Amazon’s ‘The Boys’ Season 3: TV Review

In the latest season of the irreverent superhero series, the gang discovers that Soldier Boy (Jensen Ackles), the very first Supe, might hold the key to stopping Homelander (Anthony Starr) for good.

“With great power comes the absolute certainty you’ll turn into a right cunt.” That line, delivered with a weary sigh by Karl Urban’s Butcher in the new season, has been more or less The Boys‘ thesis statement from the beginning. In the world of this Amazon series, special abilities haven’t made superheroes more noble — just better able to get away with sordid or sadistic behavior, secure in the knowledge that they can punch their way out of any mess and leave their bosses at Vought International to deal with the cleanup.

That hasn’t significantly changed in season three. The Boys is still the show that’ll serve up exploding bodies with a smirk and make time for a field trip to a superpower-fueled orgy. But buried in all that carnage, it also finds something approaching a heart — and in doing so, brings the more thoughtful aspects of its story to a riveting new chapter.

Season three picks up roughly a year after the events of season two, and initially, things look downright balmy for our central players. Supe collateral damage is down 60%, thanks to new oversight by congresswoman Victoria Neuman (Claudia Doumit), and Vought has recovered its reputation after the whole “Stormfront (Aya Cash) is a Nazi” debacle from last season. Hughie (Jack Quaid) and Starlight (Erin Moriarty) are thriving in their careers, and have settled into adorable domestic bliss. Even Butcher has cut down on drinking and Supe-killing in an effort to become a better role model for Ryan (Cameron Crovetti), his late wife’s superpowered son.

Unfortunately for these characters but fortunately for us, the season two finale planted a ticking time bomb in the form of Victoria’s secret head-exploding superpower. When it goes off early in the season, Butcher, Hughie and the rest of the Boys find themselves reluctantly (or maybe not so reluctantly) pushed back into the muck, this time armed with two new potential weapons in the fight against Supes in general and Homelander (Anthony Starr) in particular.

One is V24, a drug that grants its users temporary superpowers, and the series a temporary excuse to give Karl Urban laser eyes. The other is Soldier Boy (a well cast but somewhat underused Jensen Ackles), an early Captain America-esque Supe whose mysterious demise in the 1980s might hold the key to stopping Homelander and his kind for good.

The Boys is as gleefully nasty as it’s always been, though after three seasons its edginess has lost some of its immediate shock value. Sure, it’s still amusing to see how The Boys manages to deploy Seven-themed sex toys as deadly weapons. But it’d have been more surprising if Soldier Boy didn’t turn out to be a jacked-up idiot who speaks admiringly of Bill Cosby’s “strong drinks,” since so many of the Supes on this show seem to be cut from the same cloth. (More unexpected, and more promising in its playfulness: This season’s genre-bending delights include scenes inspired by retro animation and classic musicals.)

But its sharpest barbs are the ones that hit closest to home, like a Q-style conspiracy that springs up around a public figure, or Homelander’s insistence that it’s safe for the public to go out in the face of a deadly approaching threat. In material this dense, a few storylines inevitably feel better served than others. A subplot that pits A-Train (Jessie T. Usher) against a fellow Supe (Nick Weschler) who disproportionately targets Black neighborhoods probably could have hit harder with a little more room to breathe — though Vought’s approach to the issue, cooked up by execs whose idea of “doing the work” is announcing “Black Lives Matter is my favorite hashtag,” does yield an uproarious parody of Kendall Jenner’s infamous Pepsi ad.

None of it is at all subtle, which also feels like a reflection of the times we’re living in: If everyone else is saying the quiet parts out loud now, The Boys might as well too. To the series’ credit, its third season earnestly attempts to advance the conversations about power it introduced season one instead of simply reiterating them. If the first two seasons handily demolished our national delusion that goodness and power — whether of the kind wielded by Supes, governments or omnipresent global conglomerates — go hand in hand, season three looks at what’s left once the dust settles.

The questions prove to have extra-special resonance for Starlight and Kimiko (Karen Fukuhara), both characters who’ve sometimes been sidelined in favor of magnetic macho assholes like Butcher, Homelander and Stormfront. They’re brought into the spotlight by storylines that push both women to examine their relationships to their own powers, and the relationships that the people around them have to their powers. But the ideas they wrestle with resonate in some way across much of the cast. What does it do to a world when shows of overwhelming force become the only sort of strength that’s valorized? Can such power be wielded for good? Are there other models for saving and protecting the people we care about, or even the people we don’t?

The Boys being The Boys, all these relatively nuanced ideas still culminate in a single massive, bloody battle between Supes that’s more an exaggeration than a refutation of the weightless CG violence served up by any Marvel third act. And yes, it’s queasily ironic that this takedown of powerful institutions is coming to us from a series funded by one of the most powerful corporations at all. But asking them feels right in line with the series-long quest to interrogate the all-American project of unthinking hero worship. The series hasn’t lost its bitterness or its bite, and the chilling final shots of the finale should wipe out any fears to that effect. But as season three reminds us, the punches hit harder when there’s something worth fighting for.