Here’s the thing about The Boys: it may be entertaining, but it fundamentally fails because we already know the world sucks, and this show doesn’t offer a perspective that’s any different.
Fiction will always present an alternative world to the one we live in. When you present a fictionalized, satirical view of the world, or make an attempt to do so, you hold up a mirror to the society we already live in. Satire is difficult to define, but I believe it should illuminate a new way to question what we’re constantly surrounded by, show an alternative thought process to counter the absurdity of the bullshit status quo, or demonstrate a mode of cutting through the noise that surrounds the seemingly obvious problems that nobody wants to recognize.
Like we get it. The world is brutal and unkind. It’s unflinching and uncaring. It’s violent in ways that are incomprehensible, systemic, overtly capitalist, and convoluted. What is the point of The Boys if it just emphasizes that all this is just the way the world is? There will always be men in power, and there will always be those who hate it. The key to understanding what The Boys is actually trying to say, however, comes from none other than our favorite sad bad man, Billy Butcher.
Karl Urban plays Butcher, a man who had his family destroyed by superheroes, and is now on a mission to put supes away. He founded his (literal) anti-hero group, the Boys, to enact a twisted revenge fantasy, but for the right reasons! Because he’s deeply traumatized! Because he is, at the core, the poster-boy for the fantasy of the self-successful neoliberal individualist.
The neoliberal individualist does things for themselves because of a belief that society will not, or can not, help them. It is a deeply self-absorbed perspective: the idea that one man can make a difference by simply acting on his own volition against the systems in power. The neoliberal individualist does not have strong ties to other people, and in fact, doesn’t see people as worthy of having relationships with. Butcher himself does not value community, other family units, interpersonal relationships, or even the common good. His only goal is to achieve his own, incredibly selfish, goals.
This is the world of The Boys. Nobody is coming to save you. Your systems are corrupt. Your friends are liars. The world is on fire. Nothing matters, so nothing you do matters. Might as well go out fighting. Structural problems are reframed as individual issues, and the only way to solve interpersonal problems is through violent interactions with these problems. After all, the system can’t help you. The Federal Bureau of Superhero Oversight is corrupt, Vought Industries is run by self-interested capitalists, and even society seems intent on ignoring the truth. The only option for Butcher, or any of the characters in The Boys, is to take matters into their own hands.
Because Butcher values individualism over society, because he is a neoliberal who wishes for the obscure “better,” but rejects the society he seeks to save, he disregards the social norms of that society, instead embracing the wanton violence and destruction he believes is the problem with superheroes. In season three, this is perfectly exemplified by the fact that he takes V24—a compound that gives him superpowers, despite his saying in earlier seasons that the reason he founded the Boys is because “no individual should have that much power.” Butcher is so full of himself, so absurdly focused on his own goals, that he becomes what he used to hate, and that’s fine, actually, because he’s still an individual. He can make choices.
The Boys is what happens when we imagine there are individual superheroes who might be out there, waiting to save us, but who never show up. This show is the kind of storytelling that comes out of the idea that everyone is an asshole, waiting to fuck you over. The Boys has spread its focus across the supes of the Seven, the Boys, and a couple key political players, each with their own personal agendas and drives, and very few who value community of any kind. It is a frustrating show to watch, because The Boys turns into a dick swinging contest, and whoever can beat the other person up better or faster becomes the villain, until someone else shows up with a bigger dick to shove in your face.
As a show which seeks to answer the question of “what would ‘real’ superpowers to do the human body,” The Boys has a violence problem. The real world is already brutal, violent, and bloody. What purpose does gore serve? What catharsis comes from seeing people in power tear apart people who do not have the same physical power? What satisfaction comes from watching someone get blown up, or set on fire, or cut through with laser beams? Everyone is an asshole, and this is just brutality for the sake of one-upsmanship, for the shock factor that, at this point, isn’t that shocking, and is probably just gross.
The only thing that The Boys has is its own self-absorption, a masturbatory belief that it’s not like the other shows, or comics, or cinematic universes. But it’s not different from any of them. It’s just as obsessed with the myth of individuality and traumatized men who do bad things for “good” reasons. It shows people in power destroying the world; it idolizes people who find moments of peace, levity, or strength amid the overwhelmingly horrible situations and systems; and instead of exposing the hypocrisy of corporations who attempt to capitalize on the neoliberal “wokeness” of society, it merely reminds us that it happens, and isn’t that funny?
The people who will enjoy this show probably share a lot of the same liberal ideals that I do. The Boys gleefully pokes fun at the worst kind of right-wing and corporate fuckery, and it’s almost fun enough that I could ignore the rest of the neoliberal individualist propaganda. But with no comeuppance, hope, or optimism, The Boys strives to produce satire and shits out nihilism. Some people are into that stuff.
The problem is, once again, we had a president who threw paper towels out of an airplane as a form of “disaster aid.” We had a defamation case that was watched the world over for reasons of celebrity, and saw a morally corrupt, widely hated lawyer appeared on a game show as a “surprise guest.” We watched an actual insurrection on live TV, and nothing has changed. This drama is just part of the fabric of our world, and even exploding penises and mental ménages à trois with octopi can’t top the absolute horrorshow that is our nightly news.
It is the most absurd kind of television marketing, a show that pats itself on the back for existing and pushing the boundaries of taste rather than the boundaries of storytelling. Even as stars Karl Urban and Antony Starr chew on the scenery, even as Eric Kripke deftly weaves together an ensemble cast of storylines to produce an incredibly watchable, at times even enjoyable show, it simply does not deliver what it promised, if it ever did, if it ever even could. I think the best social satire that The Boys has created is that the extremely online pop culture consumers ever imagined it was a satire to begin with. It is bankrolled and distributed by Amazon, after all.
The first three episodes of the third season of The Boys are on Prime Video now; new episodes then roll out weekly until the finale on July 8.
Want more io9 news? Check out when to expect the latest Marvel and Star Wars releases, what’s next for the DC Universe on film and TV, and everything you need to know about House of the Dragon and Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.