The Boys is back in town. Is it still a flippant, angry satire? Yes. Is it still unrepentantly violent? Yes. Is it still spending obscene amounts of Jeff Bezos’ money on the rights to popular music? Oh, yes. In case you’re wondering, it’s more of the same – but a greater maturity, confidence and focus that ensures that the series will live to see out its grandiose story ambitions.
In season 1, The Boys worked through a cautious truce between the razor-sharp satire of a world corrupted by obsession with superheroes and a focus on the arc of its characters, forced to contend with such a dystopia. This continues, for the most part. The series takes aim at everything – the disturbing reality of truly human superheroes, the manipulative consumerism perpetuated by superhero franchises and shadowy corporations, and the fearful insecurity rooted in American culture. It’s never subtle – but it is effective.
One of the greatest achievements of The Boys is not to portray its inverted superheroes as mundanely evil, like the dour Watchmen (2009). Instead, the series chooses to dig slightly deeper, exposing these celebrities not just as morally compromised – but weak. They are woefully unprepared for their abilities, defined by almost pathetic weakness to human emotions, but inhabiting superhuman bodies. Antony Starr’s Homelander is a psychotic, xenophobic Superman, but his crippling addiction to the adulation of the American public coupled with childish temper and trust issues makes him terrifyingly unpredictable and a spectacular villain for the series.
It’s this attention to character development that elevates the 2nd season of The Boys, because the impact of the satire can no longer carry the series. Sure, it still exists – Season 2 focuses its mockery even further, with a cutting set up on director Joss Whedon being a personal favourite moment. But the audience is no longer shocked or intrigued by the heartless world that’s been created, running the risk that The Boys might run out of steam.
Don’t worry. The series transitions bumpily, but noticeably, to focus on the cast. The chemistry between Erin Moriarty’s Starlight and Jack Quaid’s Hughie keeps them loveable as they struggle with their moral compasses, while the cast of superheroes get more time to reassess their boundaries and allegiances, with reasonable depth for such an unsubtle series. The exploration of Karl Urban’s Billy is fantastic. Previously a walking stereotype (a growling ex-cop hardman searching for his kidnapped wife), it’s a joy to see him break through this characterisation. Billy’s long-lost wife refuses to let him rescue her, citing that his brutality and need for retribution are parts of him that existed long before her disappearance. It’s a scene that would have been different in any other action comedy, but The Boys uses it to break down a character and allow them to grow in unforeseen ways. It never claims to be subtle – but it is totally gripping.
That’s just as well though, because The Boys needs this intrigue to stay watchable. While the series provides a much-needed story reset at the end of season 2, the plot is still an unnavigable jumble of blackmail, violence and shock that relies on style to work in the short term. Action sequences are well choreographed but are never truly remarkable.Nevertheless, with plot threads old and new unresolved by season 2’s finale, it’s clear that The Boys is in it for the long haul, and if its rabid confidence and intimate character exploration continues to grow, viewers have a lot to look forward to.
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