Of the many trenchant insights in The Boys— Amazon’s violent, brilliant superhero satire, which premieres its third season this week—my favorite is this: In the real world, the line between superheroism and celebrity would be indistinguishable.
None of the show’s many superheroes (who acquired their powers after being randomly injected with a scientifically-developed serum when they were babies) moonlights as a billionaire playboy, or churns out newspaper copy for the Daily Planet. In The Boys, working as a superhero isn’t about being a do-gooder. It’s about netting good coverage for the megacorporation that employs you, whose needs matter much more than, say, saving the world. In the end, super-strength or super-speed are no match for super-capitalism, which is why the show’s “supes,” as they’re known, are always surrounded by a small army of publicists ensuring they stay on message.
The parallels to real-life stardom are not lost on the show’s actual stars. “All these people that we worship, are they really happy? Are they secure? Do they really love each other as much as they do on red carpets?” says Laz Alonso, who plays Mother’s Milk, a member of the titular vigilante group that battles the supes.
No character embodies that tension more completely than Homelander, the superpowered sociopath who serves as the dark heart of The Boys. “Isolation is the natural byproduct of power,” says Antony Starr, the native New Zealander who’s riveting and terrifying in the role. Even Homelander’s fellow superheroes are afraid of him.
And they should be. Homelander is basically Superman, if he didn’t care about truth or justice. He does believe in the American Way, though not as the Man of Steel would define it: Homelander’s pettiness, cruelty, and all-encompassing narcissism makes him a quintessential Ugly American, spewing his insecurities across the globe. He never grows because he can’t. “He can literally fly away from his problems, or laser them away,” says Starr. “And it’s a complete curse, because ultimately [facing your problems] is what forges character.”
If Homelander has a Kryptonite, it’s his aching, apparently insatiable need to be loved. Starr was drawn to the role, in part, because he saw a chance to play a character so fundamentally damaged that redemption is impossible. Turning back toward the light, like Superman’s arc in the Justice League cut of your choice, is “standard superhero territory,” says Starr. “The moral compass is always a true north. Has to be, eventually. Even if Superman goes bad, you know he’s got to come back to good. It gives you a sense of security when you watch it.”
There’s no sense of security in The Boys, where Homelander started very bad and has gotten exponentially worse. It’s hard to describe what makes Starr so good, but it starts with a trick of the eyes. Not just the lasers Homelander can shoot out of them (though those are very effective)—it’s a baseline deadness, and it’s always lurking under the surface as he grins while taking yet another selfie with yet another fan. Sometimes he’ll smile and kill you. Sometimes he’ll grimace and let you live. But his eyes are always empty.
Though Homelander has cycled through a series of toxic relationships—with his handler/mother/lover Madelyn Stillwell, with his biological son Ryan, and with his enemies and sycophants in The Seven, the core group of supes employed by Vought Corporation, whose founder developed the serum that gave them their powers—he’s only really himself when he’s alone. When we last saw him in the closing scene of the season two finale, he was jacking off on top of the Chrysler building, mumbling, “I can do whatever the fuck I want” to himself. It’s a moment that’s equal parts pathetic and terrifying, because, hey, he’s right. Who’s going to stop him?
The masturbation sequence wasn’t originally intended as Homelander’s big season two climax; in fact, it was filmed for season one, but Amazon insisted on cutting it. Like the show’s own Vought Corporation, there’s only so far a superhero can go before a corporate overlord will come along and rein them in. “They were already conscious that there was some pretty intense material coming out that was going to be very challenging for an audience to accept,” says Starr. “That crossed the line for them. I don’t 100 percent know why. It wasn’t the worst thing I could think of.”
More often than not, the guiding principle behind The Boys’ storytelling does seem to be “the worst thing I can think of.” The show opened with Hughie, the non-superpowered mensch (and audience surrogate) played by Jack Quaid, splattered in blood and holding his girlfriend’s severed hands after a super-high superhero plowed into her, killing her instantly. Since then, the writers have made a game out of finding new fluids to blast at Quaid: “There’s a joke that every season, he’s covered in something,” says Karen Fukuhara, who plays a mute member of the Boys.
