The last few months have been pretty superhero heavy, but The Boys manage to stand out from the crowd for the second season running through a brilliant combo of source material and talent. You won’t find any gimmicks here: Billy Butchers boys are out to get even, and it’s f***ing diabolical.
**Spoiler Warning for Season 1 of the Boys**
One Day I am going to write about something that is not an alternative take on the superhero genre. But it is not this day, for I’ve just finished watching Amazon’s The Boys.
Anybody with more than a passing interest will know that The Boys is based on the comics by Garth Ennis, and by and large the series is faithful to its source material. If not a little pared back (if you can believe it). The Boys themselves have each faced loss at the hands of the tyrannical super humans (“Supes”), who are well marketed and politically protected by the super corporation Vought. This has led to the only thing it could; the Seven, a group of morally vacuous, arrogant and elitist individuals, who think themselves untouchable. Let’s try not to get too political, shall we?
Of course those meddling lads aren’t going to let them get away with their atrocities, most of all their anarchically charismatic leader, one Billy Butcher (Carl Urban). Butcher, a former SAS, for near a decade believed his wife to have been killed by Homelander (Antony Starr), The Boys’ corrupted answer to Superman.
At the end of season 1, Butcher finally caught up with Homelander. He had the boss of Vought, Madelyn Stillwell (Elisabeth Sue) and her child hostage, only for Homelander to reveal that he discovered the secrets Stillwell kept from him, before killing her. As Butcher realised he was out of cards to play, he triggered explosives, hoping to at least cause some harm to Homelander. Butcher wakes up though, in a seemingly perfect suburban street, to see his wife standing at the door with a child. Homelander walks up to the child, whose eyes glow red.
A Change of Perspective
Season 1 very much focused on Butcher, and the new boy Hughie Campbell (Jack Quaid) whose girlfriend was killed accidentally by a rogue Supe. On the other side was aspiring hero Annie “Starlight” January (Erin Moriarty) whose dream of being in the Seven really didn’t pan out how she thought. Hughie was nominally the protagonist of Season 1, with Billy and Annie getting a fair dose of screen time as the devil and angel on Hughie’s shoulders.
Going into Season 2 however, screen time is better spread out, giving much more depth to each character. Hughie now takes a bit of a back seat as a character and puts a shift in to moving the plot along. We all need a Hughie, and though he doesn’t so much build on his own arc, Quaid does a great job of giving more interesting characters someone to bounce off.
In contrast to the two or three main arcs in the first season then, we now get to see a lot more of peripheral characters like Frenchie (Tomer Capon) and Kimiko (Karen Fukuhara). This gives the series a chance to explore a different take on the challenges that a rogue superhero world poses. Arguably Frenchie’s starring episode is one of the best, hitting home both emotionally and physically with one of the show’s most outstanding action set pieces.
Framing the Fight
Though there were some small wins in the first season, taking out or incapacitating a few of the seven mainly, the show makes clear that there is no total victories here. This isn’t the MCU with big impressive battles that end neatly when you defeat the mothership. Every scrappy success for the Boys lasts mere moments before being twisted into a PR victory for Vought and its team of Supes. So much so that Season 2 kicks off with the titular boys (and girl) on the run from the law as a result of Stillwell’s murder, pinned on Butcher and the boys. It’s frosty between Hughie and Annie (Starlight), Butcher is missing and Stillwell’s boss Stan Edgar (Giancarlo Esposito) is calling the shots. It’s not looking good.
Thats actually something The Boys does really well. The audience is always given a sense of the bigger picture, and it’s a continuing theme in Season 2. What is a victory in this world of super powered unstoppable tyrants with multi billion dollar corporations on their side? Sure you can kill a supe, maybe two, but there will always be more stepping in to take their place. Even the death of one member of the Seven is turned into a rallying cry for greater Superhero involvement in battling “supervillains”. The parallels with our own reality’s sometimes questionable politics is terrifying, and creates a real sense of impossibility for our protagonists. They aren’t just fighting super powered baddies, but the real world. What could be scarier?
Nobody symbolises this better than the shows newest supe, Stormfront (Aya Cash). Youthful, cool and attuned to the globalised online world that we live in, she brings a whole new dimension to The Boys’ universe. Not only is she immensely powerful in a fight, but as the ultimate influencer she commands die hard online fans from tweet to insta post. It’s a genuinely fresh idea in saturated superhero land, and one that grows darker still as the series draws to conclusion. Themes of radicalism, hate and control aren’t so much teased as beating you around the head, which is fine if not a little lacking in subtlety. Not exactly The Boys’ speciality, just like Mr Butcher himself.
The Boys are back in town
Urban has enjoyed a diverse career as a character actor, but Butcher may become his most iconic role. There is a gravitas that Urban brings to every scene, and an unpredictability that permeates through his friends an enemies alike. Writers often throw in the whole “he’s done bad things” trait to an antihero, but the actions of Butcher twinned with the quietly manic performance of Urban make every scene tensely poised. Somehow Urban still portrays the character as likeable, with an odd cockney charm that makes us root for him despite some of his actions being downright awful.
Standing (or flying) opposite him is Homelander, the most powerful supe in existence and in many ways the worst of them. Starr does a great job portraying one of the most hateful characters on the screen. He is not inherently evil, but his struggles in a world where he has no equal, and where he has never known love have led him to have no regard for human life. So he acts selfishly and lazily, barely lifting a finger to save someone unless there is some PR in it for him, and scarcely acknowledging the victims his acts leave behind. There is a lot of depth here, and a worse actor may have made the character seem cartoonish. But Starr accomplishes what many shows fail in establishing a hero; matching them with a suitably twisted and complex villain.
Overall, season 2 of The Boys builds well on the first outing, combining heart stopping “wtf” moments, with realistic warts and all relationships that somehow make sense in a crazy world. After a slow start, the pace really picks up, and though the series released over 5 weeks, an old school guy like me really enjoyed the excitement of waiting for the next instalment. Now that it’s out in full I expect many will binge it in a weekend, and I don’t doubt that will be just as diabolical an experience.
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