The Boys is the smartest political satire on TV – just mind the orgies and exploding heads
It is sometimes claimed that superhero movies are the 21st-century equivalent of the Hollywood Westerns. A safe space where America can celebrate its cultural dominance but also interrogate its fears and insecurities. All while providing us with heroes to cheer and villains to boo.
If that is the case then Amazon Prime Video’s The Boys, which has just dropped its devastating series three finale, is surely the comic book version of Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood working their magic in the deep desert. It is violent, provocative and can be read both as a critique of the milieu to which it belongs and of the American Dream. This season, to add spice, it has stirred in a Trump analogy.
The Boys’ central thesis is that superheroes, were they real, would be monsters – flawed humans corrupted by absolute power. The point is illustrated by a gallery of Übermensch that includes a sociopathic Superman, Homelander (Antony Starr), pathetic sexual predator The Deep (Aquaman, if he was on the offender’s register) and silent weirdo Black Noir (Nathan Mitchell). Arrayed against these horrific Marvel parodies are the ragtag from which the show takes its name – a crew of “Boys” determined to take down the “Supes” along with Vought International, the evil mega-corp that created them.
The good guys are, alas, almost as messed up as the baddies: emotionally damaged Cock-er-ney geezer Billy Butcher (Karl Urban), ineffective nice guy Hughie (Jack Quaid) and super-powered Kimiko (Karen Fukuhara), a mute with a knack for explosive violence. Only Hughie’s superhero girlfriend, Starlight (Erin Moriarty), is within touching distance of normal (and even she is recovering from childhood exploitation at the hands of her fame-hungry mother).
The Western analogy falls apart, admittedly, once you actually sit down to watch The Boys. It’s been a while since I saw Eastwood don his iconic poncho and broad-brimmed hat but I can state with confidence that The Good, the Bad and the Ugly did not feature a giant exploding penis, gouged eye-sockets or a character forced to prove his loyalty by eating his best friend, who happens to be an octopus.
These are some of the delights unleashed in series three. The gore factor leaves The Boys with a high barrier to entry and for many it will be a deal-breaker. Just like the Garth Ennis comic books from which it is (loosely) adapted, it is a riot of ripped sinews, detonating craniums and lip-smacking perversity. If you’re not on board with that sickening smorgasbord you’ll be headed for the exit ramp quite quickly.
The Boys has always had a high gross-out quotient. But having received five Emmy nominations last year and with its audience now rivalling that of Netflix’s Stranger Things in size and loyalty, Amazon has given the writers licence to let rip. And rip they have, with episodes such as Herogasm, in which Butcher and the gang crash a debauched superhero orgy where nothing is left to the imagination.
But while the splatter effects are often shocking, The Boys isn’t an empty spectacle. If anything it is unique in modern American television in touching the political live rail and commenting more or less directly on the populist upheavals that spawned Donald Trump and other political carpetbaggers around the world.
The Boys answer to the Orange demagogue is Homelander, a smirking psychopath whose slick facade obscures a black-hole of insecurities and who thinks nothing of blitzing innocents with his laser eyes. Until this season, however, the leader of the Avengers-esque “Seven” has been careful to keep his homicidal side secret. But when he let loose in a moment of frustration and ranted to camera about his superiority, he was shocked to see the superhero equivalent of his “poll” numbers shoot up. His (white, male) fans appreciate it when Homelander is just being Homelander. He could, to paraphrase Trump, zap someone on Fifth Avenue in New York and not lose any support.
*Warning: spoilers for the season three finale below*
Amid the gore and the politics, The Boys has found space for a solid plot, too. The bombshell this year is that Homelander, though developed in a lab by Vought, has a biological father. And he is none other than the show’s idiotic answer to Captain America, Soldier Boy (Jensen Ackles).
That hasn’t dissuaded Soldier Boy from allying with Butcher to kill Homelander, which leads to the heartbreaking scene in the finale where Homelander confronted Soldier Boy with his grandson, Ryan – and the wish they could all be family. It’s an extraordinary performance by Starr, who, as Homelander, flips from maniacal to pathetically needy. He’s an insane Clark Kent with daddy issues bigger than his biceps – a potentially overblown caricature to which Starr brings nuance and gripping comic timing.
Fans tuning in for further gratuitous gore will be disappointed. With Herogasm out of its system and Timothy the Octopus a fading memory, the finale is largely concerned with tying up loose ends and setting up series four. Vought and Homelander have installed secret superhero Victoria Neuman (aka “Head-Popper”, played by Victoria Doumit) as candidate for Vice President. Neuman is an ambivalent figure who has campaigned publicly against “Supes”. However, the implication is that, with Neuman bound for the White House, Homelander will soon have his hands on the levers of executive power.
It’s heady, heavy stuff. And yet The Boys never stops being fun. It’s Marvel with a script by Noam Chomsky. Batman v Superman where the real villain is unchecked capitalism. And – provided you can stomach the gore and the orgies – it’s the smartest, bravest show on television right now.