‘The Boys’ Is Better at Satirizing Superheroes Than It Is at Satirizing Trump

The penultimate season of ‘The Boys’ revolves around the presidency and doubles down on allusions to Trump, but the series is still best at sending up superheroes

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

There’s never been a secret to the satire of The Boys. From the beginning, the bywords have been bigger, broader, and bloodier. Since it started airing in 2019, the series has sent up and torn down American cultural cornerstones—capitalism, the media, and, most obviously, superheroes—by dialing up their darkness to a ridiculous degree. The show’s sharpness, wit, and, most of all, audacity have made it a delight. Just because the satire is unsubtle doesn’t mean it’s unsatisfying.

In Season 4, which launched with a three-part premiere on Thursday, the satire sticks to the formula. Mostly, it still works. There are few sacred cows the series won’t tackle—at one point, even an actual cow gets torn apart. (OK, a bull, but it’s cattle—close enough.) But consider how the series trains its sights on its first target: the superhero-industrial complex.

It seems almost unsporting for The Boys to kick Marvel and Hollywood when they’re down, but in Episode 5—perhaps this season’s strongest—a presenter at a Vought event stands in front of a backdrop studded with dozens of logos for upcoming projects and hypes up a crowd by teasing “Phases 7 through 19 … which we’ll be sharing with you all today in exhaustive detail.” Another superpowered star announces, “It’s been a whole year since my last movie, so I’d say we’re due for a reboot.” And then there’s the bragging about Vought’s diversity campaign—insensitively dubbed “Black at It”—and jibes about a show reshooting its reshoots and the reboot’s “soundtrack of Nirvana hits and a 12-minute sequence that’s entirely pitch black.” (That Season 4 also features its own Nirvana needle drop—and a director who remarks that Vought is making a teen show called Super School “because we like money”—shows some winning self-awareness about The Boysevolution into a blockbuster spinoff factory.)

Apologies for explaining the joke, but the humor here lies in how it heightens the truth. Marvel may be prolific, but it hasn’t teased Phase 7 yet, let alone 19. And even the conglomerates behind the Batman, Spider-Man, and Superman film franchises generally let at least five years go by before a reboot. When it’s making fun of fellow fictional franchises, The Boys ramps up reality exponentially. There’s the bigger and broader. And as for the bloodier—well, there’s more of that, too. This season especially, bodies don’t bleed so much as they explode, repeatedly dousing the series’ antiheroes in the evidence of their deeds.

It’s notable, then, that when fascist superhero Homelander meets the speaker of the House, the Kevin McCarthy equivalent cracks, “Well, it might’ve taken 18 rounds of voting, but we got there, didn’t we?” The real McCarthy, of course, was elected as Speaker after 15 rounds of voting. So that’s how The Boys skewers that travesty: It tacks on three rounds. Reality, plus a piddling 20 percent.

The Boys still aims to be bold. But the franchise’s satire seems to have met its match in American politics—and Donald Trump may be its least interesting target. The current, Trump-fueled climate of conspiracy theories and culture wars is so preposterous and sordid that even The Boys can’t concoct a much more extreme scenario. You can’t top something that’s already over-the-top.

That this is a problem for the country goes without saying. And precisely because it goes without saying, it’s also a (much lower-stakes) problem for The Boys that the series nonetheless says it so often. This season is more explicitly, specifically political than ever, which is, well, saying something after Season 3. In the world of The Boys, as in our own, it’s a presidential election year. Victoria Neuman, whose tough-on-supes posturing obscures her own status as a secret supe, is the VP-elect. Once her running mate, Robert Singer, is sworn in as commander in chief, a supe will be a heartbeat away from the presidency—and it won’t take Victoria more than a heartbeat to pop the president’s head. With that final roadblock removed, President Neuman will be a puppet for Homelander, who’s already staged a successful coup at Vought and is looking to level up by cementing his control of the country—and maybe, then, the world.

Why do some aspects of this story line seem so tiresome, even as much of the season still thrills? There are a few factors. In part, I’m probably reacting to election-year fatigue. In the way that playing The Last of Us Part II during a real-life pandemic arguably made it more misery-inducing, watching The Boys a few months before November 5 makes its depiction of a Trumpian figure running roughshod en route to the White House extra-exhausting. I suppose one could say that such pop culture clarion calls are “needed now more than ever,” but I can’t imagine that The Boys will make many viewers reconsider their support of Trump. (At most, it might make some reconsider watching The Boys.) Series creator and showrunner Eric Kripke doesn’t disagree: “It’s catharsis,” he recently told The Hollywood Reporter. “I have no illusions about my job. … I am not particularly up my own ass, so I don’t know if it’ll ever change minds.”

