It’s the penultimate episode of the new season of “The Boys,” Amazon’s superhero action series, and it’s time for a costumed champion named Starlight to give one of those rousing speeches that inspires listeners to ignore insurmountable odds and get motivated for the journey ahead.
Her eyes brimming with tears, Starlight says, “I gave my whole life to nothing,” then adds: “The good guys don’t win. The bad guys don’t get punished. What we do means nothing. It’s just all for money.”
It’s not exactly an “I am Iron Man” moment. But then again, “The Boys” was never trying to be the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
“The Boys,” which begins its second season on Sept. 4, is in many ways the moral inverse of a typical comic-book adaptation. It is populated with superhuman adventurers (known as “supes” in the show’s parlance) who are often narcissistic, vainglorious and unconcerned with human life. Fighting to bring them down is a small band of mercenaries — the Boys of the show’s title — regarded as terrorists by the general public.
Though “The Boys” was not quite a critical darling or an awards magnet like HBO’s prophetic “Watchmen,” “The Boys” was one of Amazon’s most-watched shows in its first season, according to the streaming service (though it has not released exact numbers).
Now “The Boys” has a chance at achieving a deeper cultural resonance. It is arriving in a year when many other would-be comic-book blockbusters have been delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic, and when its spirit of frustration, mistrust and paranoia is especially of the moment.
With a torrent of crude language and over-the-top violence — it waited all of two episodes to depict a miscreant being dispatched by a bomb lodged in his anus — “The Boys” can be seen as a brutal and wildly irreverent sendup of the superhero genre.
But beneath its depraved surface, the show is also challenging viewers to wrestle with more complex ideas about the intertwining of politics and power and asking them to consider the profound danger of holding anyone up as a hero.
As its star Karl Urban, who plays the Boys’ ruthless leader, Billy Butcher, explained, “The show supposes a world where superheroes are deeply flawed celebrities with secret, nefarious habits — where you can’t trust what a politician or a corporation says, and victory isn’t guaranteed for the good guys.”
“To me,” he added wryly, “it’s a no-brainer why people are gravitating toward this.”
“The Boys” takes its inspiration from Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson’s comic series of the same title, an unapologetically profane pushback against post-9/11 politics and storytelling standards, rife with naughty words and naked bodies. (Ennis and Robertson are both credited as co-executive producers on the TV series.)
Eric Kripke, who developed “The Boys” for television, said that the source material was likely too outrageous to be translated directly to the screen.
But Kripke, the creator of the long-running demon-hunting drama “Supernatural,” shared the authors’ intentions to “shock people out of the complacency of superhero comics,” he said, and aimed to emulate creative idols like Rod Serling and Chris Carter by using the story’s fantastical elements to address real-world issues.
“I realized what a perfect metaphor this was for the exact second we’re living in,” he said. “For this world where authoritarianism and celebrity are combined and fascism is packaged through social media.”
At the same time, “The Boys” also offered the opportunity to comment on the rampant ubiquity of superhero stories in film and television while breaking away from the genre’s conventional good-versus-evil binary.
“Look, I grew up in the Spielberg generation — I’m a huge fan of escapism,” Kripke said. “But we are living in a really fraught moment, and that demands some examination and discussion.”
The series retains many of the characters and plot points from the comic books, revolving around a Justice League-like superteam called the Seven. The group is gallant in appearance but deeply corrupt in practice, and led by Homelander, a brutal, omnipotent crime fighter named who wears a cape modeled after the American flag.
Antony Starr, who plays Homelander, said his performance is based in part on the star-spangled, jingoistic characters who provided the foundations of American comic books and have since been exported worldwide.
Though he is from New Zealand, Starr said, “We’re just so saturated that many of us now have an inbuilt knowledge of Superman and Captain America. I’ve spent a bit of time in America now, so I know how patriotic the lovely Americans are.” Another point of reference for his character, Starr said, is “our fearless comrade Trump,” who “is coming up with new material for Homelander on a daily basis.”
More broadly, Starr said that Homelander embodied what happens when overwhelming power is decoupled from any sense of integrity.
“I don’t think the character regards what he’s doing as being good or bad,” Starr said. “He does what he believes is the right thing to do — right, according to his wants and needs. That’s about the extent of his awareness.”
