Let's hear it for The Boys: How the superhero satire crafted its gutsiest season yet

TV’s most provocative anti-heroes scored record ratings while tackling Nazis, systemic racism, and police brutality. With an impending third season and a spin-off on the horizon, this world of deranged superheroes (and the vigilantes trying to expose them) is bigger and bolder than ever.
By Nick Romano
October 09, 2020 at 12:00 PM EDT

Warning: This article contains spoilers about the entirety of The Boys season 2, including the finale.

Between the superhero theatrics one expects from an R-rated show like The Boys — which in its second season drove a speedboat through a beached whale, showered an entire courtroom with blood from exploding heads, and introduced a character with a super-human… love sausage — the most significant moment plays out at a quiet corporate dining room over a plate of gruyère puffs.

Karl Urban’s Billy Butcher, leader of a group of covert mercenaries dedicated to keeping out-of-control supes in line, sits across from his enemy, Giancarlo Esposito’s Stan Edgar, head of Vought International, the corporate overlords of the world’s premiere team of heroes, known as the Seven. With a high-rise view from the top of Vought Tower, Billy attacks the puppetmaster for his role in turning a “racist piece of s--- into America's sweetheart.” He means Stormfront (Aya Cash), the newest member of the Seven and a closet Nazi who’s been riling up her alt-right social media fanbase to support the creation of a master race army of Aryan supes. Mr. Edgar, a Black executive, acknowledges she’s problematic — but stirring up anger is good for the company’s bottom line. Vought rakes in billions marketing everything from action figures to tie-in blockbuster films based on the Seven — but its real product is actually the pharmaceutical drug revealed to be behind all those special powers.

“I can’t lash out like some raging entitled maniac,” Edgar says. “That is a white man's luxury.”

“So, it’s just business then, eh?” Billy asks.

“When, Mr. Butcher, in history has it ever been about anything different?”

Showrunner Eric Kripke and his writers specifically engineered this scene to lay out what season 2 — and maybe even the entire show — has been about. Yes, The Boys has a bloody good time playing with the premise that the world’s most famous superheroes come with great power yet wield them with no great responsibility. But it’s deeper than that. “Vought and many, many, many corporations are actively willing to put pain and violence into the world if they believe it will help their bottom line, even if they find what's happening personally objectionable and revolting,” Kripke tells EW. “It's not their job to worry about themselves. It's their job to worry about this corporation, this massive sociopathic thing that only cares about itself to the destruction of all others.” If you can get past the irony that this show is distributed by a behemoth corporation, that’s still a lot to chew on.

Mixing the outlandish fun parts of a superhero satire with modern parallels has always been in the DNA of The Boys, which began as an adult comic book series from writer Garth Ennis and artist Darick Robertson. The duo wanted to do more than poke fun at other superhero comics. That’s why the Seven, like evil doppelgängers of the Justice League, also satirize celebrity, politics, and the military-industrial complex — a mix that takes on new meaning when adapted for TV while a former reality star currently resides within the White House.

Executive producers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who brought to life another Ennis comic, Preacher, on the small screen, saw The Boys’ potential in “striking a chord with a big audience in a rare way,” Rogen recollects. “It didn't deal with as many alienating topics as other things. In fact, it had essentially as mainstream a topic as you could ask for: superheroes. The idea of an epic, subversive, heavily serialized, character-driven show with gigantic action set pieces and a breakneck pace was something we knew we'd be thrilled to watch, and that's always the best place to start.”

The show’s season 2 premiere became the most-watched launch for an Amazon Original Series, according to the studio, and gave Netflix a run for its money when it busted into the top three spots on Nielsen’s streaming chart for the first time in September. Now, on top of an already approved third season, Amazon is comin’ atcha Boys with a fast-tracked spin-off series to further expand the world.

“First of all, the show dares to step over the line like no other show ever in the history of television,” Urban says. “Secondly, it's about the characters, and you’ve got to throw that back to Eric Kripke and the writers. They’ve written these multidimensional characters with flaws and wonderful human traits that we can all identify with.”

In the eye of the storm

For every capital-I Issue on The Boys, there’s one of those flawed characters behind it — some more innocent than others. Months before Harvey Weinstein was exposed in 2017, the first season writers’ room already had a plan to address systemic misogyny through Starlight (Erin Moriarty), a supe from a small town with big dreams. She gets a job in the Seven, moves to the city, and finds out her co-workers turn on a smile for the cameras but are some of the worst people on the planet behind closed doors. In 2019, as the writers sat down to brainstorm season 2 stories, the big ideas bouncing around included systemic racism, Trump’s attacks on immigrants, and police brutality.

Enter Stormfront, a character who allowed them to expose all of those points through the wellspring of metaphorical potential. Her character actually dates back to World War II, where her husband, Frederick Vought, used to work as a scientist for Adolf Hitler at Dachau. Her late husband’s company, none other than Vought International, has since moved her around, changed her name, and rebranded her a social media personality in the modern age who wants to “make America safe again” from the supe terrorist threat. “You can take super-terrorists and replace them with ‘caravans of immigrants,’” Kripke notes. “That story is a, very sadly, realistic one.”

