'The Boys Presents: Diabolical' Review: Gory, Superpowered Anthology Series Is More Of A Footnote Than A Must-See

Does anyone remember “The Animatrix?” Released in 2003, it is an anthology film of nine animated shorts that expanded the universe of the Wachowskis’ “The Matrix” with new characters, varying styles, and unique visions. Almost two decades later, something similar has been produced for Prime Video’s smash hit “The Boys,” Eric Kripke’s critically acclaimed adaptation of the graphic novels by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson. Eight different creative teams were given a chance to go into the world of Homelander, Queen Maeve, and Butcher and return with whatever inspired them to build an 11-minute animated short. The resulting anthology, “The Boys Presents: Diabolical” premieres on Prime Video this week. As with most ventures like this, the total assembly is a very mixed bag of quality, dipping on the negative side of the ledger here overall. Fans of the full show, returning in June for its third season, will enjoy the two or three standouts and wish they had a superpower that could erase the failures from their minds while they count the days until Season 3.

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The series starts with a Looney Tunes-inspired blast written by show producers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. A Vought scientist chases a baby with laser-powered vision around the city as the uncontrollable infant destroys everything around her with copious amounts of gleeful gore. “Laser Baby’s Day Out” clearly owes a great debt to Chuck Jones in its playful, dialogue-free vision of the kind of trouble that the classic Looney shorts could have gotten up to with no filters for violence. It’s probably not surprising that all of the shorts in “Diabolical” operate under the same boundary-pushing restrictions of the show, sometimes in a manner that feels forced, but the violence in “Laser Baby’s Day Out” feels the most inventive, in part because it often comes with a baby’s giggle.

The great Justin Roiland (co-creator of “Rick and Morty”) co-writes the very descriptively titled “An Animated Short Where Pissed-Off Supes Kill Their Parents,” narrated by Christian Slater as a superhero named, well, “The Narrator.” Remember how the series revealed that superheroes were created by a drug and not just born from traditional comic origin stories? This short imagines the experiments that didn’t result in heroes as memorable as Homelander, instead creating monstrosities like Tongue and Booby Face. Learning that their parents are the reasons for their misery, these unwanted supes get some gnarly vengeance. Unleashed Roiland can be a bit much and the series already starts to feel like it’s trying a bit too hard to be edgy here, something pushed even further in the mediocre “I’m Your Pusher” and so-so “Boyd in 3D.” The worst of the series follows in this mid-season sag in “BFFS,” written by and starring Awkwafina as a woman with a super-powered turd in her life named Areola. (Not kidding.) It’s here where too much of “Diabolical” starts to feel rushed, like first-draft ideas that needed a bit more time in pre-production. To be fair, the show always looks phenomenal, but the storytelling in the mid-section of the season is just lackluster when compared to the creative plotting of the show itself and the best of these shorts. One could easily watch the first and seventh episodes and move on to reading the source material instead.

If this animated experiment sags in the middle, it bounces back in the final trio of episodes, which all take the freedom of the concept of “Diabolical” and do more than just amp up the “stuff you can’t do on network television.” Aisha Tyler writes and directs an episode that unpacks a superhero family crisis in “Nubian vs. Nubian,” and then Andy Samberg of all people knocks it out of the park with “John and Sun-Hee.” The Lonely Island vet gets writing credit (and a brief voice credit) on the most emotionally complex of the shorts in “Diabolical,” a piece about an old man who steals Compound-V to try to save his wife from dying of cancer. Of course, things go wrong after he injects her with the drug and the Vought forces try to stop them, but the short has a vibrant emotional current that the other ones really don’t. It approaches the concept of government-controlled heroism in a way that’s different from the full show or its partners here. Finally, the series closes with “One Plus One Equals Two,” which may be the most essential for hardcore fans of the series in that it’s a prequel to the early days of Homelander’s arc with voice work by the great Antony Starr and Elisabeth Shue.

All in, “The Boys Presents: Diabolical” runs about the length of a short feature film, so it’s nowhere near the time drain of the average streaming series in the 2020s, but that almost adds to the sense that this is a footnote more than a fully formed venture of its own. It’s a way for fans to dip into this universe and feels somewhat like it’s setting a foundation for the future of “The Boys,” one that could end up leaving characters like Starlight and Butcher behind to tell other stories. Will fans follow these concepts to other corners of the anti-superhero world without their favorite characters? It’s hard to tell, but it will require the kind of creative, sharp writing that’s only seen in a few of these eight episodes. After all, “The Animatrix” really just made people want more Neo and Morpheus instead. [C]

“The Boys Presents: Diabolical” debuts on Amazon Prime Video on March 4.