Though the cast is cagey about what’s coming in season three (“every shirt [I wear]—if you look up the song and then listen to it—will give you a clue as to what’s going on in that episode,” Laz Alonso tells me), they’re willing to concede that even more fluids will be blasting in the show’s version of “Herogasm,” a famously depraved arc from the original The Boys comic by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson, set at a week-long orgy for superheroes. “I was only in it for a couple days of shooting, but I know Jack and Jensen got scarred. There’s trauma there,” says Crawford. “I know that the fans of the comic were very interested to see that. I’m kind of a prude, so I think I’m going to fast forward through that,” says Starr.
I get a small taste of what it’s like to face Homelander’s scrutiny when I press Starr on a moment in season three that he personally conceived and pitched to series creator Eric Kripke. As he calculates exactly how much he’s willing to spoil, he stares hard at me, choosing his words carefully. “It’s hard to talk about it without giving it away,” he says. “But there was a scene that came up that offered an opportunity to get as psychologically insane and deep as we could probably go with this guy. It wasn’t there initially, but I read this scene and I had this idea. I took it to Eric and he was like, ‘Yep, love it.’ It is probably one of the most surreal scenes I’ve ever done.”
The Boys first premiered in the summer of 2019, just a few months after Avengers: Endgame became the highest-grossing movie in history. It felt like the result of some very smart people making a very canny calculation: If superheroes have gone from being one of modern Hollywood’s tentpoles to the entire tent, maybe the genre can be used as a Trojan horse, hiding some razor-sharp social and political commentary under a few capes. “We don’t shy away from the things that everyone is already thinking,” says Fukuhara. She notes that one of this year’s many satirical flourishes is a note-perfect parody of Kendell Jenner’s infamously tone-deaf Pepsi ad, this one centered on the PR-hungry superhero A-Train. “I laughed so hard,” she says. “I can’t believe we were able to use that.”
Kripke explained as much when The Boys scored a surprise Best Drama nomination at the Emmys last year—surely the first serious awards contender on which a character has been strangled by a 20-foot penis (it belonged to a supe named Love Sausage, which is all you really need to know). “The crazy, gonzo moments are just what’s on the front of the cereal box,” he has said. “What we’re really interested in is late-stage capitalism and white supremacy cloaked in social media and systemic racism.”
This bait-and-switch is possible, in part, because The Boys trusts that audiences who can track the intricate ins and outs of a cinematic universe are also smart enough to know exactly which superheroes are being parodied, and why. To be fair, the Marvel and DC analogues are rarely hard to decode. A-Train, the team’s resident speedster, is The Flash. Queen Maeve, a super-strong warrior in battle dress, is Wonder Woman. “Occasionally on Instagram I’ll get a, ‘Fuck you, fish guy. You think it’s funny to make fun of Aquaman?’” says Chace Crawford, who plays The Deep, a fishy supe. “I’m like, perfect. That’s exactly what I want.”
I ask cast members about The Boys’ obvious real-world political parallels, but no one says the word “Trump.” In fact, everyone skates around his name so gracefully that it occurs to me they might have been trained to do it. “There are definitely some echoes of someone who’s familiar in the American political landscape,” allows Crawford. But “He Who Shall Not Be Named… is not actually a great role model for playing Homelander, because when you’re trying to figure a character out, you need more than two dimensions,” quips Starr.
I have not been through Amazon’s media training, so I’m happy to spell it out for you: The Boys has a lot to say about Donald Trump. His on-screen analogue in season two was Stormfront—a white supremacist superhero, played by Aya Cash, who vows to “keep America safe again.” Her strategy for radicalizing white Americans hinged, in no small part, on a massive disinformation campaign disseminated via internet memes. (“When you see it on your uncle’s Facebook page, that’s how you know it’s working,” she explained.)
Stormfront’s lover and protégé was Homelander. Where other people saw a quintessentially American hero, she saw a blond-haired, blue-eyed Übermensch. Her endgame was getting Homelander to see his future the way she did. “You can’t win the whole country anymore,” she preached. “You don’t need 50 million people to love you, you need 5 million people fucking pissed.”
So, yeah: Donald Trump. But Stormfront, like Trump, didn’t get to the apex of her plan; she was stopped by the Boys and their few superpowered allies. Homelander, her closest public associate, has since been forced into a public apology tour, mumbling the same empty line about being “just a man who fell in love with the wrong woman” on every vacuous talk show that will host him. As season three begins, the good guys seem to have won, though the rise of a grassroots pro-Stormfront group called the Stormchasers is a harrowing sign that her political movement wasn’t exactly defeated.
