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‘The Boys: Season 3’ Blu-ray (review)

Sony

It’s getting hard out there for The Boys.

Not just the lads themselves, nor for boys in general —although a season that begins with an Ant-Man sized Supe blowing up his boyfriend’s penis is definitely giving new meaning to Male Fragility—but with the series as a whole

Like the graphic novel series that inspired it, Amazon’s show built its early reputation on shock value: heroes who assault their team members like sleazy studio heads, whose skin is diamond-hard but whose egos are paper-thin, who are obsessed with adoration and yet will let a plane full of passengers die just to shield themselves from bad press.

It’s theatre of super-cruelty, Watchmen rewritten by Paul Verhoeven. And that’s what the showrunners are up against in Season 3: the more you shock people, they harder they are to shock.

Season Two overcame the rising tide of expectations with a smart gender-flip on Stormfront (Aya Cash), an über-anti-hero who rejects the curated corporate culture of Vought International, a badass who says what she wants and tells people what to think, who acts like a street rebel but is in fact the ultimate authoritarian.

Sound like anyone we know?

Stormfront earned the envy of Homelander (Anthony Starr, the man with the spookiest grin in show business) until he finally learned the only lesson she ever had to teach: it is better to be feared than loved.

This ever-darker turn in Homelander’s twisted psyche sets the tone for Season Three, in which Butcher (Karl Urban) and Hughie (Jack Quaid) reach the very same conclusion. Working under government supervision has reduced them to half measures and symbolic victories. Now that they’ve discovered their cause has been betrayed (of which more later), Billy Butcher has decided it’s time to take out the biggest Super of them all.

Amped up by stolen Compound V24—a kind of 12-hour-Contac version of Compound V that grants powers but wears off after a day—they start to enjoy the rush of their new abilities just a little too much. Despite their well-earned hatred fSupes, it only takes a single dose for them to start becoming just as self-obsessed, just as thin-skinned, just as wantonly violent as Homelander or A-Train. As the orator Robert Ingersoll said, if you want to judge a man’s character, don’t give him adversity, give him power.

No one has failed that test harder than the H-bomb himself, probably because no one’s ever been given so much power. Since the series’s debut, Homelander has emerged as a complicated figure in popular culture. For every fan who sees him as a symbol of America’s shadow side—strutting, mercurial, and cruel—there are just as many would-be Proud Boys who get off on his ability to lash out the ultra-violence. He’s proof of what Malcolm Gladwell argued in his essay “The Satire Paradox”: it’s hard to satirize someone that people are determined to love.

In Season Two, Homelander went looking for someone to love—or rather, someone who could love him: first Stormfront, who became his lover and dark muse; then Ryan Butcher (Cameron Crovetti), his biological son by Becca.

In Season Three, he’s more interested in control than adoration. He arranges for his former boss Stan Edgar (an always-suave Giancarlo Esposito) to be dealt out by Representative Neuman (Claudia Doumit). Officially, she’s heading a committee to monitor the Supes. In her spare time, she’s a fox guarding the House, a covert Supe in charge of head-popping anyone Vought doesn’t like. With Neuman on his team and a tame CEO in charge of Vought (Colbie Minifie, finally getting her much-deserved spotlight as cringey Ashley Barrett), there doesn’t seem to be anyone left who can stop him.

Which is why the Boys are heading to Russia, following a lead on the one Supe who could conceivably axe Homelander.

This is Soldier Boy (Jensen Ackles), a sendup of Captain America so thinly disguised that you can practically see the little wings over his ears (his super-team is called Payback: get it?). Just as Homelander represents the dark side of modern America, Soldier Boy shows us everything Saving Private Ryan didn’t tell you about the Greatest Generation. Whereas Homelander greets his public with a glassy stare and a mouthful of teeth, Soldier Boy couldn’t give a crap about his image. He’s a porn-addicted killer who hoovers up meth like a Shop-Vac and kills indiscriminately.

During the Contras action in Nicaragua he was betrayed by his comrades, imprisoned by the Russians, and now he’s looking for, well, payback. Somewhere along the line he seems to have gained the ability to incinerate his enemies with power blasts from his chest. Supes who aren’t killed outright discover their powers are gone. Kimiko (Karen Fukuhara) discovers this the hard way. For Billy Butcher, all of the above make Soldier Boy the perfect assassin to take down Homelander.

Although much of the action focuses on that tattered league of justice known as the Seven, part of the fun of The Boys has always been the D-list Supes, the ones whose power aren’t so much daunting as weird. Tentacle-porn demons only wish they had prehensile schlongs like the aptly named Love Sausage. And yes: that means it’s time for the storyline graphic novel fans have been awaiting since Season One: Herogasm, a nonstop orgy for lesser Supes overseen by the TNT Twins (basically Zan and Jayna gone to seed). As Butcher, Hughie, and Mother’s Milk (Laz Alonso) arrive on the scene, they’re warned that there are no spectators at Herogasm. I won’t spoil exactly what happens—there’s a pretty good payoff to the sequence—but they probably should have said no survivors.

Season Three has some memorable moments.

The boss battle between Soldier Boy and Homelander does not disappoint, and A-Train is finally acquiring some depth after a super-powered racist cop called Blue Hawk all-lives-matters the hell out of his friends and family.

Earlier in the season, A-Train stars in an energy drink commercial that skewers Kendall Jenner’s cringeworthy Pepsi spot. Somewhat less successful is our first peek beneath Black Noir’s hood, in which we discover that the Seven’s scariest Supe has a head full of cartoon characters. You know a TV series is just marking time when they start hiring cel animators. At least they haven’t done a musical episode. Yet.

The big disappointment is what they do to their two most genuinely heroic characters, Queen Maeve and Starlight. Maeve was always jaded, but in this season she’s basically fallen in (and on) Billy Butcher. Annie is just wasted. We rooted for her in the first two seasons because she kept believing in being a good guy, no matter how many times Hughie lets her down or the Vought suits force her to humiliate herself (Season Three forces her into a just-for-the-cameras romance with Homelander). She was also the only Supe who still thrived in her secret identity: watching her scarf Funyuns and sing Billy Joel with Hughie was a Season Two highlight. In Season Three, she’s been reduced to a scold—what Emma Thompson called a “Please don’t do that brave thing” kind of wife. Consequently, her chemistry with Hughie suffers.

Hughie was another of my favorites whose character DNA has apparently been rewritten just ‘cause.

The source of his attraction to Starlight was that she didn’t need saving; her attraction to him was that he wasn’t threatened by her powers. Now we’re asked to believe that he feels rotten because he’s never been able to save her. It really does make him seem like a very Wee Hughie, even if the actor who plays him is six feet tall.

I will never not love Jack Quaid in any part he plays: he does a whingeing apology like nobody’s business. But his character deserves a better arc, or at least one that’s a little closer to the guy who didn’t mind getting demolished by his girlfriend at the bowling alley.

And then there’s Billy Butcher. He was never likeable, but his saving grace was that he didn’t care if nobody liked him. Like his nemesis Homelander, he’s a manipulator, a gaslighter, and a bully with a one-word vocabulary. He never apologies for any of this, and we really don’t want him to. He is the living embodiment of the principle that the end justifies the means, which complicates the narrative when his enemies are even more means-justifying than he is. Season Three introduces the possibility that he may be on the verge of growing a conscience. It will be interesting to see if the writers pull it off in Season Four.

In its inception The Boys was a second-to-none satire of soulless corporations, celebrity culture, and the naked awfulness of a fading American empire. In Season Two it shifted its sights to 4chan and MAGA. In Season Three I was left wondering if The Boys is even a satire anymore. There is an extremely thin and blurry line between satirizing extreme violence and getting off on it, and The Boys may just have crossed that line of no return.

Tapping into the reptile brain is dangerous medicine, particularly if your series villain is a pure sociopath. Anyone who likes their heroes pure should avoid The Boys, but in past seasons it was still possible to believe that our title characters were doing terrible things because it was the only way to fight back.

Now that Butcher and Hughie have tasted power and gone back for seconds, it’s harder to make that argument.

At least we still have Mother’s Milk.

Extras include deleted & extended scenes, a featurette and gag reels.

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