05 September 2020 00:45
Eric Kripke's new season doesn't mince words — though it does mince body parts — in eviscerating America's eagerness to embrace right-wing extremism. Late in the second season of Amazon Prime Video's "The Boys," a character caught in a lie spouts an unnerving truth. The comment isn't overemphasized; there's no dramatic pause and it doesn't effect anything that happens next, but the comment speaks far beyond the fictionalized moment for which it's crafted. "People love what I have to say — they believe in it. They just don't like the word 'Nazi.'" To say any more would be venturing into spoiler territory, but the statement goes a long way toward crystalizing what makes showrunner Eric Kripke's superhero series a more ambitious, and altogether more successful, satire in Season 2.
By widening its scope beyond greedy corporations, "The Boys" turns its laser vision on the holy triumvirate of 21st century American corruption: social media, a fearful populace, and predators in power. Though the series remains frustrating in its callous treatment of select women and minority characters — and generally relies to much on the boyish perspective it happens to be criticizing — its ruthless censure of behavior too often exhibited by angry white men is worth applauding, so long as you've got the stomach for it. One of the ways "The Boys" made a name for itself, when it first premiered last summer, was through its nauseating, darkly comic level of violence. In questioning the delusional cleanliness of most onscreen superhero stories, Amazon's TV-MA sendup leaned hard into the grisly "reality" of what living with super-powered people might look like. If a man really could run at the speed of light, wouldn't he eventually bump into a passerby? And when you're bumped at lightspeed, wouldn't you just… explode? Maybe not, but "The Boys" cleverly relied on the audience's pre-established expectations to diabolically upend them. Season 2 continues this highly effective practice with near-giddy creativity. By the time all eight episodes wrap, there are too many gruesome injuries, deaths, and outright massacres to remember. Looking back over my notes, I'm astonished at how many unforgettably brutal moments I already forgot in order to make room for the most vivid bloodbaths. Squeamish, be warned — but isn't that what Season 1 was for? Panagiotis Pantazidis / Amazon Studios Things pick up with a new boss at Vought International, Stan Edgar (played by the great Giancarlo Esposito), who's trying to make the most money out of his star super's screw-up. Homelander (Antony Starr, giving another delightfully wicked turn) stole his company's prized drug, Compound V, and gave it to international terrorists in order to put himself at the head of America's military. Super-terrorists require superheroes to stop them, no? It only makes sense, and while Stan is happy to cash in the pricey defense contract, he's worried what the world might do with his recipe for cooking up supermen. Meanwhile, Billy Butcher (Karl Urban) has been framed for murdering Homelander's old boss, Madelyn Stillwell (Elisabeth Shue), and he remains in hiding, even from his own team. Hughie (Jack Quaid) is holed up in a makeshift hideout with the rest of the Boys, including Mother's Milk (Laz Alonso), Frenchie (Tomer Capon), and Kimiko (Karen Fukuhara), who was invited into the super-busting club despite her own set of superpowers. Hughie is still pining over Annie (Erin Moriarty), but the only way the two can see each other is when she escapes Homelander's watchful eye, leaves her home with The Seven in Vought Tower, and ventures into the subway for a few all-too-brief knee touches. The only way for the Boys to emerge from hiding is if they can expose Vought for cooking up superheroes in a lab, but their plans are put into overdrive with the arrival of a new member of The Seven: Stormfront, played with superb snark and a knowing wink by the marvelous Aya Cash, quickly threatens Homelander's place on top of the team, but she may be just the ally Annie needs to start making her way out. With a threat to his crown and "super-terrorists" eluding his grasp, Homelander starts to feel the pressure, and there's no telling exactly how an ego this tightly wound will pop. Jasper Savage / Amazon Prime Video Over eight episodes, "The Boys" offers plenty of surprises. Some come through unexpected and exaggerated bloodshed — which, considering the regular rollout of graphic violence, it's a credit to the writing and editing teams that so many of these moments are still shocking — while others are rooted in well-orchestrated plot twists. Season 2 gives casual fans plenty of entertainment value, even if the episodes run long, as well as plenty to chew on during the downtime; if you thought Season 1 did a good job twisting Homelander's pristine red, white, and blue image into a knotty mess better fit for our current administration, just wait til you see what he comes to represent this year. Rarely has "the American way" been stripped so thoroughly of its historic infallibility, and rarely have those who demand unquestioning loyalty to the flag been so justly put in their place. Yet an expanded critique doesn't keep "The Boys" from stumbling into past mistakes. One of the nagging issues with Season 1 was that both its main characters were given purpose by the untimely deaths of their wives. Hughie and Butcher both lost their partners, and it pushed them to join and form this titular team. While last year's finale made the effort to reverse half of that issue — revealing Becca (Shantel VanSanten) is alive, as is the son she had after Homelander raped her — Season 2 somehow sees more of the same problem. "Fridging" is a term that first gained infamy in comic book circles, and its growing notoriety led Kripke to say he wanted to specifically avoid killing off supporting female characters in order to motivate men. To say who, when, or how many times he breaks that intention would be spoiling things, but it's prominent enough to put a cloud over a few razor-sharp feminist speeches. "The Boys" is still an imperfect beast, but it gets so many parts right — I haven't even talked about the skilled stunt work or expertly staged action scenes — that you're likely to get caught up in its gorging satire. Performances, moments, and specific lines will sneak up and level you. And most of the time, it's when you're in need of a good leveling. Grade: B "The Boys" Season 2 premieres its first three episodes Friday, September 4 on Amazon Prime Video. New episodes will be released each Friday, concluding October 9 with the finale. Amazon Prime Video has already renewed "The Boys" for a third season. Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.