second full-force season just as retail is starting to re-emerge might help bring some people back to the comic shop and keep the drumbeat of creatively-challenging and faithful-in-spirit adaptations of graphic literature going at full speed.
The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial staff of ICv2.com.
Rob Salkowitz (@robsalk) is the author of Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture.