The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘The Boys’ returns, slightly dinged, with its very American dystopia

Amazon Prime’s ultra-cynical superhero hit sets its sights on American imperialism and toxic masculinity.

From left, Karen Fukuhara as Kimiko, Karl Urban as Billy Butcher, Tomer Capone as Frenchie and Laz Alonso as Mother's Milk in “The Boys.” (Amazon Prime)
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In the fundamentally American dystopia of “The Boys,” the Supes — the chosen few endowed with super-speed, super-strength, laser eyes and the like — are too busy with the obligations of celebrity for much world-saving. Instead, the Superman-like Homelander (Antony Starr) and the Wonder Woman-esque Queen Maeve (Dominique McElligott) appear in movies based on their exploits and smile toothily from the sides of buses and soda cups, offering scripted romances to increase their Q ratings and anodyne political messaging that works around, rather than addresses, the prejudices of the day.

The Supes are people — often devastatingly damaged people, afflicted by the kind of bottomless unhappiness associated with extreme childhood trauma, a severe case of showbiz personality or both. But they’re also products: a moneymaking scheme by the Vought corporation, which invented superpowers, marketed them as a godsend to humanity through its “heroes” and has been trying ever since to gin up new ways to profit off Compound V, the cobalt-blue formula that turns babies into mutants.

A best-drama Emmy nominee for its outstanding second season, “The Boys” is something of a mutant itself. Adapted from Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson’s comic book, it’s a smirkingly gruesome genre series that’s equal parts mawkish melodrama and tar-black comedy. No season has fully cohered, including the third outing that debuted Friday, which feels a tad too earnest for its own good.

But the Amazon Prime hit still presents a beguilingly bleak vision of a nation too distracted to notice that it’s fallen into corporate fascism. An unknown Supe may telepathically explode the heads of several congressmen during a televised hearing on Compound V, but the citizenry are still eating at Vought-a-Burger, streaming superhero shows on Vought Plus and protesting on behalf of the Vought Rifle Association. So pervasive is this worship of might it occurs to precious few that perhaps a new race of psychologically messed-up Übermensch should never have been created at all.

I haven’t yet mentioned the ragtag band of vigilantes fighting to bring down Vought — the titular Boys — because, as central as they are, the show’s foremost asset is its shiv-sharp satirical world-building. Season 1 persuasively illustrated why Vought would align itself with socially conservative forces like churches and capitalism, while Season 2, which featured an electric Aya Cash, compellingly argued how readily cults of power and displays of edgelord transgression lend themselves to far-right demagoguery.

Creator Eric Kripke has admiringly spoken of Ennis’s depictions of “authoritarians pos[ing] as celebrities.” “You don’t need 50 million people to love you,” says Cash’s Internet-savvy Nazi supervillain Stormfront in Season 2. “You need 5 million people” who are extremely angry (but in the vulgar language the show is known for). Unsurprisingly, Season 2’s explorations of hate as a politically animating force made for blistering parody during the Trump administration.

In years past, Compound V has been the dividing line between the Supes and the civilians. Godlike abilities turned the square-jawed, icy-gazed Homelander, whose stars-and-stripes cape recalls the flag, into the series’s Biggest Bad, a would-be savior stewing in unqualified contempt of the regular meatbags he’s meant to serve. Under his thumb, the rest of the Seven — the show’s version of the Justice League — cower in fear, court his approval or plot their revenge. Still mourning the end of his power coupling with Stormfront, Homelander once again focuses his rage on a fellow Supe, the high-minded Starlight (Erin Moriarty), who’s offered a new position within the Seven that might allow her to reform it from within.

Vought CEO Stan Edgar (Giancarlo Esposito) had initially hoped to sell Compound V to the military to create super-soldiers. But taking a cue perhaps from our real-life corporations, he figures a subscription might be more lucrative than a one-time purchase. His scientists formulate Compound V24, a potion that endows normies with superpowers for 24 hours. When the Boys’ leader, Butcher (Karl Urban), is offered smuggled vials of the stuff, his distrust of the Supes is no match for the enticement of finally being as powerful as his enemies.

The Boys — who also comprise audience-surrogate newbie Hughie (Jack Quaid), descendant-of-Supe-victims Mother’s Milk (Laz Alonso), unwilling Compound V test subject Kimiko (Karen Fukuhara) and her puppy-dog admirer Frenchie (Tomer Capon) — have consistently been the show’s weakest element. Season 3 pushes them toward the narrative center, resulting in an octet of chapters that feels like a minor but not insignificant dip from the first two. It’s theoretically interesting to give the Boys a taste of the Supe life, so they can experience for themselves how easy it is to give into one’s worst impulses when immune from consequences; under V24, the vengeance-obsessed Butcher splits an uncooperative witness’s head in two as smoothly as he would a melon. With each dose of V24 they go through, The Boys’ claims of moral superiority to the corrupt Supes slip through their fingers.

But there’s a predetermined feeling to many of the storylines this season; the commentary seems to be driving the character development. It doesn’t help that the new episodes’ themes feel so well worn. The out-of-character chauvinism that Hughie exhibits, for example, in his desperate desire to protect his well-nigh invincible girlfriend, Starlight, lacks the nuance and playfulness of Season 2’s stinging lampoon of (Marvel’s) commoditized girl-power feminism. Hughie’s toxic masculinity finds its most primal form in new Supe Soldier Boy (Jensen Ackles), a cave man when it comes to sexual politics (and pop cultural references). “The Boys” presents Soldier Boy as an emblem of American imperialism during the Cold War, but too often, that’s all he feels like; he never gains three-dimensionality, making Cash’s absence that much starker. Meanwhile, the most promising developments, like Homelander’s encouragement of “alternative facts” to shore up his popularity and secret-Supe politician Victoria Neuman’s (Claudia Doumit) rise to power, are frustratingly shelved for later seasons.

In the season premiere, Homelander and Stan Edgar fight over the future of Vought: whether it should be a superhero company, the way consumers imagine it to be, or a pharmaceutical firm, selling V24 on the sly. (If the compound is purchased by baddies, all the better for Vought; the villainy necessitates its heroes even more.) But superpowers are really a bioweapon, and “The Boys” always has fun imagining how both society and daily life reorganize themselves around this new unofficial arms race. Season 2 gave us airborne sex and a Scientology-like org in the publicity-hungry Church of the Collective. In Season 3, with plain old humans getting in on the Supe action, the show takes a greater interest in the sad, sordid lives of the in-betweeners: superpowered D-listers who’d never be considered the Seven material.

Bereft of its thematic heft, the season inevitably relies more on plotting and shock value. That’s a mild disappointment, too; some of the character beats, like one involving a major betrayal that results in the jettisoning of a key character, feel shockingly rushed, so propulsive is the forward momentum. I’ve generally felt torn about the show’s gleefully tasteless violence and sexual boundary-pushing, which are often clever but nauseating. (I’ll give “The Boys” this: I’ve never before seen a man killed by having the flesh on his face ripped barehanded from his skull.) With its own hilarious version of that Kendall Jenner Pepsi commercial and piquant references to QAnon, Charlottesville and Jan. 6, there’s no shortage of zippy quips and flying elbows. It’s a sturdily built season, but it might make you miss the show at its full strength.

The Boys returns Friday on Amazon Prime with Episodes 1-3. New episodes air weekly. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)