Cash, who auditioned before the show premiered, having read only the season 1 pilot script, saw the role as “an interesting critique of the world we live in,” specifically how “hate groups have used social media in order to both incite fear and passion for their causes.” “I wanted to make sure that it was going to be handled in a way that I felt supportive of,” she says. “With art, I don't care, honestly, if people fail, but there has to be a lot of thought behind it. I'd rather a big swing for the fences where somebody is really trying to say something than just playing it safe.”

Playing it safe has never been in The Boys’ vocabulary. Season 2’s penultimate episode kicks off with a particularly pointed sequence: a day in the life of one of Stormfront’s supporters. It’s an unflinching look at how he is radicalized morning after morning by the extremist rhetoric on Vought News — right up through when he shoots and kills his local convenience store clerk, motivated by the hysterical fear that he might be a supe terrorist. “People like what I have to say, they believe in it,” Stormfront will later shout at the Boys. “They just don’t like the word Nazi.”

It’s no coincidence that Stromfront’s rhetoric finds a matched set with the sociopathic Homelander. “Americans are a very, very patriotic lot in general,” says Antony Starr, who plays the all-American hero and sports the nation’s flag as his cape. (Like Urban, Starr hails from New Zealand.) “Homelander does not represent the best of America. And let’s face it, America has always had issues if you’re anyone but a white male. For many, there were no good old days. The fact that the character’s duplicity plays on the patriotism and national pride of Americans is a statement — and [plays on] their fears, which [are] very common at the moment.”

A show bold enough to attack these topics head on needs actors just as willing to start a conversation. Performing in this space between entertainment and commentary is “exactly where I want to be as an actor,” Cash adds. “Entertainment for entertainment's sake is not very entertaining to me.”

Laz Alonso finds the same experience “cathartic,” he says. Early in the second season, his character, Mother’s Milk (a.k.a. “MM” for short), follows a lead to an older supe called Liberty, who turns out to be a former alias of Stormfront. The investigation leads to an older Black woman named Valerie, who as a child witnessed Liberty, a uniformed protector, pull over her brother’s car — and kill him on the side of the road. The story MM shares with Valerie, about how his father, a lawyer, died after fighting Vought in court at a time when the company “wasn’t about to let this one Black Man put his foot on their necks,” was partly ad-libbed by Alonso. “Eric is not trying to artificially create moments,” he says. “That Mother’s Milk monologue was completely he and I working together.”

The scene became about generational trauma. Like Valerie, MM has lost a loved one to systemic racism. “It still comes down to, this fight didn’t start with me,” Alonso explains of his character. “My dad fought this fight, his dad fought this fight, and if I don’t fight this fight, I’m going to pass it on to my daughter. And that’s not the inheritance that I want to leave. So, if I have to possibly lose my life so that she doesn’t have to, then it was worth it.”

Adding to the significance of this moment is the fact that it extends beyond “two Black people having a conversation about their shared experiences,” as Alonso puts it. By making Hughie (Jack Quaid) and Starlight a part of the scene with Valerie, “we’ve allowed the conversation to extend itself to white people and how it affects us all.”

“Because it’s through a superhero lens where things are blowing up all the time, and we impale a whale with a speedboat, I think it makes the messages a little bit more digestible for certain people,” says Quaid, whose breakthrough performance in season 1 as Hughie also doubles as viewers’ lens inside the world of The Boys. “I think the best disinfectant is sunlight. I love to be on a show that is so insane — but we’re able to slip in all these messages of equality and empathy, because we are sorely lacking those things today.”

A piece of the action

Satire or no satire, there are still blockbuster-worthy superhero moments. It’s part of Kripke’s direction for the series since day 1: “If you don’t do this show with at least the production value of what people are used to in Marvel movies, you’re f---ing dead, because then you are making some Naked Gun parody of a superhero show instead of what this needs to be, which is the most real superhero show.”

Cash, who hadn’t done anything quite so VFX-heavy in the past, remains in awe of how Karen Fukuhara is “insanely good at stunts.” The Suicide Squad actress who plays Kimiko, a silent but ultra-deadly supe who becomes a member of the Boys, performed many of her own tricks. That includes what she calls “the Black Widow,” where she emulates the signature move of Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff. “It's basically me wrapping my legs around his neck and [doing a] 360 spin,” Fukuhara says. “We have the cameras [film] from right above and it was awesome. I felt like such a badass superhero.”

“Um,” she clarifies. “Not ‘hero.’”

Karen Fukuhara (Kimiko)

These skills came in handy for the finale battle, which, like the rest of the season, wasn’t subtle about its messaging: Kimiko, Starlight, and a surprise drop-in from Queen Maeve (Dominique McElligott) band together to beat the crap out of Stormfront. “Doing it on the day was amazing,” Fukuhara recalls. “But also seeing it on screen was just so fulfilling because you see the entire season, how [Stormfront’s] being such an a--hole and such a racist. It’s not just me who gets to kick her ass — it’s all of the girls.”