In the opposing corner sit the Boys, including the veteran teammates Butcher and Mother’s Milk (Laz Alonso), the physically enhanced fugitive Kimiko (Karen Fukuhara) and the naïve newcomer Hughie Campbell (Jack Quaid), whose girlfriend was accidentally killed by a member of the Seven.
Though each of the Boys has a justifiable reason for hating the superheroes, their personal vendettas are gradually overtaken by a thirst for revenge for its own sake, and viewers are asked to question just how much they should identify with these characters and their choices.
“It’s a dance between morality and justice, and sometimes that line tends to blur,” Alonso said. “How much personal morality are you willing to sacrifice to achieve justice? Are you a part of the Boys, or are you a part of the supes?”
In its first season, “The Boys” dealt with ideas of oppression and freedom, collateral damage and post-traumatic stress disorder. It also included a story line, adapted from the comics, in which Starlight is sexually assaulted by one of her teammates on the Seven.
Erin Moriarty, who plays Starlight, said this story line was not included in the pilot script she received when she was first hired for “The Boys.” But she felt that the series handled the character’s assault seriously and responsibly.
“I knew that although the show was a dark comedy and satirical, it would not be depicted in a humorous way at all,” Moriarty said. “You can’t add levity to that situation.”
She said it was just as crucial that Starlight’s experience became an avenue for “The Boys” to take inspiration from social movements like #MeToo and Time’s Up and show how the assault had long-lasting ramifications for her and her abuser, continuing throughout Season 1 and into Season 2.
“It’s her reaction to the situation and the follow-up that’s most important, and that she has a role in it,” Moriarty explained. “She calls out the perpetrator. She exposes him. This woman is ultimately allowed to empower herself.”
Kripke and his writing staff were already working on the scripts for Season 2 of “The Boys” while Season 1 was being filmed in mid-2018.
As they looked out into the real world, Kripke said, “things were happening like the travel ban, the threat of caravans coming over the border and killing us all. So we wanted to tell a story about white nationalism, xenophobia and racism, and how powerful people use those things to further their own interests.”
This season addresses these ideas most directly with the introduction of a new character, Stormfront (Aya Cash), a superpowered demagogue who becomes a member of the Seven. The new episodes also delve deeper into the group’s relationship to a shadowy company called Vought International, a conglomerate powerful enough to regard the United States government as a mere inconvenience.
The new season is, if anything, even more cynical than Season 1 was about how power and fame function in America. But two years into a series about a world that is seemingly devoid of bravery or nobility, where the virtuous rarely prevail and villains are almost never punished for their misdeeds (and which Amazon has already renewed for a third season), it’s worth asking how much longer that attitude can sustain “The Boys” before it risks becoming repellent.
Kripke, for his part, did not from shy away from acknowledging the cynicism in the series and said he did not necessarily see it as a pejorative quality.
“The show is really about a healthy questioning of authority,” he said. “You should question every authority figure. You should question every celebrity. You should question every corporation. It’s how this show really works as a metaphor of this moment. Because the truth is, behind closed doors, celebrities and politicians are very, very different than who they are on camera.”
The actors on “The Boys” also embrace its skeptical, misanthropic streak, and consider it well-suited to the times.
“If I was on a show where I had to pretend that the world wasn’t on fire right now, I don’t really know how I would feel about that,” Quaid said. “We have to talk about the things that plague us as a society, because if we don’t then they just get worse.”
But the show’s cast and creator also argued that “The Boys” was not solely a cynical show — just as important are the characters who manage to connect and forge meaningful relationships despite the selfishness and cruelty around them.
That sentiment, they said, can be found in the dynamics of several characters, most prominently in the budding love affair between would-be adversaries Hughie and Starlight, which started in the first season and is further explored in the new episodes.
“I always saw it as an oasis in a desert of misery,” Quaid said of the romance. “In a world that’s this insane, you have to have scenes where you can breathe a little bit.”
“The Boys” being “The Boys,” of course, the show throws up as many obstacles as possible to keep its most valorous characters from finding true happiness with each other. But, as Kripke said, if the two of them are willing to keep fighting for it, then there might be hope for the rest of us.
“My worldview is, the more human and vulnerable you can admit you are, the more heroic and stronger you are,” he said. “To me, heroism doesn’t come from swooping in — it comes from quiet little moments of grace among people just trying to find each other and form families. That’s how the world gets saved.”