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The Boys : Diabolical (2022)

The Animatrix definitely didn't event the animation anthology. But it did create the template that was followed by subsequent releases such as Batman: Gotham Knight, Halo Legends and most recently Star Wars: Visions. The Wachowski's produced 2003 anthology is a collection of shorts that take place in and are inspired by the world of The Matrix trilogy. In the case of The Boys: Diabolical, the shorts are inspired by Prime Video's satirical live-action super-hero series. In this case, at least, creators and executive producers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg happily admit that it's "totally ripped off The Animatrix".

The Boys is one of Prime Video's most successful series and is adapted from the comic series of the same name written by Garth Ennis and illustrated by Darick Robertson, published by DC Comics' Wildstorm imprint. Both series and comic alike wondered what it would be like if superheroes were real... but many of them were secretly evil. While the general population is oblivious and believes they are the heroes they pretend to be, they were actually created by the sinister Vought Corporation using a secret drug called Compound-V. The Boys of the title are a gang of anti-superhero vigilantes, who have lost loved ones at the hands of supes. Diabolical is not the first spin-off set in what the creators are cheekily calling the VCU, but it's the first to make it to the screen. The project was dreamt up mid-pandemic so fans of the Boys would have an extra dose before the flagship shows returns for its third season this June.

Much like its inspiration, the eight shorts that make up this first season all take place in the world of the show. Each of the episodes features a different animation style and writers, with the series as a whole overseen by executive producers Rogen, Goldberg and The Boys showrunner Eric Kripke.  The series also boasts Giancarlo Volpe as supervising directorVolpe is an animation director with a strong pedigree in action animation, having previously directed episodes of Avatar The Last Airbender, Clone Wars and The Dragon Prince, as well as having produced the short-lived Green Lantern series. Diabolical is produced by Amazon Studios, Sony Pictures Television and Titmouse Cartoons in association with Rogen and Goldberg's Grey Point Pictures

A key difference in the approach seen here to that of The Animatrix and Visions is that while those shorts were all animator/director-led projects, these are written primarily written by people from outside of animation, paired with much more established animation directors. The results are decidedly mixed- always a risk in anthologies. They range from pretty good to completely forgettable,  neither achieving the heights of true greatness nor plumbing the depths of an absolute disaster enough to make it particularly memorable.

Fans of the original show will be unsurprised that this series is full of excess. Extreme grizzly violence, salty language and some sexual content was only to be expected. If anything though, the added freedom of animation has led them to dial up the ultraviolence. Diabolical is dripping in viscera, positively drenched in blood, entrails and assorted body parts.

The tone is set straight away with Laser Baby's Day Out, written by Rogen and Goldberg and directed by Crystal Chesney-Thompson and Derek Thompson. The story features a Vought scientist who decides to rescue a baby supe from the lab, leaving a gory mess in their wake. The inspiration is classic Tex Avery/Chuck Jones style American animation. Told without any significant dialogue, it does a pretty impressive job of capturing a lot of their stylistic quirks. However, the animation does have a more clearly digital look to some of it. I would have to assume this is down to budgetary (or time-related) constraints, as Snipple, the animation studio responsible have had more success with recreating the retro look in series such as Jellystone and Wacky Races in the past. It's pretty one-note and once you've seen laser baby cut one Vought security guard into pieces, you've seen them all. It would probably have been more effective had it stuck to the around six-minute run time of the original Looney Tunes shorts rather than the 14 minutes here.

The second short is unmistakably a Justin Roiland production, sharing the aesthetic of  Rick and Morty and Solar Opposites. Roiland wrote alongside Ben Bayouth, with Parker Simmons directing. It features a home for teenage supes who have useless superpowers such as Boombox, Mo-Slo, The Human Tounge and Boobie Face (who is exactly what he sounds like). The episodes title sums it up: An Animated Short Where Pissed-Off Supes Kill Their Parents. The short features much of Rick and Morty's most excessive qualities but lacks the sharp writing and wit. I'm left wondering how much Roiland actually contributed beyond some crazy ideas, as it's definitely not up to his usual standards.

