Whether it’s telling underdog stories of the disenfranchised sticking it to the Man or making audiences feel disgusted by the real-world implications of superheroes, The Boys always delivers. Garth Ennis’ and Darick Robertson’s deviant and deconstructive superhero comic of the same name has expanded into enormous proportions under Amazon’s watchful eye, spawning a mega-hit TV show, two spin-offs, a web series, and yes, an actual canonical porno. The first of the spin-offs, an animated anthology series titled The Boys: Diabolical, proves to be a fantastic reckoning of the source material and preceding TV show’s blueprint that oftentimes exceeds it.
TV anthologies are in vogue at the moment, which for a universe as deep and loose as The Boys’ makes it an indisputable format to expand the canon. To helm this expansion, creators Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg have enlisted Awkwafina, Andy Samberg, Ilana Glazer, Garth Ennis himself, and a few other writers to craft their own dastardly vignettes laid by the groundwork of The Boys, with each one exhibiting its own animation style and tonal quality. The resulting 8 short episodes tackle some of the most entertaining concepts about capes put to screen but it’s Diabolical’s thematic byproducts that make it heftier than its live-action counterpart.
In spite of the freedom afforded by the anthological format, Diabolical is bound by a single McGuffin: Compound V, the mysterious serum created by Vought International that turns people into superhumans. Compound V is used as a narrative device to frame most of these vignettes, centering it as a crux of ordinary life in The Boys universe. In a span of 8 12-minute long shorts, Diabolical makes use of Compound V as a storytelling device more effectively than the entirety of The Boys’ two seasons as it epitomizes Vought’s corruption and malevolence that creeps into the lives of characters far removed from the larger-than-life antics of The Seven.
Rogen and Goldberg, known for their brand of edgy humor, open the season with a Looney Tunes-inspired riff on the beloved character that sold the first season to a lot of people, Laser Baby. The short puts aside the finer nuances of latter episodes in favor of mimicking the live-action show’s gore-y touchstones while laying the season’s foundation of unencumbered creativity. It’s right after this episode that Diabolical’s true qualities are displayed with Justin Roiland’s self-explanatory An Animated Short Where Pissed-Off Supes Kill Their Parents. The episode, done fully in the style of Roiland’s opus Rick and Morty, is a meta gut-busting commentary on the increasing absurdity of superhero powers that features Christian Slater voicing a character whose power is narrating things in real-time.
Diabolical cascades into further madness with two episodes from Ilana Glazer and Awkwafina that are explorations on loneliness. Glazer examines addiction and social media through the flask of Compound V in Boyd in 3D, a charming rom-com about a hapless man in love with his hopeless romantic neighbor. But it isn’t until Awkwafina’s BFFs that Diabolical reaches its stylistic apex. An anime brimming with children’s book flourishes, BFFs is tonally the most wholesome vignette of the bunch, as it tackles loneliness and friendship in a very encouraging light, while still observing the material’s dark humor.
Aisha Tyler’s succeeding Nubian vs. Nubian sees a superhero couple on the brink of divorce while their daughter saves their marriage with the help of the family nemesis. This family-friendly premise, however, is subverted by Tyler’s satirical and vulgar writing. For all its wholesome leanings, the episode bears a closer resemblance to the cult classic The Boondocks than with The Parent Trap. The big curveball of the season is John and Sun-hee. Written by Andy Samberg of all people, the vignette centers on an elderly Korean couple on the run from Vought. Samberg, against all odds, writes a deeply profound episode about hardship, love, and existentialism that taps into a spectrum of pathos that this universe has not touched upon previously.
The show’s weakest episodes are ironically the ones that feel like deleted scenes from the live-action series. Garth Ennis, whom everything about this franchise is indebted to as its creator, gets a stab at adding a more personal touch to Rogen and Goldberg’s adaptation. True to the comic’s form, Hughie and Butcher actually look like their comic versions. Diabolical takes the authenticity a step further by having Simon Pegg, whose likeness and persona inspired the creation of Hughie, voice Hughie. But while Ennis’ episode gives audiences a glimpse of a wistful 1:1 recreation of the comic, it comes across as a mere tongue-in-cheek wink at diehards with nothing else to say about the material.
An underwhelming origin story for Homelander closes out Diabolical’s stellar season. It’s the episode that’s most tethered to the live-action show and, in some respects, functions as a pilot for a hypothetical animated extension of the series. Titled One Plus One Equals Two and written by Invincible scribe Simon Racioppa, its sole redeeming factor is the brief glimpse it gives to the troubled and tortured roots of the show’s best character. But within Diabolical’s framework, Racioppa’s episode pales in comparison to the ambition of the season.
Diabolical also follows the trend of celebrities voicing animated TV shows by assembling an ensemble of household names which includes the likes of Michael Cera, Christian Slater, Simon Pegg, and Don Cheadle among a dozen more. The marketing campaign for the show sells the enviable marquee of celebrity voice actors as its strongest asset but the actual episodes prove otherwise. Like Marvel Studios’ What If…?, Diabolical mistakenly assumes that performing in front of the camera and behind it are one and the same. That assumption is easily dispelled by the dismal voice performances of a handful of actors known for their on-screen acclaim. A portion of these performances border into the uncanny valley and sound like inauthentic digital recreations at times.
Even in the face of its star-studded inconveniences, The Boys: Diabolical works. Simply by design, it surpasses the ambition and creativity of its live-action progenitor. It succeeds in remaining a singular piece of work while feeling essential to the deeper understanding of Ennis’ and Robertson’s twisted view of superheroes. If this is what The Boys’ spin-offs are going to be, fans are in luck.