It’s easy to get the wrong idea about The Boys. Amazon’s satirical take on superheroes — based on Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson’s comic superheroes who get off on behaving badly and the operatives who, in turn, get their jollies from keeping them in line — had a whiff of Deadpool about it. You know: obnoxious, irreverent, very violent, and kind of shallow. But in its surprisingly effective first season, The Boys showed real heart. It’s crass and vulgar, sure, but it’s also interested in much more than the facile superheroes, but they’re bad premise it leads you to believe it will focus on. Namely, it’s out to crush any fond feelings you have for celebrities.
In the world of The Boys, superheroes have gone corporate, almost entirely under the control and management of the Vought megacorporation. They are run by PR teams, brand names used for frozen food, theme parks, and movies. They still do superhero stuff, in between speaking appearances, of course. They’re also corrupt as hell, orchestrating disasters to convince the public of their necessity, sexually assaulting fans, murdering bystanders with their recklessness, and generally abusing their power for personal gain. You’d hate them if you knew what they were really like, and Billy Butcher (Karl Urban) absolutely does.
More broadly interested in the power and toxicity of celebrity and stan culture
Across the first season’s eight episodes, Butcher and his “boys” — Frenchie (Tomer Kapon), Mother’s Milk (Laz Alonso), Kimiko (Karen Fukuhara), and newcomer Hughie (Jack Quaid) — began a vendetta on the superhero team known as The Seven. As Vought’s spin on the Justice League, The Seven are the most powerful and famous superheroes (or “supes”) in the world of The Boys, led by the charismatic Homelander (Antony Starr) — a mashup of Superman and Captain America. And while the entirety of The Seven are selfish, vain, and often destructive, Homelander is the one who appears to be outright evil from the outset. So naturally, he’s the one Butcher and The Boys want to take down most.
The second season picks up immediately after the first, as characters spiral from the finale’s fallout. Madelyn Stillwell (Elisabeth Shue), the VP of Vought who kept Homelander in check, is gone, and there’s little restraining the unhinged super-misanthrope from doing whatever he wants. Butcher, who believed his wife Becca (Shantel VanSanten) murdered or missing, learns that she has been living in secret with the child she had with Homelander. The rest of the Boys are barely holding it together after an op gone wrong and a revelation that could upend the entire global status quo: Supes are made, not born.
While the new batch of eight episodes goes in all sorts of exhilarating and strange directions, it’s that last part that The Boys is most interested in this year: if superheroes are made in a lab, who made them and why? And is all this part of their plan?
While the show can be read as a story about an evil Superman, it’s more broadly interested in the power and toxicity of celebrity and stan culture. The Seven are flawed in ways that their superhero status only makes worse: A-Train (Jessie T. Usher) is a speedster afraid to lose his status and driven to addiction, Queen Maeve (Dominique McElligott) is a burned-out idealist who no longer stands for anything, The Deep (Chace Crawford) is a creep who preys on women whenever he’s not completely bowled over by his immense insecurity. The capes and tights that keep them in their vices also keep them miserable. And normal people cheer the so-called heroes on as they take everything from them.
The Boys isn’t out to make profound points, but it is smart about what it has to say. Superheroes, and the corporate empires built around them, are an extremely American invention, both in the fiction of The Boys and in real life. And as season 2 goes on, cults of personality prove a more animating force than any superpower, as fandoms can be motivated in ways just as toxic as any political party can dream up. They don’t even need to have faces anymore — video game console manufactures have fandoms. Look no further than the giant tech company currently trying to motivate its “fans” to mobilize against another even bigger tech company.
In The Boys, the mean math of capitalism ensures no one responds to ideals. There’s no profit in that. They hail to and gather around power, both the abstract sort wielded by nations and celebrities and the literal kind that lets humans shrug off bullets and shoot lightning from their hands. There are no heroes in this world, and you should never, ever try to meet one.