In contrast to the actual election, the one on The Boys doesn’t seem to have a whole lot riding on it. The series tries to tell us it does, but superpowers trump (sorry) political power, so even if Homelander can’t put a pawn in the White House, he’ll still be unstoppable. Not only is he invulnerable, but he can fly, shoot deadly lasers from his eyes, and rip people apart with his hands. Politically, he operates with impunity: Homelander starts the season on trial, but unlike Trump, he’s acquitted. What does access to the Oval give him that he can’t already do? Homelander says he sees humans as insignificant playthings, and in one exchange he tells his son Ryan that he doesn’t care about anyone except the two of them. The combination of craving adulation and being uncaring is pretty Trumpian, but there’s still something discordant about Homelander simultaneously seeking influence over others and realizing how little he needs them. If Trump could take Compound V, he might not bother running for office.

Most of all, though, the show’s political satire this season often falls flat because it isn’t satire—it’s imitation verging on transcription.

“Yes, Homelander on ‘The Boys’ Is Supposed to Be Donald Trump,” read the headline on a 2022 Rolling Stone story about Season 3. In typical Boys fashion, the parallels between Trump and Homelander weren’t exactly opaque then. Kripke has always considered Homelander a Trump analogue, but in 2022 he told Rolling Stone, “I’ll admit to being a little more bald this season than I have in past seasons.” If last season seemed on the nose, then now that nose is bleeding because Neuman’s squeezing its brain. No one would need a headline now to tell them that Homelander is supposed to be Trump, or that he’s the baddie.

Last season, The Boys tried to up Trump’s ante. Trump said he could stand on the street and shoot somebody, and he wouldn’t lose any voters. Well, what if Homelander did it? (Whatever crimes Trump has committed, he hasn’t done that.) That twist yielded the indelible last scene of Season 3, and an omnipresent meme.

It’s hard to up the ante from committing murder in broad daylight and drawing applause. This season, Homelander’s cribbing from Trump comes more in the mold of the former (and potentially future) president’s plans to consolidate control, gain revenge against his enemies, and detain or deport those he considers undesirable. And last season’s nod to Trump’s taco bowl was a prelude to numerous digs at Trump and other Republican politicians—though the show never names the GOP—that are ripped so straightforwardly from the headlines that creative license (or any kind of creativity) aren’t really required.

In Season 4, Homelander goes on trial in New York, echoes Trump’s Charlottesville speech, sells NFTs, promises to make America super again, refers to his supporters as “patriots,” and decries the deep state and the woke mob. The speaker refuses to be alone with any woman other than his wife, à la Trump’s former VP. A new member of the Seven, Firecracker—a successor to Season 3’s Stormfront whose insignia of choice is a Confederate flag instead of a swastika—peddles conspiracies about pedophiles and Jewish space lasers, bemoans “critical supe theory,” announces an interview with Kanye West, and delivers anti-vax, anti-trans, and anti-immigrant screeds. A “patriot” in the crowd at a Homelander rally shouts “string her up” about Starlight; a line of graffiti reads “a safe space for libtards.” Right-wing talking points and buzzwords abound, as The Boys copies and pastes from the zeitgeist, changing one word here or there (or one number, in the case of the speaker’s election).

An authoritarian streak has long run through some superhero stories, which many reevaluations of the medium have noticed and interrogated (see Rorschach from Watchmen). The Garth Ennis comics series that The Boys is based on picked up on that too, but the details were understandably different on the page than they are on the screen. The original tale hails from the comparatively tame time of 2006 to 2012. (Not that it seemed so tame at the time.) “It’s not like you’re palling around with Mitt Romney,” someone says to Neuman this season, drawing a distinction between the man who ran against (Boys fan) Barack Obama and the present threat. “You’re working with Homelander!” Kripke told Rolling Stone that “the world is getting more coarse and less elegant,” and thus The Boys has adapted to it.

