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Let’s Hear It for ‘The Boys’

Heading into its second season, Amazon’s anti-superhero series’ critiques of capitalism, fandom, and society at large are not subtle—but sometimes subtlety is overrated

Amazon/Ringer illustration

In the second season of The Boys, Vought International—the conglomerate in charge of real-life superheroes living among us, a cross between Disney and a defense contractor—is focus grouping its latest branding initiatives. (I agree, that is a repulsive sequence of words.) Naturally, Vought is much more preoccupied with public opinion than with how many times its heroes actually save the day. The focus group unanimously approves of framing the Seven, the show’s stand-in of the Justice League, as heroes who save the world, not just America. But the onlooking Homelander—a depraved, sociopathic spin on Superman—is not having it. He is all about America first, so that’s what Vought is gonna run with.

It’s not exactly subtle messaging; then again, subtlety has never been what The Boys is about. While adapted from Garth Ennis’s comic book series of the same name, which was first published in 2006, the series feels like it was tailor-made for our present—one where Hollywood can’t get enough of superheroes and the United States is increasingly, dangerously nationalistic. Throw in the basic tenets of capitalism through the omnipresent Vought, and The Boys is like looking through a funhouse mirror at our world that’s literally on fire. All that’s missing from the show’s universe is a global pandemic. (I can already picture Vought’s terrified PR lackeys begging Homelander to wear a mask in a new ad campaign.)

The setup for Season 2 is similar to The Boys’ freshman outing. The mission remains the same for the titular Boys: a ragtag group of outsiders hoping to expose Vought and the Seven for what they really are, which includes the fact that superpowered humans aren’t born, but made. Vought’s “Compound V,” injected into infants with the consent of their fame-seeking parents, is the company’s way of exerting more control and influence over the country than our government can. Though, of course, Vought frames the superpowered as being gifted by the grace of God, appealing to an evangelical base. (This season includes the brief appearance of an anti-abortion billboard that argues you could be aborting a baby with powers.) The odds, then, are firmly stacked against the Boys, who must also contend with being viewed as wanted terrorists.

But a handful of angry, alienated, and non-powered outcasts isn’t enough to stoke real fear into the American consciousness—therefore, Vought hypes up the danger of “super-terrorists” invading the country from beyond our borders, positioning the Seven as a necessity to protect citizens. That thinly veiled anti-immigrant agenda is pushed by the newest member of the Seven, Stormfront, whose lightning powers are Thor-esque and, as her superhero name not-so-subtly implies, is hiding something nefarious.

On the surface, that doesn’t exactly sound like fun viewing, but The Boys continues to excel because it handles its cynical messaging with a playful, provocative spirit. Like another small-screen adaptation of an Ennis comic, AMC’s delightful-in-bursts Preacher, The Boys indulges in gleeful displays of violence and absurdity—the first season’s highlights include one hero getting blown up with an anal bomb, and another inadverently crushing a man’s skull while he performed cunnilingus. This season is no different: There’s a gross-out moment involving an actual whale (?!), and several scenes that suggest the series had a self-imposed quota of exploding skulls to fill. There’s even a subplot in which the show’s version of Aquaman joins the show’s version of the Church of Scientology, a journey that includes him taking a psychedelic that makes his gills start talking to him, and an anti-Vought political newcomer who’s a stand-in for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (seriously). It’s the kind of chaotic energy The Boys thrives on.

The show’s crass, weird, and gory sensibilities are perhaps why it is often compared to Deadpool, but even the Merc with a Mouth is now beholden to the Marvel Industrial Complex. (Also, no matter how much he swears, Deadpool is always on hand to save the day; Homelander will let everyone aboard a passenger plane perish to avoid a PR hit.) Conversely, The Boys burst onto the scene in 2019 as something akin to superhero counterprogramming: Like HBO’s excellent reimagining of Watchmen, the series questioned our unwavering faith in heroes, whether they deserve to be worshipped, and what would really happen if modern institutions got in the way.

As The Boys returns in 2020, it enters a much different superhero landscape—namely, one that currently hardly exists. The efforts of Netflix (The Old Guard, Project Power) notwithstanding, the ongoing pandemic has left superhero-craved viewers in a content drought not seen since the Marvel Cinematic Universe was established more than a decade ago. Though it certainly wasn’t the show’s intention, The Boys is back as the only superhero game in town. While the series feels like it exists in defiance of superheroes going mainstream—the “Vought Cinematic Universe” is a franchise-within-the-show—there’s no denying that The Boys is going mainstream itself. (Amazon has already renewed The Boys for a third season, to go along with an accompanying aftershow for Season 2.)

A new viewer will quickly pick up on how the show feels about superheroes—the pilot ends with Homelander destroying a private jet with a child inside of it—and its deep-rooted cynicism might be hard to swallow for anyone whose idea of triumphant cinema is the climax of Avengers: Endgame. But stick with The Boys through its shallow bursts of profanity and even bigger bursts of gore and you’ll arrive at an uncomfortable truth: The corporatization of superhero fandom, and the cultlike devotion it fosters, is a reflection of how much more dangerous ideologies are formed. Stormfront knows this—that’s why her platform is to “Make America safe again.”

When the dust [Thanos voice] inevitably settles on the superhero blockbuster—just as it once did for the once-powerful Western—we’ll be left with some enduring imagery from a dominant era in filmmaking. A try-hard, Oscar-winning Joker dancing on the stairs; T’Challa and the vibrant nation of Wakanda; a down but not out Captain America picking up his trusty shield. All indelible moments, but The Boys carries plenty of its own, even in the quietest of moments:

Again: It’s not subtle stuff. But when you consider what would happen if capitalism, politics, religion, and superheroes were to intertwine, you might find that The Boys is on to something. Subtlety is overrated—as is looking up to anyone as a hero in this world.