Superheroes abuse their powers rather than using them for good in The Boys, which just concluded its second season.

In my review of The Boys S1 last year, I called the Amazon Prime series “a wickedly funny, darkly irreverent adaptation” and “ideal late-summer therapy for anyone who has grown a bit weary of the constant onslaught of superhero movies.” I wasn’t alone in my love for the show: The Boys was a massive hit, and that success has continued with S2, which was the most-watched global launch of any Amazon series to date, pretty much doubling the show’s worldwide audience. S2 is even better than its predecessor, deftly tackling timely themes and hot-button issues, while never sacrificing all the biting satire and good, gory fun that we loved about S1. And can we just give Antony Starr an Emmy already for his stunning performance as Homelander?

(Spoilers for S1 below; some spoilers for S2, but no major reveals.)

The Boys is set in a fictional universe where superheroes are real but corrupted by corporate interests and a toxic celebrity-obsessed culture. The most elite superhero group is called the Seven, headed up by Homelander (Starr), a truly violent and unstable psychopath disguised as the All-American hero, who mostly bullies his supe team into compliance. The other members include A-Train (Jessie T. Usher), who boasts super-speed but has also become addicted to the experimental performance-enhancing substance called Compound-V. The Deep (Chace Crawford) can breathe underwater, thanks to having gills—voiced in S2 by Patton Oswalt during a hallucination sequence—and converse with marine creatures.

Black Noir (Nathan Mitchell) is a silent Ninja-like superhero with enhanced strength and agility who never speaks, while Queen Maeve (Dominique McElligott) is Homelander’s former girlfriend who suffers from burnout and a bit of guilt-ridden PTSD from all the horrors she’s witnessed on the job—many of them, it must be said, inflicted by her own team, especially Homelander. Finally, there is relative newcomer Starlight (Erin Moriarty), who quickly becomes disillusioned with the Seven even though joining them had been a lifelong dream.

Homelander’s counterpart as the head of the titular “boys” is Billy Butcher (Karl Urban), a self-appointed vigilante intent on checking the bad behavior of the Seven, especially Homelander, who brutally raped Butcher’s late wife. Butcher recruits an equally traumatized young man named Hugh “Hughie” Campbell (Jack Quaid, son of Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan) to help in his revenge, after a juiced-up A-Train literally runs through Hughie’s girlfriend, killing her instantly. Rounding out the crew are Marvin, aka Mother’s Milk (Laz Alonso), Frenchie (Tomer Capon), and Kimiko, aka The Female (Karen Fukuhara). She has enhanced strength and healing abilities thanks to being (forcibly) injected with Compound-V.

Bloodied but unbowed

In S1, Butcher & Company tracked the source of the compound back to Vought International, the parent corporation behind the Seven, which had been using it to create more superheroes. But someone else had gotten their hands on Compound-V and was using it to create super-powered terrorists, in order to manipulate the US government into welcoming the Seven as a super-extension of the military.

The various subplots included budding romances between Hughie/Starlight, and Frenchie/Kimiko; Deep getting kicked out of the Seven for sexual harassment and being assigned to a small Midwestern town instead; the revelation that Queen Maeve is bisexual and had a secret girlfriend; and A-Train’s continued abuse of Compound V caused him to have a heart attack, sidelining him from the Seven. Oh, and the Seven are down a member after the Boys took out Translucent (Alex Hassell), a perverted voyeur who could turn himself invisible by changing his skin into a carbon meta-material that warped light around him.

The S1 finale ended with a major cliffhanger: Butcher, intent on blowing himself up and taking Homelander with him, changes his mind when the psychotic superhero tells him he has discovered that Butcher’s ex-wife, Becca, is still alive—and raising her son, the result of her rape by Homelander. That’s pretty much where S2 picks up. Per the official premise:

Butcher, Hughie and the team reel from their losses in Season 1. On the run from the law, they struggle to fight back against the superheroes, as Vought, the company that manages the heroes, cashes in on the panic over the threat of supervillains. And a new hero, Stormfront (Aya Cash), shakes up the company and challenges an already unstable Homelander.

The fugitive Boys are holed up underground, soon rejoined by the missing Butcher, with the goal of capturing a supe terrorist who has been going around blowing up people’s heads with his/her telekinetic abilities. Starlight is a secret ally, thanks to her relationship with Hughie, but Butcher doesn’t trust any supe, and is frankly more interested in finding Becca. Tracking down the terrorist is simply a means to that end.  And Hughie is angry and disillusioned with Butcher for dragging him into the fray and then abandoning the group for weeks on end.

