“Fuckin’ diabolical.” That’s how Billy Butcher describes a grotesquely hilarious incident involving a speed boat and a beached whale in The Boys Season 2, but he could just as easily be describing the show’s sophomore outing overall.
After all, this dark take on the superhero genre – inspired by the Dynamite Comics series of the same name by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson – is overflowing with gratuitous violence, explicit sex scenes, near-constant cursing, and runs roughshod over topics many still consider taboo.
So, if you’re squeamish about any of these things, then it’s likely you’ll dismiss The Boys’second season as diabolical at best, lurid trash at worst. That’d be a huge mistake, though, as this Prime Video series has more to offer than mere shock value. On the contrary, if you look past its outrageous exterior, you’ll find a show with a surprising amount of heart that also serves up a disarmingly insightful dose of social commentary.
Recognising that superheroes are the perfect vehicle to explore virtually every hot button issue dominating headlines today, showrunner Eric Kripke and his creative team do just that. The Boys Season 2 tackles everything from the fake news phenomenon to racial and gender inequality and the fetishization of both celebrities and the armed forces, and in doing so, it delivers one of the best superhero adaptations in recent years – a show that’s equal parts barnstorming entertainment and scathing satire.
The Boys have seen better days when we catch up with them in Season 2. They’re on run from the law, team leader Butcher (Karl Urban) is missing, and despite the best efforts of good-hearted rookie Hughie (Jack Quaid), they’re no closer to bringing corrupt superhero team The Seven to justice. But they’re not the only ones feeling the heat – things aren’t looking great for the cape and tights crowd, either.
Uber-powerful sociopath Homelander (Antony Starr) is struggling to compete with the popularity of sassy, social media-savvy rising star Stormfront (Aya Cash). Queen Maeve (Dominique McElligott) is haunted by her past actions and present loneliness, while A-Train (Jessie T. Usher) is desperate to hide his ongoing health issues, and ex-Seven member The Deep (Chace Crawford) has hit rock bottom. Then there’s Hughie’s former flame – and current covert ally – Starlight (Erin Moriarty), who’s feeling the strain that comes with working alongside the very people you’re trying to destroy.
And as if all this wasn’t enough, there are superpowered terrorists on the loose, a potential deep state conspiracy of literally mind-blowing proportions is afoot, and a sinister New Age religious movement is looking to convert as many spandex-clad non-believers as possible. It’s fitting, then, that when Butcher finally arrives back on the scene, he flicks a match onto this proverbial powder keg in his own inimitable style…
Much like Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy earlier this year, The Boys is a textbook example of a show building on the solid foundation of its debut outing to deliver something truly brilliant the second time around. So, everything that The Boys already did well in Season 1 is still humming along nicely here, too.
The original cast – particularly Starr, Moriarty and Urban (wobbly accent aside) – are all on point, and newcomers like Cash and Giancarlo Esposito are equally impressive. As you’d expect given Amazon is footing the bill, the production values remain first-rate, too: the set-pieces are as well-shot as they are expertly choreographed, the visual effects are generally on-par with big screen superhero fare, and the licensed soundtrack choices continue to be both considered and inspired.
It’s in the writing department that The Boys has really lifted its game, and it’s ultimately the scripting that elevates Season 2 above its predecessor. That’s not to knock The Boys Season 1. Besides doing a terrific job of establishing an entire world filled with a sprawling stable of characters, the first season perfected the series’ signature balance between cynical deconstructionism and sympathetic character development, and crass humour with weighty themes. It’s just that it’s all handled with more sophistication, confidence, and inventiveness in Season 2.
Yes, Kripke and his crew delve deeper into the darker, more problematic aspects of the adolescent power fantasy undercurrent to the superhero archetype. Yet they also keep The Boys’ deeply buried, badly bruised but very much beating heart pumping. Whether we’re talking about Butcher’s single-minded mission to save his newly-resurfaced wife, the too-cute-for-words Hughie/Starlight pairing, or the Deep’s tragicomic journey of self-discovery – or heck, even Homelander’s pathetic attempts to fix the emotional frailty hidden beneath his godlike exterior – the show has only gotten more emotionally resonant with age. Forget the costumes and powers: these are real people.
When it comes to the gore and gross-out gags, again, this has only been dialed up for The Boys Season 2. However, as with the cynicism-to-heart ratio, this season’s juvenile extravagance and pop culture-tinged witticisms are evened out by how unexpectedly mature and thoughtful it can be.
Each episode manages to not only weave in a sweeping array of contemporary concerns – the ongoing civil rights struggle, sexual harassment, populist demagogues, fake news, the fetishization of celebrities and the military, and more – it presents these concerns from a commendably fresh angle. This goes far beyond the more general (and well-trodden) skewering of celebrity, religion, and genre tropes that characterised Season 1, and the mere fact that everyone responsible managed to squeeze all this stuff in without skimping on the laughs or excitement is frankly astonishing.
Not that Kripke and the gang get everything right. There’s a subplot midway through The Boys’ concise eight-episode run centred around Butcher’s estranged father that seems like a well-intentioned misfire, and it’s also as if everyone involved forgot about the team’s fugitive status pretty early on (at least judging by the way they behave sometimes). Even so, The Boys Season 2 is such a blast – is so funny, or disgusting, or moving, or thought-provoking – that chances are you’ll be having too much fun to notice the odd creative misstep along the way.
The Boys didn’t set out to be a show for everyone, and Season 2 isn’t going to change that. It’s one of the most gleefully and unrepentantly offensive live-action series available today…and it just so happens to be one of the most well-made too. “Fuckin’ diabolical”? Sure. But pretty fuckin’ good, too.