Which means the big question in season three is something a lot of us are contemplating right now: When a would-be tyrant is finally toppled, what fills the power vacuum they leave behind? What if the venom that person injected into society has already sunk in so deep that there’s no sucking it out again? What can we do?
A popular answer on both sides of the real world political spectrum these days is looking for inspiration from an idealized, imaginary past. As conservative politicians try to drag everyone back to an America where white Christian men get to decide what’s right for everybody, liberal politicians fall back on ineffectual appeals to a bygone era of civility, decorum, and reaching across the aisle.
The show’s newest superhero, Soldier Boy, is an explicit throwback to the fantasy of an idealized past—a beloved, humble American hero who killed dozens of German soldiers in World War II, then refused the honor of his own national holiday, insisting the date should be used to honor all superheroes instead. (He also wears a combat helmet and fights with a shield, so yes, he’s The Boys’ Captain America.)
You will not be shocked to hear that the truth about Soldier Boy is a little more complicated than the official story. Believed dead for decades, he returns to a world he doesn’t recognize. For Captain America, being unfrozen meant catching up on stuff like Steve Jobs and Star Trek. For Soldier Boy, it means balking when he sees an openly gay couple walking down the street.
Eric Kripke didn’t need to look far for his Soldier Boy: Jensen Ackles was just finishing his 15-season run on Supernatural, the first TV series Kripke created. “He said, ‘I know that there are some actors that the studio and network and producers have in mind, but I’d be willing to go to bat with you if you want to do that’,” Ackles recalls. “And I was like, ‘How big of a bat do you need?’”
Anchoring *Supernatural—*a TV show that premiered in the early days of George W. Bush’s second term—has taken up much of Ackles’ acting career, but he’s still managed to dip into more conventional superhero fare, squaring off against a young Clark Kent in Smallville and voicing Batman himself in last year’s two-part animated film Batman: The Long Halloween. (“Especially the Batman thing—that’s such a heavily painted lane,” he says. “You don’t want to reinvent that too much.”) Even this funhouse-mirror version of Captain America wasn’t much of a stretch: “I’ve known Chris Evans for a million years, back when he and I were fighting for the same roles,” says Ackles.
But more than anything, Ackles was ready to show Supernatural fans what he could do on an Eric Kripke show that isn’t bound by traditional TV’s standards and practices: “I don’t want to be a one-trick pony,” he says. “I think I’ve got something else up my sleeve.” Once unleashed onto the modern world, his Soldier Boy feels less like a superhero than a warning: Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.
The other answer about what happens when a tyrant is gone looks in the opposite direction—not to our rose-tinted memories of the past, but our rose-colored goggles about the future. In season two, The Boys introduced one seemingly hopeful answer: Victoria Neuman, a crusading congresswoman from Queens who works to rein in the superheroes and the corporation that unleashed them. Her methods showed enough promise that Hughie, the eternal optimist, ended the season by abandoning the vigilante justice of The Boys and taking a job in Neuman’s Federal Bureau of Superhero Affairs.
This character—explicitly modeled on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—seemed like The Boys’ acknowledgement that change from within the system might be possible. And then came the season’s final twist, which revealed that Neuman herself was secretly a superhero, using telekinetic powers to blow up the head of anyone who got in the way of her as-yet-unrevealed true agenda.
When season two ended—less than a month before Joe Biden beat Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election—this felt a little cheap to me. Did The Boys have any room for optimism? By turning its AOC analogue into another cynical power player with a secret agenda, the show seemed to have shifted from political pessimism to political nihilism.
But like so much of The Boys, this ultra-dark worldview turned out to be uncannily well-timed. “Kripke is a fortune teller,” says Ackles. “He has some weird Kryptonian crystal ball in his office, and he’s like, This is what the cultural landscape’s going to look like a year from now, and he writes to it. I don’t know how he does it.”
Trump was defeated, but he’s gathering strength for another presidential run, and we’re all stuck with what he unleashed—and there’s no sign that it’s going anywhere, or that the Democrats in power have serious plans to do anything about it. And maybe that’s been the real message of The Boys all along—the one that makes it stand apart from all the other superhero stories out there right now: No one is coming to save us, so we’d better figure out how to save ourselves.
Photographs by Eric Ray Davidson
Styled by Sean Knight
Hair by Rena Calhoun at A-Frame Agency
Makeup by Miho Suzuki at Exclusive Artists Management
Grooming by Annette Chaisson and Emily Zempel at Exclusive Artists Management
Tailoring by Yelena Travkina