Things aren’t exactly peaceful with the Seven either. Homelander’s dominance of Vought is challenged when CEO Stan Edgar (Giancarlo Esposito) brings on a new member—the aforementioned Stormfront, who quickly wins over the public with her sassy charm, just as Homelander’s approval ratings are sinking. Still in exile, the Deep joins the Church of the Collective in hopes of boosting his self esteem and regaining his spot with the Seven. A-Train faces competition from Shockwave (Mishka Thébaud), another superpowered speedster who might replace him on the Seven. A vindictive Homelander cruelly outs Queen Maeve, and the resulting Vought PR campaign selling her as an LBGQT role model (“Brave Maeve”) further stresses her relationship with girlfriend Elena (Nicola Correia-Damude).

It’s Homelander’s world, we’re just living in it

One of the best things about The Boys is that it’s ultimately a character-driven show: we care about these characters, even the purported “bad guys,” and are invested in their fates. The best new addition to the cast is Cash’s Stormfront, who openly rebels against Vought’s image makers and canned talking points, while gently mocking Starlight’s goody-two-shoe compliance and urging her to break out. She’s a spirited, independent-minded take on the Cool Girl (the real deal, not a pretender), and oh-so-easy to like—so naturally she has a deep dark secret of her own, along with a hidden agenda that involves Homelander.

The show may be called The Boys and give Urban’s Butcher top billing—and Urban, as always, is terrific. But ultimately it belongs to Butcher’s supe mirror image: Homelander, who easily ranks among the most complicated and fascinating villains in the genre. In scene after powerful scene, various complex emotions play effortlessly across Starr’s face as he responds to the situation at hand. Starr’s performance is so good, you sometimes wind up feeling bad for this monster.

Yes, he is a narcissist, utterly lacking in empathy and morals; his megawatt smile that he flashes to the crowds during public appearances never quite reaches those cold eyes. And yes, he’s highly unstable and unnecessarily brutal. He zaps a random bystander in the crowd who flips him off, and when Vought brings in a supe named Blindspot (Chris Mark) to audition for the Seven—a blind youth with super-hearing who uses it to navigate the world—Homelander brutally destroys the kid’s ears before declaring him useless in a fight.

But Homelander is also psychologically tormented, having been raised in a laboratory, with too much power for there to be any real discipline. (You tell a superpowered toddler with deadly laser eyes he can’t have another piece of cake.) He longs for love, but has no idea how to win it, never mind keep it. Just ask former Vought vice president Madelyn Stillwell (Elisabeth Shue) from S1, a mother figure who was the only person who genuinely loved him—and he killed her in a fit of rage for deceiving him about his son. He plays the good father figure to Ryan (Cameron Crovetti), but then tries to teach him to fly by shoving him off the roof of the house. Stormfront seems to be the only one who can handle him—and together they are a super force to be reckoned with.

We also get an expanded colorful cast of superheroes beyond the Seven. There’s the shapeshifting Doppelgänger (Dan Darin Zanco), and Gecko (David Thompson), who has fallen into a life of seedy disrepute, exploiting his regenerative abilities to earn a dubious living. (People basically pay to chop off various parts of his body to fulfill their violent fantasies, and marvel when those body parts regenerate.) We finally meet Lamplighter (Shawn Ashmore), and learn more about his link to a tragedy in Frenchie’s past.  And the hilarious throwaway scene where the Boys encounter Love Sausage (Andrew Jackson), whose exposure to Compound-V gave him a stretchable prehensile penis which he can deploy as a weapon, plays out exactly how you’d expect.

Final verdict: the second season of The Boys is another wildly entertaining ride, keeping things fresh and viewers eager for more. The identity of the head-exploding telekinetic terrorist is a great final twist, setting up the third season, which is already in development. There will be even more to come from this world of supes-gone-bad. Amazon has already fast-tracked a spinoff series (as yet untitled) set in an exclusive college for young supes. According to Deadline Hollywood, it will be “an irreverent, R-rated series that explores the lives of hormonal, competitive Supes as they put their physical, sexual, and moral boundaries to the test, competing for the best contracts in the best cities.”

All episodes of The Boys S2 are now streaming on Amazon Prime.

 

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