Nobody could accuse The Boys of being subtle. Amazon Prime’s satire of our superhero-obsessed culture loves to shock its audience with gratuitous sex and violence: Civilians explode into bits when a hero with super speed runs through them, the protagonists defeat a hero with impenetrable skin by shoving a bomb up where the sun doesn’t shine, and a character with the ability to shrink to the size of a termite uses his power to stimulate his partner in a way that would make a urologist squirm.
For context, in the world of The Boys, the “heroes” are little more than superpowered celebrities, all brand-tested and micromanaged by the mega-corporation Vought. The supes behave with wonton licentiousness and cruelty, but Vought maintains their popular public image. The protagonists of the show are the titular “boys,” a team of ex-soldiers, mercenaries, and ordinary blokes who’ve been hurt by Vought. Team leader William “Billy” Butcher seeks revenge on Homelander, the show’s twisted version of Superman, who he believes killed his wife. Hughie Campbell has it out for A-Train, a supe with powers like the Flash, for the death of his girlfriend. Mother’s Milk remains obsessed with Soldier Boy, who is like Captain America if his worldview never evolved past the 1940s, because Soldier Boy caused the death of his grandfather. The team’s mission to get revenge on the supes often devolves into the aforementioned gratuitous violence.
The show’s immediate appeal comes from its willingness to skewer all sides. Vought is one-part Fox News, one-part Disney, a stand-in for both right-wing infotainment media and corporations that superficially and self-interestedly support progressive causes in order to sell products. According to showrunner Eric Kripke, Homelander is a “Trump analogue,” but he also represents “a bigger issue than just Trump. The more awful public figures act, the more fans they seem to be getting.”
The show’s interest in the competition for power between celebrities, corporations, politicians, and ordinary people leads The Boys into its most philosophical territory. From its beginning, the show has reflected Thomas Hobbes’ understanding of power. Season 3, which just concluded, explores and ultimately rejects might-makes-right morality.