tv review

The Boys Needs a New Punch Line

Photo: Amazon Prime

Dicks and pricks are the tools The Boys uses to tell its story of superhero subversion, and for the first couple seasons, the series’ commitment to equitable nudity in its jarring sex scenes, Antony Starr’s deliciously evil line deliveries, and the seduction of Karl Urban’s fuck-you sneer was compelling enough to camouflage an increasingly repetitive story about the inherent fascism of genetically engineered heroes. But in the third season, those charms are beginning to wear. These eight episodes are easy to watch but easy to forget, and the satirical identity The Boys once had gets lost under the viscera, semen, radioactive waste, and neon-green vomit coating this season’s uneven subplots.

Fake news, the corporatization of politics, American imperialism as corrupt capitalism, the image-management aspect of celebrity, and the Me Too movement have been narrative elements from the very beginning of The Boys as TV. Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson’s comic-book series that ran from 2006 to 2012 was a product of the Bush era, and Eric Kripke’s adaptation for Prime Video, which premiered in 2019, is very much shaped by the bleak peculiarities of the Trump years. Combine those decades of political awfulness with the concurrent superhero monoculture takeover of movies and TV, and certain patterns of stasis begin to emerge.

The Boys jeers at that stagnant codependency as its modus operandi, and the dueling performances of Starr’s Homelander and Urban’s William Butcher have been two sides of the same cynical coin. They remain the standouts in season three, and the mirroring of their scorched-earth ideologies is an effective commentary on the slippery morality of extremism. But whatever wounds these men inflict upon each other are wiped away by The Boys’ unwillingness to genuinely change the structures in which its characters operate: Vought is still untouchable, the American government is still duplicitous, the criminal underworld is still full of Russians. There’s a rinse-and-repeat quality to both the heroes and the villains that means nothing much changes by the end of this season, as The Boys settles into the same cyclical narrative patterns as the cinematic universes it claims to be mocking.

When actors from other superhero franchises appear in cameos to poke fun at themselves, that’s The Boys winking at its audience. And when the series’ only insight is the same “Whoa, superheroes sure are baddies, huh?” messaging it’s already espoused over and over again, that’s The Boys dulling its edge. What is the joke, at this point? That it’s silly to dress up in costumes and that fandom is toxic? That American freedom is a myth and that the country’s gung ho ideology is built on propaganda and lies? I will go ahead and co-sign all that, but The Boys has made these points before via Homelander and makes them again this season via Homelander, and it’s only because Starr’s line deliveries are so precise and so venomous that any of this feels remotely fresh.

At its core, however, the series’ ideology feels increasingly hollow. Sadism is still there: brain matter splooging out of a skull, the sticky smear of a body dragged along pavement, a supe punching through another person’s abdomen (a scene that happens twice with two different sets of characters). Fatherhood as a burden is still there: more memories of Butcher’s abusive father, and two more story lines with the same dynamics. And the provocative sex stuff is still there: superhero-branded dildos, crime lords bragging about how much their henchmen like to be sexually punished, orgies and anal beads and tentacles. After the genuine grotesquery of the season’s first 15 minutes, though, a modified version of Murphy’s Law sets in. Whatever can happen will happen, and whatever can go wrong will go wrong — but not wrong enough to leave a lasting impact in the world of The Boys.

Set a year after the end of season two, The Boys begins with the titular group divided and seemingly happier for it. Hughie (Jack Quaid) is a high-up at New York’s Federal Bureau of Superhuman Affairs, working closely under Congresswoman Victoria Neuman (Claudia Doumit), whom he is unaware is actually a murderous supe. He’s in charge of former teammates Butcher, Frenchie (Tomer Capon), and Kimiko (Karen Fukuhara), who are now government contractors investigating and rounding up bad supes. Butcher is growing closer to sort-of stepson Ryan (Cameron Crovetti) and hiding him from Homelander, while Marvin–slash–Mother’s Milk (Laz Alonso) is trying to rebuild his relationship with his supe-obsessed daughter Janine (Liyou Abere).

Meanwhile, at Vought, Homelander has been publicly on an apology tour but privately in a kind of catatonic trance since the revelation that his lover Stormfront (Aya Cash) was an actual Nazi and after Queen Maeve (Dominique McElligott) threatened to release the video of him leaving an entire airplane of passengers to die. Annie-slash-Starlight (Erin Moriarty) is a judge on a reality show to fill the two open slots in the Seven and happily in a relationship with Hughie; A-Train (Jessie T. Usher) is effectively retired from superhero stuff because of his heart condition; the Deep (Chace Crawford) is continuing his public crusade against a Scientology-like cult and gaining more prominence because of it; Queen Maeve has quit drinking; and Black Noir (Nathan Mitchell) is doing whatever it is that Black Noir does.

Homelander’s sadness this season makes him even more acidic and manipulative, a combination at which Starr excels through his malleable physicality, the glinting menace of his grin, and the pause he takes after insulting someone and before insisting that he was “kidding.” (Imagine Starr and Glenn Howerton playing brothers; their elastic facial expressions and similar turn-on-a-dime rage would know no bounds!) Homelander’s continued power over the rest of the Seven is what inspires Butcher to go looking for a weapon that could actually kill the world’s strongest supe, and that desire uncovers secrets in Vought’s past, incorporates a few long-standing subplots from the comic-book series, and introduces new characters played by the likes of Jensen Ackles (doing a wonderfully nihilistic spin on Chris Evans’s Captain America) and Katia Winter (underserved).

On an episodic basis, it’s enjoyable enough. The fight scenes continue to be well-blocked and well-staged, in particular a few in the season’s back half that are less about splashy choreography and more about brawny brutalism between their participants. Britney Spears’s “Baby One More Time” is used to ominous effect in an episode that draws links between Annie’s position within the Seven and her childhood, forced into oversexualization and people-pleasing while under her mother’s thumb on the beauty-pageant circuit. The vulgarity and insults aren’t quite Succession-level, but it’s solidly amusing when an iconic actor from the ’80s shows up to go on a rant against modern-day supes. But take a step back and the familiarity of certain story lines becomes predictable. That applies both to the series’ text and its subtext, from the many speeches about the importance of family (funny, because Hughie at one point compares himself to Dominic Toretto) to Homelander’s proselytizing about American freedom acting as veiled commentary on the U.S. government’s response to COVID-19. Of course the Boys would find their way back to each other. Of course Homelander would rant about false-flag operations. Of course the American people would be absolute morons when it comes to their “heroes.” There is something to be said for consistency, but new shades or nuance would be nice too.

“We’re gonna finish this fucking job,” Butcher vows, but this third season belies both that promise and that premise. As long as there are people to adore him, Homelander will absorb their praise. As long as Homelander lives, Butcher will fight against him. As long as Butcher is running around, Hughie will be loyal to him and Annie will protect Hughie and all the other pieces of The Boys puzzle will snap into their engineered places. That’s a formula as rigid and unyielding as the ones that lock together Batman and the Joker, Superman and Lex Luthor, or Professor X and Magneto, and all the smirking The Boys does at those properties is no longer enough to distinguish it from them.

The Boys Needs a New Punch Line