Directors: Philip Sgriccia, Julian Holmes, Nelson Cragg, Sarah Boyd
Writers: David Reed, Craig Rosenberg, Anslem Richardson, Geoff Aull, Meredith Glynn, Ellie Monahan, Jessica Chou, Paul Grellong, Logan Ritchey
Cast: Karl Urban, Jack Quaid, Antony Starr, Erin Moriarty, Dominique McElligott, Jessie T. Usher, Laz Alonso, Chace Crawford
Cinematographer: Dan Stoloff
Editors: David Kaldor, William Rubenstein, Ian Kezsbom
Streaming on: Amazon Prime
Almost none of the superheroes in The Boys wear a mask. What would be an anomaly in any other comic book-based show, however, makes sense here — in this universe, being a hero is less about doing good and more about being seen doing it. There’s no act of courage, real or contrived, that can’t be commodified, traded for sponsorship deals and red-carpet appearances. This Amazon Prime Video series might visually resemble a superhero show, with massive action setpieces and CGI-enhanced displays of power, but it’s narratively at its smartest when it serves as a deconstruction of celebrity culture. Some of its best scenes explore media-manufactured imagery and the way narratives can be crafted and recrafted to benefit a person in the public eye. The most perceptive point season 3 makes is that while almost none of its superheroes wear a mask, figuratively, every character does.
The supes sell lies to the gullible public, only for their practised smiles to drop once the cameras stop rolling. At various points, the Boys lie to each other, if only to protect the people they care about. There’s a lot of scheming, plotting and double-crossing this season, which picks up a year after the previous one. Hughie (Jack Quaid) works for the Federal Bureau of Superhuman Affairs, overseeing the work of William Butcher (Karl Urban), Frenchie (Tomer Capon) and Kimiko (Karen Fukuhara), who now catch supes legally and through lesser violent methods. Mother’s Milk (Laz Alonso), however, has quit the group to focus on his family. Meanwhile, Homelander (Antony Starr), who was backed into a corner by the end of last season, grows steadily more unhinged, his barely suppressed rage building like the steam inside a pressure cooker that’s about to blow at any second. Once the Boys realise it’s impossible to keep him in check, they reunite in search of a weapon that can potentially kill him.
Throughout, the show uses iconography that establishes the elevated position supes hold in society, while also reinforcing how hollow their existence is. A mural of The Seven on the ceiling of the Vought Tower conference room resembles the fresco of a church. In case the subtext wasn’t clear, Homelander compares himself to Jesus. At the same time, superhero imagery is used to sell action figures, frozen food and amusement park attractions. Season 3 contrasts this shallowness of public image with the depths of the characters’ self-image, the ways in which they perceive themselves and the images they’re terrified of finding reflected back at them in the mirror. Butcher’s fear of turning out to be like his abusive father grows more acute, as does MM’s fear of morphing into his neglectful one. While no new addition to the cast this season is as instantly compelling as Aya Cash was as Stormfront, the show makes its familiar characters even richer, going deeper into their pasts, and hinting at the alternative paths their lives could’ve taken. It uses recurring situations and near-identical dialogue between different people to illustrate how some cycles are destined to repeat themselves. In a show packed with gratuitous violence, some of the deepest cuts are emotional.
As expected though, there’s plenty of physical violence on display, with the gruesome visuals accompanied by the sick sounds of bones snapping and guts sliding out of a body with a wet plop. All the behind-the-scenes backstabbing and deal-making this season leads to a stunning episode 6 fight that’s the culmination of a years-long rivalry. It’s easy to become desensitized to the gore on this show, given how hardened and jaded its protagonists are by now, but one of The Boys’ most thoughtful touches this season is to let several battle scenes linger on the children affected by violence, superhero-inflicted and otherwise. What happens to them? The show urges viewers to consider how a single moment of cruelty can irreparably damage a young life. Even so, The Boys has fun playing around with tonality, crafting sex scenes that are horrifying and repulsive while simultaneously making some of the carnage hilarious. A chilling examination of violence against the Black community smoothly segues into a snarky take on performative activism, with the show replicating the Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad in hysterical detail. Another episode features a joyous dance sequence set at a hospital of all places.
As thrilling as all the super-powered fights are, showcasing heads that explode like confetti and dildos that double up as weapons, some of the show’s best depictions of power come from scenes in which all the characters do is talk. The Boys is a sharp study on the true nature of power, the subtle way it can shift between two people over a single conversation and the struggle to hold on to it. It understands that behind the fierce desire for power is a deep well of insecurity. Starr consistently delivers the show’s best performance, having mastered the dead-behind-the-eyes silent scream, which he utilises to frightening effect. In a show full of characters with outsized egos, however, Giancarlo Esposito delivers a stellar performance as the quietly confident Vought head Stan Edgar. He’s nailed the art of the understated verbal smackdown, walking away from every conversation victorious, without ever raising his voice.
One of the drawbacks of this season is its overreliance on exposition. Characters drop keywords in the middle of conversations, which are conveniently overheard and sure to be essential to the plot later. Newspaper headlines spell out entire backstories. It helps that the actors are uniformly excellent and can deliver reams of information in a way that sounds like they’re recalling the urban legends that have haunted them.
In a cultural landscape saturated with superhero films and shows, The Boys stands out for its unvarnished exploration of the ugly, unheroic side of superhero nature. Its idols fall off their pedestals, its Gods turn out to be unsettlingly human. If the motto of another comic-book property is, ‘With great power comes great responsibility’, The Boys warns that with great power, comes great depravity. Which makes for a much more compelling viewing experience.