The third part is a definite improvement on the first two, and will be of most interest to fans of the Boys comic book original. I'm Your Pusher is a new story written by Garth Ennis that takes place in the comic's continuity rather than that of the series. The animation imitates Robertson's original art, in one of two shorts directed by Diabolical's overall supervising director Giancarlo Volpe. It gives us a look at an alternative reality where the series was adapted as an animated series rather than live-action, and it makes me wish we had been so lucky. In the more comic-accurate version, Billy Butcher is voiced by an actual Englishman, Jason Isaacs, and Simon Pegg gets to finally play Hughie, a character in the comic who was modelled on him.

Eliot Glazer wrote the fourth instalment Boyd In 3D, based on a concept by him and his sister, Broad City star co-creator Ilana Glazer. One of the most grounded of the shorts, it features a romance between two awkward neighbours, who take a Vought-made cream that allows them to transform into the version of themselves they most want to be. Despite its sci-fi trappings, it is essentially a cautionary tale about being too absorbed by social media and what others think of you. It also has one of the more distinctive animation styles, with French studio Folivari (Summit Of The Gods) and director Naz Ghodrati-Azadi employing a distinctly gallic style that looks closer to French comics than anything else.

The multi-talented Awkwafina both wrote and stars in BFFs. Aesthetically it resembles if not so much actual anime but the American and Korean made animation that imitates it. Director Madeleine Flores (Bee and Puppycat) has created one of the most visually appealing episodes in this batch. There's less violence here and more crude potty humour, as lonely tween Sky bonds with a talking poo (I shit you not) that calls herself Aerola. It's not big and it's not clever, but I'd be lying if I said it didn't raise a silly smile at times.

Aisha Tyler, best known as the voice of Lana Kane in the long-running spy-comedy Archer and a geek icon, turned her considerable talents to writing in Nubian Vs Nubian. One of the most fun concepts in the series, Tyler's short features a couple of supes whose marriage is on the rocks. taking things into her own hands, their enterprising young daughter dreams up a plan to ensure they stay together.  It's Kramer Vs Kramer meets The Parent Trap... with superheroes. Director Matthew Bordenave creates an interesting fusion of anime style and US action animation, in this episode created by D'art Shtajio, the world's first Black-owned anime studio.

The most surprising short of all John and Sun-Hee entirely drops the humour, for an often moving tale of an elderly Korean man who uses Compound-V in a desperate effort to prolong the life of his cancer-stricken wife. Again, it's harder to pinpoint where the animation style takes its inspiration, with a more indie, arty look than any other short here. Influences on the plot include Asian horror and anime (especially in the body-horror like elements). Tonally this is the odd one out and is a much more sombre and less manic affair than any other episode. Most shocking of all is the fact that this episode was written by -of all people- Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Lonely Island star Andy Samberg, revealing a side to him we had previously never seen. Animation comes from South Korean company Studio Animal and the director was Avatar-veteran Steve Ahn.

The eighth and final episode is the only one that stars one of the characters from the mainline show, and has been confirmed by the creators as cannon. It features a disastrous early mission for Homelander, the VCU's equivalent of Superman or Captain America. Animated in the style of a classical contemporary US superhero show, the episode is written by Simon Racioppa- previously a writer of episodes for Invincible and Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, with direction coming from Giancarlo Volpe and Jae Kim.

Let's be honest, Diabolical is not a patch on The Animatrix. And it can't hold a candle to Star Wars Visions. But taken in its own right, it's an entertaining enough way to while away a few hours. Big-time fans of The Boys TV show (and indeed the comic) will get the most out of it. 

There is a lot of talent involved, and there is some really nicely done animation. If it should be recommissioned for more episodes (and honestly I'm pretty easy either way), then it would be nice to see more actual animation auteurs involved. Imagine how awesome a Genndy Tartakovsky, Pendelton Ward, Natasha Allegri or Jorge Guiterrez Boys shorts could be! Meanwhile, the Diabolical we actually have now, maybe didn't realise its full potential, but neither was it the mess it could have been. The last time Rogen and Goldberg worked in adult animation we ended up with the genuinely diabolical Sausage Party, so in those terms, this is quite a step up.



IN A NUTSHELL:  Sometimes marvellous, sometimes mediocre, Diabolical is a mixed bag. It's no Animatrix, but then few things are.