When “The Boys” burst onto the scene three years ago, creator Eric Kripke’s superhero satire thrived, in part, by having its cake and eating it, too. Suddenly, caped crusaders weren’t benevolent helpers, flying in from on high to save pedestrians in peril. They were drunk on power, propped up by corporations cashing in on their image, and disregarding innocent people who get in their way — literally, in the case of A-Train (Jessie T. Usher) and Robin (Jess Salgueiro). The latter’s accidental annihilation sparked Hughie (Jack Quaid), her boyfriend, to seek out the titular Boys — a small batch of vigilantes looking to bring down Vought International and their super-group, The Seven — and have his vengeance on the heroes who, in almost every other cinematic iteration, are here to help.
A modern David vs. Goliath battle was born (based on the graphic novel by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson), but “The Boys” was never purely the meek vs. the mighty. Some heroes, like Starlight (Erin Moriarty) — a Christian supe who can absorb and unleash electricity (and also becomes Hughie’s love interest) — are good, actually, and even the bad ones find reasons (just and otherwise) to squabble with each other. Good or bad, super or not, fights in the Amazon Prime Video original are well-choreographed spectacles, separated from Marvel and DC’s PG-13 friendly brawls by their extreme (though arguably accurate) violence. Showing the brutal consequences, both likely and outlandish, of heat vision and lightning speed allows the black comedy to question our collective fixation on spandex-clad gods while still smiling as their versions smash together like action figures with a healthy VFX budget.
For the most part, “The Boys” wields its double-edged sword with focused finesse over two increasingly ambitious seasons, and Season 3’s use of orgiastic bloodshed (and one actual orgy) to punch up at its targets is still consistently satisfying. Kripke, serving as showrunner, sets his sights on the widely cited issue of toxic masculinity, embodied by Antony Starr’s narcissistic supervillain Homelander and flashbacks to his predecessor, a worst-case-scenario Captain America called Soldier Boy (played by Jensen Ackles). (There is also an actual toxin, which glows green like nuclear waste, but more on that later.)
Using these two “classic” symbols of American patriotism to connect past and present, “The Boys” Season 3 examines how forming a country around the white male ego — and its predilection for lashing out over looking inward — has created quite a few problems. As in the past, the series still enjoys its macho perspective a little too much, producing a few nagging blind spots (in addition to some extremely blunt real-world references). But hey, Season 3 isn’t pulling its punches, and most of them land with an outsized wallop.
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Following the events of Season 2 — when Homelander fell in love with Stormfront (Aya Cash), only to discover she’s an actual Nazi hellbent on spreading white supremacy through her massive online community — The Seven and Vought are in damage control mode. Homelander has taken a reputational hit. His all-important approval rating is so low, Starlight has to support his agenda and any promotional spots. She and Hughie are doing well, though it’s a little too easy to spot simmering resentment every time she opens a stubborn jar of jelly for her powerless boyfriend. During the day, Hughie is still working with secret supervillain Victoria Newman (Claudia Doumit) at the Federal Bureau of Superhuman Affairs, where they’re seeing results: Certain errant supes are being held accountable. Collateral damage is down 60 percent. The system appears to be working.
But, as evidenced by Homelander’s beaming smile as much as Hughie’s seeming helplessness, appearances are often deceiving. Behind the scenes, Victoria is working with Vought CEO Stan Edgar (Giancarlo Esposito), who’s pushing a new version of Compound V. The drug that made so many superheroes is now available as a 24-hour hit — one dose and you’ll have powers for a day, before returning to your old, normal self. That’s the idea anyway, and it’s enough for one unlikely customer to cut the line. Billy Butcher (Karl Urban), harboring the mother of all grudges against Homelander, can’t help but wonder what it would be like to land a punch that actually hurt his typically invincible nemesis. Combined with a desperate need to protect his wife’s son Ryan (Cameron Crovetti) and the swearing Brit’s own longstanding, well-documented, all-consuming rage, Billy makes some bad choices in Season 3.
Meanwhile, Kripke & Co. continue to up the ante, if “ante” means “barrels and barrels of fake blood.” Season 2’s snake-penis reappears in later episodes, though it’s upstaged in spectacular, horrifying fashion during the premiere’s opening scene. Sound effects feature an extra squish. Explosions blast limbs an extra mile (or 10). Beatings are so regular they’re actually used as reference points. “The Boys” has never been an action series for the squeamish, but Season 3’s savagery both raises the bar and begs the question how much higher it can (and should) go.
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Similar questions linger around “The Boys'” satiric range. Near the end of the season, a big thematic speech wraps with the listener shouting, “I fucking told you so!” And it’s hard to blame them for being so annoyed. Honest character arcs are skirted over in favor of broader points. Other details grind, too, whether it’s the aforementioned advice that’s conveniently ignored for eight episodes or how topical content is incorporated into the narrative. For as clever as the series can be, it’s almost too casual in mocking All Lives Matter blowhards, conspiracy truthers, and hordes of angry morons. Yes, it’s fitting to cite their part in the big nasty world created by the power-hungry patriarchy, but too many headline-driven scenes simply point and laugh at the dummies most people already recognize as exactly that.
Such idle shorthand can often be overlooked. “The Boys” is a black comedy, an action extravaganza, and a vicious editorial all rolled under the same cape. Doing any one of these things half as well as what’s seen in Season 3 would be a challenge, and doing them all while maintaining its own distinct identity makes “The Boys” that much more impressive. Still, after watching brawny men throw meaningless punches hour after hour, one can’t help but think of that old meme: Men will do just about anything to avoid going to therapy, which just so happens to be the solution to almost every one of the Boys’ problems. Self-examination, awareness, and forgiveness are mighty tools — and the series knows it. They’re all acknowledged in the end. They’re all integral to the lessons being imparted. Perhaps it’s just that “The Boys” mirrors reality too well: Spending so much time with flexing yet inflexible characters can be frustrating, which is not unlike the frustration felt when watching so many real bullheaded men repeat the same mistakes, toe the same line, and succumb to the same almighty ego.
As Frenchie might say, “C’est la vie.” Or, in the words of his ancestors’ former ruler, “Let them eat cake.”
“The Boys” Season 3 premieres with three episodes Friday, June 4 on Amazon Prime Video. New episodes will be released weekly through the July 8 finale.