Homelander is a superhero. He takes down terrorists, poses for movie posters and smiles from hoardings, with a stars-and-stripes cape and a distinctively Superman pose. Played by Antony Starr, he looks like Greg Kinnear if he’d been bred on steroids, and in the second season of The Boys—a resoundingly entertaining series on Amazon Prime Video—America’s most popular hero longs for a woman he had killed in season 1.
Elisabeth Shue plays Madeleine Starr, the aforementioned woman, and she duly shows up to comfort Homelander, to cradle his super head in her lap and let him lick milk off her fingers. This appearance feels oddly indulgent, neither a flashback nor a prolonged fantasy sequence in keeping with the show’s cruelly self-aware tone. Then, without warning, Shue grows a belly and turns into a man who has been holding his breath, another super-powered character called Doppelgänger who can change shape at will. Homelander is, pathetically, trying to soothe himself through roleplay. Now that’s much more in character for a show where heroes argue inside the belly of a freshly massacred whale.
Back in 2006, Garth Ennis’ comic book series about superheroes as entitled bastards controlled by all-powerful corporations felt groundbreaking. Now it feels not only obvious but inevitable. Superheroes only exist to sell us on themselves. It takes a dozen hundred-million-dollar movies to make a billion-dollar movie. They sell games and brands and lunch boxes. As Homelander and his team, The Seven, prepare to star in a movie about themselves, the director of the movie pitches a scene using a bombastic composer’s name like a sound effect—“Hans! Zimmer!” It feels just right.
The first season was engaging, a less violent version of the excessively, fetishistically graphic comic book, but it is with this insightful second season that the show has become its own super-beast, as The Boys grapples with memes and media manipulation, as superheroes find their reputations undone in a matter of retweets and it is timelier than ever to consider super-corporations controlling every aspect of our lives.
It makes sense that this subversive series is not broadcast on Disney, which owns most of the world’s highest grossing heroes, from Spider-Man to Luke Skywalker. In the show, Vought is a company dealing in everything from weaponry to entertainment. In this world where the most popular superheroes are Vought employees, people stream music on Voughtify, hold public rallies at Vought Square, and washed-up heroes are offered their own reality show on Vought +.
This season is about the world finding out that superheroes aren’t the chosen ones the company would have you believe. Instead people are injected—often from infancy—with an experimental formula called Compound-V that gives them powers. There may indeed be a few genuine superheroes, but because the majority of them aren’t born with it, Vought has taken it upon itself to provide the Maybelline.
“The Boys” of the show’s title refers to a scruffy squad of superhero-killers who each have caped bones to pick. The leader, called Billy The Butcher (and, occasionally, Le Charcuter), wants his wife back but she—having been raped and impregnated by a superhero—wants only to raise her extraordinary child as normally as possible. Homelander, on the other hand, wants to play an involved, pancake-loving father to the child.
Over at The Seven—this world’s answer to the Avengers/Justice League—there are superheroines complaining about their outfits not having pockets, even as we learn about a superheroine from the 1970s who, in keeping with US law enforcement standards, enjoyed brutalizing African-Americans. There’s a lot going on, but the series developed by Eric Kripke has by now mastered its balefully black comic tonality, and the frequent visual and narrative swerves ensure enough surprises for both characters and viewers.
There is ultraviolence here, of course: One of The Boys, a girl called Kumiko, rips a man’s face off as if she had forgotten he wasn’t wearing a mask. It’s grotesque. Yet the show—executive-produced by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg—takes the edge off with frequent and memorable sight gags. At the funeral for an invisible superhero, for instance, we see crowds revere an empty coffin. Even the argument set around and inside a whale is reminiscent more of a Sacha Baron Cohen film than anything more sadistic. In The Boys, the world might be on the verge of collapse but protagonists will still bicker about candy bars and wet wipes.
Some characters are sensational. Starr’s Homelander is the MVP of this season, clumsily dealing with his increased irrelevance, as a steel-jawed character who is too square, too white, too alpha, too out of touch for the moment. Giancarlo Esposito—drug kingpin Gus Fring from Breaking Bad —is ice cold as Stan Edgar, Vought’s malevolent CEO. Aya Cash from You’re The Worst is a highlight this season as the social-media savvy Stormfront, a superhero nearly impossible to read—before it’s too late, at least.
The protagonists, on the other hand, are patently uninteresting. As the incredulous unlikely hero, Hughie, played by Jack Quaid, is as bland as the role requires but any scene reliant on him drags the momentum down immediately. Karl Urban’s Billy The Butcher is certainly more fun, but having him in vengeful husband mode this season robs him of his wry punchlines. The writers seem to be having a lot more fun with the bad guys. Good thing there are enough of them to go around.
When The Boys drive down to a particularly racist part of the country, we see a barn with Homelander painted on the side, his cape modified to the Confederate flag. They drive past a particularly haunting billboard: “What if the baby you abort is super,” it reads. This idea of artificially “enhanced” GMO babies being used as an argument to rob women of choice feels repellent, but, sadly, believable. We need to question the companies that sell us everything. We need to demand more from those we put up on pedestals and pin-ups. “Superhero” is a designation.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.