‘The Boys’ returns, slightly tinted, with its very American dystopia

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In the quintessentially American dystopia of “The Boys”, the Supes – the chosen few with super speed, super strength, laser eyes and the like – are too busy with the obligations of fame to save the world. . Instead, the Superman-like Homelander (Antony Starr) and Wonder Woman’s Queen Maeve (Dominique McElligott) appear in films based on their exploits and smile toothily from the sides of buses and soda cups, offering scripted romances to boost their Q ratings and innocuous political messages that circumvent, rather than address, the biases of the day.

Supes are people – often badly damaged people, afflicted with the kind of bottomless unhappiness associated with extreme childhood trauma, a severe case of showbiz personality, or both. But they’re products too: a lucrative plan by the Vought company, which invented superpowers, marketed them as a boon to humanity through its ‘heroes’, and has been trying to find new ways to profit ever since. of compound V, cobalt. -blue formula that turns babies into mutants.

Nominated for an Emmy Award for Best Drama for its outstanding second season, “The Boys” is something of a mutant himself. Adapted from the comic book by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson, this is a gruesome, smiley genre series that’s part mawkish melodrama and part tar black comedy. No season has been completely cohesive, including the third outing which kicked off on Friday, which feels a bit too serious for its own good.

But the success of Amazon Prime still presents a dark and seductive view of a nation too distracted to notice that it has fallen into corporate fascism. An unknown Supe can telepathically blast the heads of several members of Congress during a TV hearing on Compound V, but citizens are still eating at Vought-a-Burger, streaming superhero shows on Vought Plus, and protesting at the name of the Vought Rifle Association. This cult of power is so pervasive that it only occurs to few people that a new breed of psychologically deranged Übermensch might never have been created.

I’ve yet to mention the ragtag group of vigilantes who fight to bring down Vought – the titular boys – because, as central as they are, the show’s main strength is its sharp satirical world-building. Season 1 convincingly illustrated why Vought would align itself with socially conservative forces such as churches and capitalism, while Season 2, which featured an electric Aya Cash, convincingly explained how power cults and displays of edgelord transgression lent themselves to far-right demagoguery.

Creator Eric Kripke spoke with admiration of Ennis’ depictions of “authoritative pos[ing] as celebrities.” “You don’t need 50 million people to love you,” Cash-savvy Nazi supervillain Stormfront says in Season 2. “You need 5 million people” who are extremely angry (but in the vulgar language the series is known for). Unsurprisingly, Season 2’s explorations of hate as a driving force in politics have been met with searing parody under the Trump administration.

For years past, Compound V has been the dividing line between Supes and civilians. Divine abilities have transformed the square-jawed, icy-eyed Homelander, whose star-studded cape recalls the flag, into the series’ Biggest Bad, a would-be savior simmering in utter defiance of the ordinary sacks of meat he’s supposed to serve. . Under his thumb, the rest of the Seven — the series’ version of the Justice League — cower in fear, court his approval, or plot revenge. Still grieving the end of his power coupling with Stormfront, Homelander once again focuses his rage on another Supe, the high-minded Starlight (Erin Moriarty), who has offered himself a new position with the Seven who could enable him to reform it from within.

Vought CEO Stan Edgar (Giancarlo Esposito) had originally hoped to sell Compound V to the military to create super-soldiers. But perhaps drawing inspiration from our real-life businesses, he thinks a subscription could be more lucrative than a one-time purchase. His scientists formulate Compound V24, a potion that endows normals with superpowers for 24 hours. When The Boys’ leader, Butcher (Karl Urban), is offered contraband vials, his distrust of the Supes doesn’t match the allure of finally being as powerful as his enemies.

The Boys – which also include newbie Hughie (Jack Quaid), descendant of Supe victim Mother’s Milk (Laz Alonso), reluctant Compound V test subject Kimiko (Karen Fukuhara), and her puppy admirer Frenchie (Tomer Capon) – have always been the weakest element in the series. Season 3 pushes them towards the narrative center, resulting in a byte of chapters that feels like a minor but not insignificant dip from the first two. It’s theoretically interesting to give the boys a taste of the Supe life, so they can experience for themselves how easy it is to give in to one’s worst impulses when safe from the consequences; in V24, the revenge-obsessed butcher slices the head of an uncooperative witness in half as gently as he would a melon. With every dose of V24 they suffer, the Boys’ claims of moral superiority over the corrupt Supes slip through their fingers.

But there is a predetermined feeling in many storylines this season; the commentary seems to be the driving force behind character development. It doesn’t help that the new episodes’ themes feel so well worn. The out-of-character jingoism that Hughie exhibits, for example, in his desperate desire to protect his nigh-invincible girlfriend, Starlight, lacks the nuance and playfulness of Season 2’s scathing pamphlet (marvel’s) has trivialized girl-power feminism. Hughie’s toxic masculinity finds its most primitive form in the new Supe Soldier Boy (Jensen Ackles), a man cave in sexual politics (and pop cultural references). “The Boys” presents Soldier Boy as an emblem of American imperialism during the Cold War, but too often it is everything it feels like; it never gains three-dimensionality, which makes Cash’s absence all the more striking. Meanwhile, more promising developments, like Homelander’s encouragement of “alternative facts” to bolster his popularity and the rise to power of secret Supe politician Victoria Neuman (Claudia Doumit), are frustrated for later seasons.

In the season premiere, Homelander and Stan Edgar argue over the future of Vought: whether it’s a superhero company, as consumers imagine it, or a pharmaceutical company selling V24 on the sly. (If the compound is bought by villains, good for Vought; villainy needs its heroes even more.) But superpowers really are a bio-weapon, and “The Boys” is still having fun imagining how society and life everyday life are reorganized around this. new unofficial arms race. Season 2 gave us aerial sex and a Scientology-like organization in the publicity-hungry Church of the Collective. In Season 3, with just plain old humans getting in on the Supe action, the show turns more to the sad, sordid lives of the middlemen: super-powered D-listers who would never be considered the material Seven.

Stripped of its thematic weight, the season inevitably relies more on intrigue and shock value. It’s also a slight disappointment; some of the character beats, like the one involving a major betrayal that results in the rejection of a key character, feel surprisingly rushed, so propulsive is the forward momentum. I generally felt torn by the show’s gleefully vapid violence and sexual overstepping, which is often clever but nauseating. (I’ll give this to “The Boys”: I’ve never seen a man killed by having his face flesh ripped from his skull with his bare hands.) With his own hilarious take on this Kendall Jenner Pepsi commercial and stinging references to QAnon, Charlottesville and January 6th, there’s no shortage of energetic banter and flying elbows. It’s a solidly built season, but that might make you miss the show in its full force.

The boys returns Friday to Amazon Prime with Episodes 1-3. New episodes air weekly. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)