Amazon's The Boys Struggles with its Powers in Bloated Second Season

Eric Kripke's “The Boys” returns to Amazon bigger and better for its second season, but still with a good deal of issues. At its best, it side-steps from the extreme self-amusement that made the first season of this NSFW, self-aware superhero saga so cloying, and uses the powers of its heroes (super and human) for explosive scenes and some sharp comedy. But "The Boys" now has another problem to wrestle with, as its massive scale means that even more tormented characters are fighting for your emotional attention, without the whole of it ever cutting deep. And even though there's so much going on in this second season, with so many references, "The Boys" still feels like it's a surface-level critique of the very ideas its characters symbolize. 

A brief recap following the revelations of season one: the world of “The Boys” is essentially divided between humans and superheroes, like if we all lived in a DC or Marvel movie. We learned last season that these heroes are not born but made with something called Compound V, which is created by the all-powerful Vought International. For the most part, the superheroes are gods, like golden man Homelander (Antony Starr), the complicit but conflicted Queen Maeve (Dominique McElligott), the disillusioned Starlight (Erin Moriarty), and others in a group known as The Seven. In season two, the heroes are in the midst of making a new movie championing their team and their brand, “Dawn of the Seven.” Everything goes haywire however, when the public at large learns that superheroes are indeed no more special than whoever gets a serum, and a super terrorist is on the loose. 

Hiding under a pawnshop are our true heroes, The Boys. They’re essentially fugitives, evading the cops and Vought International. They have an animosity toward the Supes that’s personal, like how Karl Urban’s gruff, hate-filled assassin Butcher learned at the end of season one that his wife Becca (Shantel VanSanten) was not dead but alive and raising a son with Homelander. And then there’s Jack Quaid’s self-appointed regular guy Hughie, who tries to be discreet with his relationship with Starlight while also trying to bring down Vought International, still as neurotic and pop culture-prone as he was in the first season (this time, he really loves Billy Joel, and so lots of jokes are made from that). Along with members Kimiko (Karen Fukuhara), MM (Laz Alonso), and Frenchie (Tomer Capon), they all get caught up in their own vigilantism, while seeing the grossness of superhero culture for what it really is.

One of my biggest gripes with the first season was that it easily felt like one billion-dollar conglomerate throwing shade at two other ones. The series still absolutely has some of that corny satire, with fake movie posters that recall DC and Marvel projects, while taking easy shots at the Hollywood star machine. But season two of “The Boys” grows from that in the first few episodes, focusing on the pursuit of the super terrorist who threatens humans and Supes alike, and exists outside of the movie's commentary. These tighter episodes make for some strong action scenes too, like a pivotal scene involving an explosive chase in an apartment building. There’s a spark to the plotting in this second season, at least early on, in which the stakes are especially prevalent, making the twists more impactful. And the show is good at whipping up a surprise, like a face-ripping kill or ruthless act of mass murder that brandishes the show's TV-MA attitude. But by the course of episodes six or seven, despite bringing even more Supes into the mix, "The Boys" feels less immediate than it should for all of various different moving pieces, and heavy themes. Episode three turns out to be the season highlight it just can't top afterward. 

The main reason to watch this season, however, is a new caped crusader named Stormfront, played by Aya Cash. She’s a new addition to the The Seven, who barrels into the series with a social media-savviness to how she’s portrayed as a super-woman; she's more than a walking action figure. Stormfront shakes things up within the power structure of Vought as a new, younger leader who threatens Homelander’s alpha status. "The Boys" has plenty to reveal about the character in later episodes (so I can’t reveal them, per Amazon’s request), but she is an often compelling addition to this story's idea of power being used for hate, thanks to the way that Cash plays her as if this were all her show now. 

The one character that the series doesn’t know what to do with, as felt to be the case in season one, is The Deep. Chase Crawford’s predatory Aquaman-inspired Supe returns from cancellation isolation to the public eye with the help of a church that’s an awful lot like Scientology, with hope of using the public appeal to get back in the Seven. The Deep’s storyline does highlight an interesting caveat about the show, in that it can present characters who do awful things, and yet because of the inherent bleakness of the tone, you’re supposed to follow along with them at least enough to care what they do next. “The Boys” lumps that in with other heinous acts by members of the group (remember when A-Train murdered Hughie’s girlfriend in pilot, or Homelander shot down the plane?), and even in one brief moment for Deep, attempts to unpack it.

The show is good at making references, of taking things that we’ve normalized in American culture and laying bare their ridiculousness. It’s a big part of what the show considers to be edgy, like, “Oh, I recognize that pandering shot of feminist posturing from ‘Avengers: Endgame,’” or, “Oh, I recognize that active shooter drill at an elementary school from daily life.” Story developments about "#HeroesSoWhite," Deep's Scientology-inspired breakthrough, and images of hate-filled rallies against immigrants have the same effect. Only sometimes is it ever actually funny. 

But “The Boys” struggles to really comment on anything; its audacious storytelling doesn’t push our understanding of these ideas so much as seek kudos for daring to present it. That’s especially the case with its touchier subjects, like a sequence that shows a person being moved by the forces of hatred against “illegals” to do something truly evil—the wilting rendition of “What a Wonderful World” that accompanies all of it is one problem, but so is the story’s superficial use of it. Yes, fascism and amorality can all be under the cape of superhero culture, as if heroes were more a central product of our values and troubles than simply an answer to them. But what about it? 

It’s worth pointing out that each episode is about an hour long, if not more. That’s good news for people who like simply being with these characters, but when it comes to getting wrapped up in their emotions, that’s a different story. It’s almost like “The Boys” wants to be taken more serious this time, but is so expansive with its roster that it loses the dramatic impact it could have—instead, when everybody gets a backstory concerning why they’re in this fight, it bizarrely makes the very concept seem rote. Kimiko in particular is given more time to show why she would be so motivated against Vought; and Homelander is shown to be even more dangerous as a pushy father figure to his timid son Ryan (Cameron Crovetti). But because there's so many people in this party, the drama is touch-and-go. Eventually it’s hard to be moved by any of the series’ emotional plunges, despite the cast's universally solid work. 

This is the season that helped me “get” the appeal of "The Boys," especially as it’s more fun to spend time with these characters well-past their try-hard introductions. There’s a totally indulgent nature to the series, the way that it offers such depictions of evil or extreme violence caused by pop culture icons, like an energy drink version of “Watchmen.” And the world of Supes colliding with humans, based on the corruption of absolute power, can be a fascinating backdrop. But season two also proves that if the series is going to be so bloated and only sporadically punchy, it’s never going to be as powerful as it thinks it is. 

All of season two screened for review.

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is an Assistant Editor at RogerEbert.com and is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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