During a time of superhero burnout, with Marvel and DC franchises dominating Hollywood, the first season of “The Boys” somehow found a way to offer a fresh take that appealed both to fans and critics of the genre. Fans appreciated the show for its willingness to take superheroes seriously and pose interesting moral questions on power, identity, and culture. Critics liked that the show’s satire showed the hypocrisy, cruelty, and propaganda that would likely result from the existence of superheroes.
In the first season, we were introduced to a group of misfit vigilantes, “The Boys,” led by Billy Butcher, who take on the most powerful and famous superheroes of The Seven along with Vought, the company that sponsors and manages them. While the show includes a fair amount of world-building and character development, the plot keeps a steady pace.
Over the course of the season, The Boys move closer to their goal of taking down Homelander, a parody of Superman and Captain America who leads The Seven, as the dysfunction and scandals of Vought and its superheroes become increasingly apparent.
In general, the show’s strengths, mainly its focused plot and complex characters, helped check its occasional weaknesses. Every so often, it would drift into preachiness, indulge in gratuitous violence, or lean too hard on its two main characters, Billy Butcher or Homelander. Fortunately, annoying scenes of a character condemning Christians as sanctimonious hypocrites, or heads exploding and appendages being ripped off, or Homelander’s indulging in Oedipal perversions, are limited and usually serve some satirical purpose.
Unfortunately, the creators of “The Boys” take these weaknesses and stretch them out into the whole second season and hardly bother with a real plot. Instead, most of the attention centers on Billy Butcher and his crew meandering without much purpose, trying to expose Vought and bring it to justice, as Homelander continues to act like a pathetic creep who happens to be invincible. Needless to say, the plot includes many lulls in which nothing much seems to happen, as well as tangents that often go nowhere.
The main draw of the second season is a new character, Stormfront, who joins The Seven. While her character has the potential to act as a character foil to Homelander, the creators instead decide to make her a Nazi fueled by racist hatred. Once this is revealed in the middle of the season, the action and development of season two moves from slow to stupid.
Can you guess what Stormfront wants to do? That’s right, she wants to take over the world and impose fascism on everyone.
Perhaps because of these deficiencies, the show relies more heavily on spectacle and shock. People increasingly explode and get ripped apart, and the superheroes engage in even more cringe-inducing fetishes. Granted, a satire will sometimes work off this kind of gore — “South Park” comes readily to mind — but so much of the violence in these scenes is pointless and disgusting.
All these faults contribute to season two’s greatest fault: its failure as satire. The first season took aim at celebrity culture, vapid consumerism, cronyism, corporate propaganda, and American chauvinism. By contrast, it’s difficult to see what season two is trying to criticize. Nazis? Scientology? The alt-right? Pharmaceutical companies? Woke capitalism? Maybe these themes resonate with audiences of a certain kind of politics, but most viewers find them incoherent or mildly irritating.
Altogether, what started as a promising television series with an engaging story and interesting characters breaks down into a confused mess that becomes difficult to watch. Considering the way the season ends, there isn’t much reason to watch since things return to the way they were at the beginning of the season. As Queen Maeve, a parody of Wonder Woman, says in the final episode: “It doesn’t matter what we do. Nothing changes. Nothing ever changes or gets better. And I’m tired.”
Ruining an otherwise good show, “The Boys” became too cynical for its own good and went too far. The characters became too flawed, the story too twisted, the themes too dark, and the hope of redemption or enlightenment too distant. In the end, the show leaves the viewer bored, confused, and mildly angry — as if today’s news isn’t enough. One would be better off rewatching all the Marvel movies, enjoying the escape, and feeling much more optimistic about humanity.