Eric Kripke’s blood-soaked superhero satire “The Boys” has always felt a bit like “Watchmen” by way of “South Park”—well-worn cynicism about the current state of superhero media and pop culture, doused in a metric ton of blood, cum, and piss. To its credit, the show maintains that relentless, vulgar maximalism that has made it such a hit for Amazon (sorry, Prime Video) while finding a few new wrinkles to give its game cast of characters. But three seasons in, the gag is starting to grow a bit old, as the satire gets weaker and more toothless and more characters vie for our attention while traveling down familiar roads.
When last we left The Boys and their nemeses, the corporatized Justice League known as The Seven, things were a-shambles. The Seven, and their parent company Vought, are in the middle of a PR nightmare in the wake of the reveal that hot new superhero Stormfront (Aya Cash) was actually a Nazi, and Homelander’s (Antony Starr) allegiance with her has tarnished his star quite a bit in the public eye. A-Train (Jessie T. Usher) struggles to reinvent and rebrand himself now that his heart condition has slowed down his superspeed, and Queen Maeve (Dominique McElligott) is fully checked out after seeing her image as a queer woman swallowed into the corporate pride checklist. (A glimpse at the cloying, Magic Kingdom-like “Queen Maeve’s Inclusive Kingdom” will be catnip for queer fans looking to prod at the rainbow-ification of corporations this Pride Month.)
The Boys themselves are scattered to the four winds, trying to capture a semblance of real life. Snarling supe-killer Billy Butcher (Karl Urban) gets rolled into a heavily-supervised superhero task force with more red tape than a blood-soaked mummy, while Mother’s Milk (Laz Alonso) tries to retire and be a good husband and father again. Mute Kimiko (Karen Fukuhara), meanwhile, dreams of losing her superpowers and being able to speak, dance, and sing, with mon coeur Frenchie (Tomer Capone) by her side.
Baby Hughie (Jack Quaid), on the other hand, has found himself on Cloud Nine, enjoying a very public relationship with rising Seven star Starlight (Erin Moriarty), whose girl-next-door persona may well rehabilitate the team. And, he’s found himself working for political hopeful and clear AOC analogue Victoria Neuman (Claudia Doumit), despite us finding out at the end of last season that it’s her who’s been exploding Congressional skulls in her own quest for power.
Still, even though Homelander’s down, he’s not yet out, and Billy’s got a plan to finally kill the bastard: Track down the weapon that allegedly killed Soldier Boy (Jensen Ackles), a Captain America-like super soldier and founding member of Payback, a pre-Seven superteam, in the ‘70s, and turn it on the star-spangled sociopath. His quest will rope the rest of The Boys back into the fold, and the quest to kill famous capes continues.
That this robust synopsis skips a good deal of the show’s major subplots, characters, and gags is both “The Boys”’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. To its credit, the Seth Rogen/Evan Goldberg-produced show has a lot of fun with its premise, using the robust world it’s created to vent spleen at everything from the corporatization of DC and Marvel (The Seven star in their own movies starring themselves, both a cash cow and a means to polish their image) to the real-world rise of white supremacy and right-wing reactionary politics. Sure, the season starts with the American public turning on the Seven because they welcomed a Nazi into their ranks. But as the season progresses, and Homelander and others start to lean into their open disdain for the public, Stormfront’s line from last season’s finale rings ever more true: “People love what I have to say. They believe in it. They just don’t like the word ‘Nazi’, that’s all.”
Problem is, “The Boys” tries to touch on too many charged political issues without the length or breadth to properly handle them, instead greeting us with tongue-in-cheek reflections on our own world’s absurd sociopolitical landscape. Some of the gags work great in isolation: A mass murder by a supe leads to a facile A-list rendition of “Imagine” (with some of the Seven joining in), and A-Train stars in a gut-busting sendup of the Kendall Jenner Pepsi protest ad. But the inventive in-universe media of the show’s world works leagues better than their attempts to incorporate them into the story itself; analogues to COVID lockdowns and Fox News misinformation quickly grow repetitive as the season continues.
Same goes for the dick-and-fart humor, which started out bold and transgressive at the show’s inception but rarely surprises outside of a few novel twists this season. Yes, people still get exploded and exsanguinated and cut in half with laser eyes with devious glee, but you can only watch that for so long before your brain just gets used to it. By the time we visit a giant superheroic orgy in episode six, it feels strange to greet it with little more than an amused chuckle.
The bloated cast doesn’t help, as the series’ hour-long episodes feel overstuffed with characters and plotlines, keeping too many plates spinning in the air. Maeve herself feels sidelined for most of the season, as does MM; The Deep (Chace Crawford)’s largely isolated story this season is centered around an eye-rolling literalization of the joke that Aquaman has sex with fish—something HBO Max’s “Peacemaker” treated with the appropriate amount of levity and brevity. The cast remains committed, and there are a few new standouts (Ackles is a treat as Soldier Boy, casting himself as the anti-Chris Evans), but the show’s penchant for self-indulgence means it’s hard to kill your darlings, even if you’re still content to make them bleed a bit.
In its third season, “The Boys” has grown up a bit, but it’s also grown outward, to the point where it becomes nearly impossible to truly keep track of its expansive cast of characters and the myriad politicking they have to navigate. Granted, it’s a feeling that likely abates when you watch it week to week, as per Prime’s release schedule. But packed into one eight-hour mishmash of misanthropic mayhem, “The Boys” is A Lot to take in, and the surface-level cracks in the façade of its superhero and social critiques become ever more visible.
Entire season screened for review.