clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

‘The Boys’ Has Become a Blockbuster of Its Own

The Season 3 finale concluded a characteristically strong season while also raising a long-term question: How can an iconoclastic property continue to deconstruct a genre that it’s increasingly a pillar of?

Amazon/Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Spoiler warning

For a few years now, it’s been difficult to watch traditional superhero stories without thinking about The Boys. The Amazon Prime Video series, adapted from a DC-turned-Dynamite comic created by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson, set out to “take the piss out of superheroes” and, before its second season, graduated to depicting its headlining supernonhero taking a piss on the public. The obvious, if unspecified, targets of the series’ sharp wit were what most consumers would consider the default sort of superhero: the actually heroic kind most associated with Marvel and DC. The spandexed, leather-clad, or caped sacred cows that the series sought to send up, tear down, or use as vessels for satire of celebrity, authoritarianism, and American mythmaking typically play by narrative rules that The Boys gleefully, gorily rewrote. Search for “subvert,” “conventions,” or “irreverent” in any article about The Boys—including this one, now—and you’re going to get a hit. What happens on The Boys, as my colleague Alan Siegel wrote in 2020, “would never occur in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is the point.”

Thus, a seasoned superhero fan enjoys The Boys with old-fashioned straight arrows such as Aquaman, Superman, and Captain America in mind, present in spirit as uncredited, offscreen foils for the Deep, Homelander, or Soldier Boy to trample or riff on. And when someone steeped in the superhero patois of Ennis or adaptation developer Eric Kripke flips to Disney+ or HBO Max to revisit the genre’s original flavors, it’s impossible to taste them without wondering what their twisted, over-the-top alter egos would do—and maybe being a bit disappointed that they won’t Go There, whether “There” is pointed political commentary, octopus-positive superpowered orgies, or skull-exploding bloodbaths. (Though Marvel may be borrowing from The Boys’ playbook when it comes to brain obliterations.)

But something surprising happened to the upstart series between its 2019 premiere and its Season 3 finale, which went live on Thursday night: The Boys became a blockbuster brand of its own. “The Instant White-Hot Wild,” a high-octane but not-quite-climactic conclusion to a characteristically strong season, is an hour of action interwoven with quality character work that evokes some of the questions confronting The Boys now that it’s morphed from DC reject to stalled film project to streaming powerhouse and spinoff factory. Can a series stay unpredictable for several seasons if its initial ability to defy expectations came from its willingness to run different routes than the old superhero standbys? When the once-iconoclastic comics dedicated to deconstructing a genre—à la Watchmen, The Boys, and Invincible—become pillars of an established, flourishing, streaming subgenre, can they avoid recycling formerly fresh angles or adopting the longstanding tropes of their targets? And what happens when a series that aimed to put a less ultra-mainstream spin on long-lasting and lucrative franchises becomes its own prime (no pun) piece of IP?

In 2020, Kripke recounted a network note he’d received about a Season 1 episode: “There’s not enough superhero story in this.” That note would never be sent about the Season 3 finale, which is stuffed to Deep’s gills with superheroes, supervillains, and one temporarily suped-up antihero, all of whom have ample opportunities to show off their special strengths. More than any episode of The Boys before it, “The Instant White-Hot Wild” could pass for the finale of an extra-bloody Marvel movie or series. On the surface, it has the hallmarks: The extended sequences of kicking and punching; the uncertainty about comparative power levels; the effects-heavy showdown that doesn’t really resolve the underlying conflict, setting the stage for the inevitable next battle to come. (Though for once, the collateral damage is kept to a minimum.) There’s even a fakeout character death. (Between Obi-Wan Kenobi, Stranger Things, The Boys, and a fourth release I’m afraid to specify for fear of spoilers, the past month has been a boom time for characters surviving what one might have taken to be fatal wounds, though the disemboweled Black Noir and his hallucinatory cartoon sidekicks must have missed the memo Maeve got.)

In the finale’s opening scene, Homelander assures his superpowered son Ryan, “No matter what happens, no matter what you do—I’m not going anywhere. I will always be here.” Most classic superhero stories implicitly make the same promise to their readers and viewers. For better or for worse, superheroes rarely really die or retire; they get resurrected, rebooted, and recast. Nor do they triumph or fail with finality: Their victories and setbacks are just preludes to sequels. Depending on the creator, the character, and the arc, that quality can be limiting, liberating, or both.

At the end of Season 3, our heroes—not Vought’s—are barely better off than they were at its start. Their plan to kill Homelander backfired: Their murder weapon of choice, Soldier Boy, was roughly as reprehensible as their intended target, and now he’s back in cold storage. Starlight’s on the team, finally free of her costumes, scripts, and sham romances; Mother’s Milk achieved some measure of peace; and maybe Frenchie will get his paid vacation days and dental plan. But Butcher is terminally ill, thanks to Temp V’s side effects, and Homelander appears poised to be more unhinged than ever. He essentially has stood in the middle of Fifth Avenue and lasered somebody, and just as his real-life spirit politician suggested, he hasn’t lost any support: True believers like Todd, whom MM decked with one punch, are only emboldened by their pandering, insincere idol’s display of strength. And unless Butcher’s crew can assassinate or sabotage secret supe and new VP candidate Victoria Neuman, Homelander will have a powerful plant in the White House to head off (pun intended this time) any government pressure on Vought.

It might seem, then, that The Boys is merely kicking its conclusion down the road, resetting the status quo, and buying more time for Amazon to squeeze every last subscriber out of one of its most visible streaming successes, which was already renewed for a fourth season. The Boys has already served as a springboard for an animated spinoff, The Boys Presents: Diabolical, as well as a live-action superhero-college spinoff that’s in production now, and Amazon Studios’ head of global television, Vernon Sanders, recently said, “There’s ideas beyond the shows that we have. … I wouldn’t be surprised if you heard about more.” (Neither would we, Vernon.)

