It’s hard for me to write about The Boys without reflecting on the times in which I’m watching it. When I saw the pilot at an early screening in 2019, I found it compelling but also overwhelming in its cynicism, and was uncertain whether the series would be intelligent enough in addressing the sensitive topics it brings up (the audience’s laughter surrounding the sexual assault gave me a bad feeling that the answer would be “no”). Over a year later, the hype around the second season inspired me to give it another go. I was pleased to find the series did handle its subject matter with care, and as bleak as the show is, seeing characters like Hughie and Starlight try in their own different ways to do some good in the world counted as “feel good” by 2020 standards.
So now we’re in 2022, and Prime Video’s The Boys is back with its most topical batch of episodes yet. The show’s satire has always covered a broad range of issues, from corporate power to American exceptionalism to #MeToo to alt-right indoctrination, but Season 3 feels like it’s stretching to try and address everything that’s happened in the past few years. The political commentary is at its strongest when it’s rooted in the characters, and at its weakest when it relies on references and mixed metaphors.
When Season 3 opens, Hughie (Jack Quaid) thinks he’s found a way to keep supes under control within the system. The Boys now answer to him as part of congresswoman Victoria Neuman’s (Claudia Doumit) regulatory task force, locking up super criminals rather than killing them. Hughie’s relationship with the superhero Starlight (Erin Moriarty) is now out in the open, and she gets her own opportunities to try and change the culture of Vought from within. Of course, viewers already know that Neuman is a supe with a body count of exploded heads, and Starlight can’t get much done when Homelander (Antony Star) is still cruelly manipulating every part of The Seven’s operations. Sure enough, both Hughie and Starlight find reasons to reject the system entirely—reflecting a political disillusionment that is very 2022.
Even with the big reveals about her background, Neuman remains something of an enigma. Compared to Season 2’s main villain Stormfront, where it was clear what she represented and what the show was saying with her, Neuman is pulled in a bunch of different directions and never really gets enough development. She’s obviously not the AOC stand-in she was initially presented as in Season 2, but figuring out what her actual ideology and allegiances are is complicated.
Significantly less mysterious is the season’s other big new villain, Soldier Boy. His schtick is obvious: what if Captain America was a retrograde bigot and jerk? Played by Jensen Ackles from Supernatural, he’s got some good comedic beats but is generally less interesting as a character than as plot device. Long thought to be dead, he might just be the weapon Billy Butcher (Karl Urban) needs to finally kill Homelander once and for all. Whether using this weapon is worth the cost makes for some of The Boys’ most intense drama: the means of taking down the system can be just as troubling as the abuse perpetrated by the system itself.
The Boys Season 3 goes fast and furious with superhero jokes (the first episode both spoofs “The Snyder Cut” and one-ups the “Thanus” theory in the grossest way possible) and references to current events (some less-than-current, but how does timeliness work anymore anyway?) Certain infamous advertisements and viral videos get Vought recreations. Satirizing the corporate response to Black Lives Matter makes a compelling subplot for A-Train. Attempted metaphors for the coronavirus pandemic and QAnon land with less success, due to being both too on-the-nose in their presentation and too messy in their setup. In a fantasy world like this, it’s harder to make sense of clear lines between which conspiracies people would understand as fact versus nonsense.
Where Season 3 ultimately succeeds despite this messiness is in the depth of its main characters, both in the oddly moving found family bonds between The Boys, and in the twisted tragedy of The Seven. Hughie is committed to protecting both Billy and Starlight, even when the former might not seem to be worth saving, and the latter doesn’t need saving. Frenchie (Tomer Capon) and Kimiko’s (Karen Fukuhara) relationship continues to be one of the sweetest parts of the show, balancing moving moments of relief with the intense ultra-violent action at which both characters are skilled.
Homelander is still one of the most captivatingly terrifying villains on TV (even if Antony Starr’s recent arrest for assault makes it uncomfortably vague how much of the character’s rage issues are acting). A dark twist on one of the most beloved scenes from All-Star Superman is in some ways even more upsetting than the botched airplane rescue from Season 1. Yet even this super-powered sociopath isn’t just two-dimensional evil; his longing for love and family builds intense pathos throughout the season. While it isn’t necessary to enjoy Season 3, I definitely recommend watching the episode “One Plus One Equals Two” from the recent animation spinoff The Boys Presents: Diabolical, which further informs Homelander’s characterization, especially in regards to his history with Black Noir (the weirdest and funniest of The Seven, whose role throughout Season 3 is a series of massive spoilers).
The Boys Season 3 is as audacious as ever, continuing to effectively mine shocking scenes from Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson’s controversial comic source material (does the word “Herogasm” mean anything to you? It will). The acting and characterization is top-notch, and the gory fight scenes remain thrilling. While the satire is a downgrade in sharpness from Season 2, the story remains worth watching. For all the attempts at topicality, this season’s most effective capturing of the zeitgeist is in the narrative’s celebration of standing by your friends when the world at large is unfathomably awful.
The Boys Season 3 premieres Friday, June 3rd on Prime Video.
Reuben Baron is the author of the webcomic
Con Job: Revenge of the SamurAlchemist
and a contributor to Looper and Anime News Network, among other websites. You can follow him on Twitter at @AndalusianDoge.
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