‘The Boys’ Review: Season 2 Isn’t Subtle About Superheroes, but Who Needs Subtle Right Now?

     September 4, 2020

the-boys-season-2-cast-sliceA fun aspect of The Boys Season 2 is perhaps an unintended consequence of its release schedule: the eight-episode season will premiere with three new episodes on Sept. 4, followed by a new episode every Friday until the season finale on Oct. 9. Because of this, each of the episodes coming out starting with Episode 4 features an endangered species in the world of streaming television: a “Previously on…” recap to remind viewers of past key moments.

Each of these “Previously on”s… begins with a literal bang, spotlighting a past moment of grotesque, hilarious horror to prepare us for the glorious blood and guts to come. Because in a number of ways, The Boys remains incredibly true to itself, while also not being afraid to take some big new swings and push the boundaries of the cast, the writers, and the audience itself.

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The gleefully crass, violent and surprising drama, developed by Eric Kripke based on the graphic novels by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson, continues exploring an alternate universe which differs from ours in one very specific way: Superheroes are not confined to screens or comic book pages, but are instead very real, and a lot of them happen to be complete dicks. The closest thing to offering up checks and balances against the superpowered individuals who see no problem with abusing their strength, speed, or more however they like is the titular Boys — an underground gang of rogues led by Billy Butcher (Karl Urban), unaffiliated with any government but ready to do what they can to stop these supposed protectors of the public from going too far.

Of course, after the events of Season 1, Season 2 begins with said squad in quite a bit of disarray, with Billy absent and the rest of the team, including Hughie (Jack Quaid), Mother’s Milk (Laz Alonso), Frenchie (Tomer Capon), and Kimiko (Karen Fukuhara), not totally sure how to handle the publicly beloved but privately repellant Homelander (Antony Starr) and his fellow supes. Meanwhile the Vought Corporation, which has built its business upon the various industries surrounding these alleged heroes, continues to grow more powerful, with Stan Edgar (Giancarlo Esposito, slipping back into this role like it’s one of Stan’s perfectly tailored suits) continuing to play puppet master.

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On a production level, The Boys is always, without fail, so much fun to watch (presuming you’re not squeamish on any level, of course). The action scenes are tight, smart, and surprising, there are delightful moments of dialogue that deliver both character, humor, and heart, and there are world details so skillfully embedded into the backgrounds of certain scenes that they almost at times serve as spoilers. Even though the ensemble is split off from each other more often than not, cast chemistry never flags even when only a few characters share the screen together. Plus, shaking things up far more than I’d anticipated is the addition of Aya Cash, who brings every ounce of the chaotic energy that made her an unforgettable part of FX’s You’re the Worst and doubles it as Vought’s newest supe hero; Stormfront’s lightning powers are almost as terrifying as her ability to manipulate the minds of her audience.

As a show, The Boys makes a helluva lot more sense once you understand that Kripke and his writers are using the concept of superheroes being real in this world to provide commentary on the entertainment industry and celebrity culture. From the beginning, this has pretty blatant, such as sequences where supes go through the publicity machine to promote their latest products or do damage control on some misdeed that’s slipped into the public eye. Much of what Vought’s homegrown superheroes deal with on a daily basis directly mirroring what these very actors themselves have lived through while promoting other projects or handling the business aspects of being a fame-o. But even beyond that, there are plenty of subtle moments where the show is negotiating, in its own rough and raw way, with all the implications that arise when a certain group of people is considered “special,” and society treats them accordingly.

Telling stories about superheroes is not a genre, a premise, or even an idea that lends itself to subtlety. There are definitely narratives across all mediums which have found nuance in these stories, but one aspect unites them all: All narratives focused on power should, at one point or another, examine the impact of having that power on a person — how might it change him or her, for better or worse?

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Many times, in both stories and real life, an infusion of power can end up revealing a person’s truest self, who they are when unconstrained by limitations, whether they be physical, social, financial, or all of the above. The best stories about superheroes are more than conscious of this, whether they be about 100-pound weakling Steve Rogers diving on a grenade or the Smartest Man in the World faking an extraterrestrial terror attack on New York City.

The first season of The Boys was always a bit shallow in this regard, mostly because it was often so caught up in the metaphor of superhero culture representing the worst aspects of the entertainment industry that it never dug deeper. Season 2 doesn’t let up on that metaphor in any way (in fact expanding upon it to a new degree, though of course things like the Church of the Collective bear no resemblance whatsoever to a real-world “religion” with a number of famous members). But in continuing to explore the history of this oddball world of the superpowered, new elements do push beyond “being famous is bad for you.” It’s tough to write about this in a spoiler-free context, but what can be said is that while these new episodes are no more subtle than the first season, they do push harder into examining issues beyond how superhuman abilities might warp vulnerable spirits; there’s a deeper sense of humanity as a whole on display here.

The most surprising aspect of the series, at this point, is that despite conceptually being about the morally complicated, The Boys is actually pretty lacking in grey areas, with the good guys and bad guys pretty well defined. (Some new characters might seem to be question marks, but as a rule, allegiances get sorted out pretty quickly.) The twist the show is working with, of course, is the fact that archetypes we have canonized within our pop culture are, in this universe, oftentimes actual perversions of Truth, Justice, and the American Way. And perhaps the most important thing that Season 2 does is push the show’s scope beyond the realm of capes and tights; its messages aren’t subtle, but then again, neither is putting on a costume and fighting crime. And to be honest, right now maybe the subtle path isn’t the best direction to go, in a number of respects. Maybe what we as a culture really need, right now, is for Karl Urban to headbutt us, grin, and tell us not to worry, because…

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Grade: A-

The first three episodes of The Boys Season 2 premiere Friday, Sept. 4 on Amazon Prime.

Television