It’s hard to imagine that, decades down the line, all of the superhero franchise fiction dominating our pop cultural consumption will look good. This is coming from someone who likes this stuff: It’s cool when metaphors are given human form to fight or find clever solutions to larger-than-life problems, and it’s even cooler when they’re given the space to be weird cosmic tapestries striving to be both interdependent and yet unique. Yet these stories haven’t come to dominate our streaming services and cinema out of artistic goodwill — they are an act of corporate dominance, a consolidated effort to make sure that, no matter who you are, you will have a corporation’s mascot to identify with, to spend time and money on.
The Boys, Amazon’s adaptation of the comic of the same name by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson, does its best to piss in the superhero Kool-Aid we’re all chugging, all while cashing a big corporate check of its own. It’s a compromised work, but that doesn’t mean its creators aren’t interested in swinging for the fences. After all, the series, which kicks off its third season with three episodes this Friday, isn’t best read as a takedown of superheroes — or as a violent satire on current events, even as the show lambasts celebrity culture, right-wing media, and yes, the Trump presidency. The Boys is about the rot that took place before all that clogged our newsfeed, from a time before there were even newsfeeds. It’s about how many things can go wrong when we let ourselves get swept up into the idea that a hero will save us — and so the main thrust of The Boys’ third season has its sprawling cast circling around the past.
The season begins with a new status quo that follows season 2’s bloody finale, with both Homelander (Antony Starr) and the Seven and Billy Butcher (Karl Urban) and his Boys in a detente. Homelander has fallen from grace following his supe ex-girlfriend Stormfront (Aya Cash) being outed as a stone-cold Nazi, and begins the season toeing the line set out by his handlers at the Vought Corporation in order to ride the PR crisis out. Meanwhile, the Boys are scattered to the wind, as Hughie Campbell (Jack Quaid) tries to put his vigilante days with Billy behind, working with Congresswoman Victoria Neuman (Claudia Doumit) to try and come up with systemic solutions to rampant supes, while Butcher tries to bring them in by the book.
This doesn’t last very long — The Boys has a lot of lewd violence to get to, and that can’t happen if everyone is on their best behavior. Complications pile up: Neuman, the anti-Vought senator, might be a pro-Vought assassin. A weapon that might be able to kill Homelander involves the Boys looking into the long-missing war hero Soldier Boy (Jensen Ackles), Vought’s first success story and ultimate superhuman, a search that brings the Boys back together but at great moral cost. And Homelander starts to discover that if he pushes back on the boundaries put around him, no one will resist.
In using the legend of the Captain America-esque Soldier Boy as its narrative spine, The Boys gets to have its cake and eat it too: The show’s writers get to lambast a very popular Marvel character, and they get to make a strong argument about the dangers of hero worship and fandom. The first thing heroes lose, according to The Boys, is accountability, and when it comes to the powerful, trust is no substitute for it.
This straightforward throughline makes the season’s highs hit harder and its lows easier to ride out — particularly when The Boys is riffing on current events that, in our incredibly rapid news cycle, will feel stale by the time it airs. In its first two seasons, The Boys was a sneering and wickedly sharp work of Trump-era catharsis, one that loved to strip away all the polite pretense that shields the hateful ideologies of the powerful to depict them as the bigots they are — the better to dream up satisfyingly violent ends for them.
But in 2022, our disasters are more diffuse, and our leaders less prone to forcing the same arguments ad infinitum. The catalyzing presence of the Trump administration is no longer a predictable real-life foil for The Boys to bounce off of, and its convenience as a scapegoat means satire must work harder to connect with the zeitgeist and its audience.
To his credit, showrunner Eric Kripke knew this going in, telling Polygon in 2020 that this season might land differently based on who was in the White House. This bears out — it’s jarring to see direct references to things Trump said or did when he’s no longer president. Fortunately, The Boys feels like a work made by people who have plenty of ammunition for both sides of the aisle, as no ideology has a monopoly on craving power — or on worshipping those who amass it.
The Boys season 3 premieres its first three episodes on Amazon Prime with three episodes on June 3 and new episodes weekly.