But it’s probably unfair to both our buddy Vern and Kripke to conclude that economic considerations are dictating creative ones. Ennis made and followed through on a five-year plan to tell his story in the comics, and after Season 2, Kripke said five felt like the right number of seasons for the show. That stopping point is still in play, especially because Butcher now has a life expectancy of less than two years. Like Stranger Things, The Boys brand is too big to be finished after five seasons, but the original series may actually stick to its anticipated sunset.

Which isn’t to say that the series has adhered to Ennis’s roadmap. Indeed, it deviated early and often, and the Season 3 finale hinges on some of those choices and seals some others. Notably, the Butcher of the comics can’t shoot lasers from his eyes or hope to trade blows with Homelander and live to call him a cunt. Making Butcher this superpowered seems almost uninspired; what makes him so compelling is his quixotic, single-minded drive to take revenge on a godlike sociopath who could seemingly swat him away without exertion or qualms. But The Boys isn’t basic enough to embrace Marvel’s customary “might equals right” ethos. At no point is Butcher’s (or Hughie’s) decision to take Temp V presented as morally justified, and for Butcher, it comes at great cost. He may have leveled up for a little while, but the fallout from that choice leaves him weaker than he was in the comics.

The finale’s uncommonly protracted punchy-punchy parts, which play out among seven—but not the Seven, which is now reduced to a trio—superpowered combatants, differ from most of their Marvel equivalents in a couple of key ways. For one, the action is less dependent on fancy effects, easier to follow, and far more brutal and visceral, as evidenced by Maeve’s eye getting gouged and Homelander’s ear getting punctured. For another, the punches are punctuated by a steady diet of meaningful moments among characters, many of them Ryan-related.

Maeve’s months of teetotaling and training pay off* as she holds her own against her tormentor; MM gets to help restrain Soldier Boy without compromising his principles and superpowering up; Hughie shows that he’s learned from his missteps by upping Annie’s voltage instead of trying to save her himself. The stakes here aren’t high enough for fans to tear their hair out. (Shout-out to Ashley and her small, Maeve-sparing gesture of resistance to Homelander, even if it’s motivated mostly by spite.) But the character beats between beatings link these scenes to the season as a whole, ensuring that the character development doesn’t end when the fighting begins. And the way the big tussle goes down provides some of that sweet, sweet “What will happen next?!”: Homelander and Butcher, the unlikeliest of allies, remain mortal enemies but team up to protect Ryan from Soldier Boy.

*It’s a sign of how unusual it is for The Boys to go full last-act-of-a-Marvel-movie that before this episode, it wasn’t that apparent what Maeve’s powers actually were or how she stacked up to the rest of the Seven. Even now, it’s not clear how she survived her fiery fall after being de-suped by Soldier Boy, or why Noir wasn’t as impervious to a super-punch as she was, or how Starlight escaped the safe without access to electricity. Vought’s “heroes” don’t see much action that isn’t staged, so it’s pretty rare for them to tangle with anyone who puts up a fight.

Speaking of character development and differences in the adaptation: In the comics, Becca’s baby doesn’t survive infancy. Given the spotty track record of kid characters in TV dramas, it was risky for Kripke to carve out a prominent role for Ryan, but Homelander’s biological son and Butcher’s semi-adopted one has helped humanize both characters, and added a deeper dimension to their feud. Awful as each of them is in his own ugly way, there’s a sadness to the unsavable, self-destructive, and toxic bad-dad trifecta of Butcher, Homelander, and Soldier Boy, whose fathers ranged from absent to abusive to cold, withholding, and distant.

“Our past is not who we are,” Kimiko tells Frenchie, but all of the Boys, and some of the supes, have a hell of a time taking that to heart. For all its swearing, sex, supes, and unsubtle commentary on current events, The Boys, like Game of Thrones, is at its heart a brilliantly acted show about relationships: between Butcher and his team members; between Ryan and his far-from-ideal dads; between Hughie and Annie, MM and Janine, and Frenchie and Kimiko; and between A-Train and his brother and Homelander and Maeve or Noir.

Over time, the series has lost some of its capacity to shock—not because it’s inherently less shocking, but because MM’s revelation to Janine that “superheroes aren’t always good” is no longer news to the series’ audience, some of which may have developed a light tolerance to its cruder delights. But even if the second octopus-sex scene wasn’t as unforgettable as the first, the relationships between humans are more than enough to carry the show into its fourth (and perhaps penultimate) season. How long can an invulnerable villain with no checks on his power be one of the best Big Bads on TV, and how long can Antony Starr portray Homelander’s Darth Vader–esque combination of menace and self-loathing before his face is frozen in a permanent smirk? Who’ll bring the smelling salts to Soldier Boy? Can Ryan break the bad-dad cycle? Can Butcher be redeemed? Can any of these “deeply broken and fucked-up” characters, to borrow Frenchie’s phrase, find the families they’ve lost or lacked their whole lives? Would a world without supes really be any better than a world with them?

“I’m not going back in that fucking box,” Soldier Boy protests in the finale, but in the end, he does. Despite some resemblances to the less transgressive storytelling it arose in response to, though, The Boys doesn’t get trapped in the genre box it broke out of. It may cosplay as a slam-bang blockbuster about good guys and bad, but it’s not only that. Nor is it solely a dark, brooding, blood-drenched drama, or a ridiculous spoof, or a tragic character study, or a gross-out sex comedy, or a social satire. It’s all of those things. Frenchie gives good advice to MM: “Let Janine see all of it.” Letting its audience see everything, octopi included, will always be what The Boys does best, no matter how long it takes for (phrasing) the real climax to come—and no matter how many spinoffs the franchise has in store.