Speaking to THR, Kripke described himself as “somewhere between a carnie and a court jester,” affirming that his primary intention is to entertain. But it’s challenging to jest about bad things that prominent people are actually saying and doing. And though satire strives to “hold up a mirror to society,” its value is limited if that reflection just exposes something we can easily see.

Plus, political commentary isn’t a scarce commodity. When The Boys debuted, months after Avengers: Endgame, superheroes’ hegemony was at its peak. The Boys felt fresh and vital because it was willing to deconstruct the form. Five years later, that’s not unique: Such irreverent takes are so popular—thanks in no small part to Prime Video—that the genre may be ripe for a return to tradition. (James Gunn wrote and directed The Suicide Squad, but his new Superman movie seems to be channeling Christopher Reeve more so than Zack Snyder.) Even if we’re verging on super-antihero fatigue, though, The Boys is still the best and most subversive of that bunch. There’s much more competition when it comes to calling out Trump.

(Maybe it’s me, but there’s also something slightly suspension-of-disbelief–destroying about the show’s frequent references to real-life celebrities and, increasingly, politicians. Season 4 invokes entertainers such as Noah Baumbach and Shia LaBeouf; Will Ferrell makes a cameo as himself. Fine: Ferrell is funny, as are the tossed-off references to the Deep’s acting career. But the name-drops in the political realm fly as fast as Homelander, from Mike Lindell and Rick Santorum to Elizabeth Warren and AOC. Is this series set somewhere in the multiverse? In a world rife with sociopathic superheroes, where Lindell is still rich and famous for selling pillows? What about the butterfly effect?)

By and large, The Boys is still a blast. Even after three seasons of desensitization, the violent or sexual set pieces sometimes make me gasp (or gag). There are a lot of laugh lines—one of the best being, “This man is in no condition to fuck a sheep,” the context for which I won’t explain. And although this season is somewhat overstuffed with subplots—and characters, including the best new addition, the Seven’s super-smart mastermind, Sister Sage—I still care about the Boys. Throughout this season, the group’s members confront their past sins and try to find forgiveness, whether from others or (even more daunting) themselves. (“It’s so easy to become a monster around here,” Ashley Barrett says about Vought, but the same applies to the Boys—and Washington, D.C.) Boys superfan Jeffrey Dean Morgan plays a new character who acts as the devil on the dying Butcher’s shoulder, while Butcher’s ex-wife Becca, from beyond the grave, acts as the angel. But by far the most affecting arcs belong to Hughie and his parents, and Frenchie and Kimiko. Bleak as the Boys’ backstories are—not to mention their present mental states!—I look forward to time with them more than I do updates on the quasi-Republican cabal.

As always, the season ends with a spectacular climax that promises to raise the stakes and deepen the depths of depravity. But I’m glad The Boys is ending after five seasons, before it can become a caricature of itself. There are only so many times Antony Starr’s jaw and cheek can twitch as Homelander hears a high whine and barely restrains himself; that the Boys can improbably escape destruction by their superpowered opponents; that Butcher can wrestle with where to draw a moral line in his fight for humanity; that Hughie and Co. can be disappointed by one of Butcher’s betrayals. Or that Homelander can take a page from Trump’s playbook.

Armando Iannucci, the creator/director of political satires The Thick of It, In the Loop, The Death of Stalin, and Veep, has very often opined that Trump is as impervious to satire. “Satire or comedy is about exaggeration, distortion,” he said in 2019, to explain why he’d turned down offers to make a movie about Trump. “But that’s what Donald Trump does. … He’s a self-basing satirist. He is parodying himself.”

It’s not the fault of The Boys that Trump is so satire-proof—that although you can imitate him, you can hardly make him seem more selfish, dangerous, or absurd than he is on the surface. Trying to take him down via shame, scorn, or satire is like trying to trade punches with Homelander: Neither one will be wounded, and they’ll both wriggle out of the jam. There’s still a place for politics in fiction, and in comedy—but the latter, Iannucci notes, works best when its practitioners fuse jokes and journalism in John Oliver mode. The Boys isn’t quite equipped for that kind of comedy. “We’re angrier and more scared as the years go on, so that is just being reflected in our writing,” Kripke explained in 2022. The Boys does well with anger and fear: Butcher takes a piss on his dad’s coffin. But even he can’t take the piss out of today’s politics.

Fittingly, Iannucci’s next comedy concerns a superhero franchise. Now that’s funny.

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