This climactic boss fight required “the most prep,” according to Cash, from rehearsals to conference calls to map out the choreography. Fukuhara notes how Kripke purposefully wanted this battle to be mostly “physical punches” between the characters, which made it “really real and raw.” “A lot of times in superhero shows, it's a lot of magic powers going boom,” she says. “But we're getting in there and we're socking [Stormfront] and kicking her. And it's very aggro.”

Perhaps the truest sense of Stormfront’s arc this season is what happens in the finale’s final moments. After managing to flee the scene of her battle against the other women, our villain has one last punch to throw.

Season 1 revealed that Billy’s wife Becca isn’t actually dead but held in a secret Vought-operated community, where she is allowed to raise her son, Ryan — a supe child conceived when Homelander raped her. Billy has just rescued Becca and Ryan when Stormfront foils their getaway. To protect his mom, Ryan unleashes his inherited but still untrained laser vision, which both inadvertently kills his mother in the crossfire and severs Stormfront’s limbs. Given her near invulnerability, she’s still alive and breathing, even if she is reduced to a torso and head carted off to a hidden Vought facility. Just because the battle is won doesn’t mean the fight against white supremacy is too.

Cash, as it happens, can neither confirm nor deny whether Stormfront might return for season 3. All she’ll say is that when she first took the job, she was contracted for one season. “I think they've left the door open, but I also feel like there's not much left of her,” she teases. “She's not technically dead, but I think you'll just have to see season 3 to find out what happened to her, [or] if she's going to be around at all in her smaller form.”

"She's not dead. She's just a stump," Kripke says with a laugh. "Among the writers and talking with Aya, we're like, 'Well, what is going to happen to Stumpfront?' So we’ll see.”

Blowing up the world

One aspect of Ennis and Robertson’s comics that always intrigued Kripke is how it creates a vast world. It’s why the crew created dozens of posters that appeared on the show for heroes such as Drummer Boy, Silver Kincaid, and Cold Snap, none of whom physically show up in season 2 — Easter eggs for viewers who scrutinize the backgrounds of certain scenes. Now, Kripke is able to expand this universe in ways he didn’t initially consider possible.

Back in January, Kripke sat down with writer Craig Rosenberg (who penned season 2’s whale episode), along with EPs Rogen and Goldberg, to kick around ideas. One in particular came out of that conversation: “The Boys, even though it has superheroes, is a particularly realistic show about society,” Kripke says. “We got really interested in, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could take superheroes and make one of the most realistic college shows that's ever been made?’ ‘Cause they're not made very often.”

Amazon went for it. Now the spin-off, set at a Hunger Games-esque university for young supes run by Vought International, is on the fast track for development with Rosenberg writing and showrunning. Kripke, who’s also executive producing the spin-off with Rogen and Goldberg, promises it’s not some “watered-down version” of The Boys. “It’s its own totally different animal,” he says. “The goal is that the spin-off will definitely be a college show.”

The opportunity also opens the door to make even more series rooted in the world of The Boys. The irony isn’t lost on Kripke that, for all his time mocking the idea of a Vought Cinematic Universe on the show where all members of the Seven have their own movie franchises, he’s now making the VCU a reality. Kripke doesn’t want to “squeeze all the blood out of [the franchise] as quickly as we can,” he says. “If one of the writers or producers comes up with an organically great idea, Amazon is really supportive about us exploring it. But the shows have to be really good. It doesn’t help if it’s cash-grabbing.”

As the second season finishes its weekly run, Kripke is still focused on season 3, even if the pandemic has prevented them from locking in a firm start of production. He’s hopeful for a start early next year.

The writers have already assembled to map out the entire season arc, which will introduce Supernatural star Jensen Ackles as Soldier Boy, dubbed the original superhero. Laura Jean Shannon, the show’s costume designer, created Soldier Boy’s look, Kripke says, as well as “a couple of other suits that we're going to be seeing in season 3.”

Those will belong to members of a new squad: Payback. In the comics, Soldier Boy led his own team of heroes — which included Eagle the Archer, Crimson Countess, and Tek Knight — while trying to vie for a spot in the Seven. “In the world of our show,” Kripke adds, “[Payback] was the Seven before the Seven. We will be exploring the history of that team and all the members in it.”

As you might guess, there’s a relevant reason for looking back to the original age of heroes. If season 2 dealt with America’s current reality of white supremacism and systemic racism, season 3 will explore how the nation got there. “There’s always been systemic racism and conflict and a lot of ugliness, yet always a fight to make things better,” Kripke explains. “Certain politicians like to pitch this somehow idyllic ‘good old days’ where everything was perfect and calm. That is complete and utter bulls---. It was never that way. So, by exploring the history of Vought in the history of America, we get to make some of those points. There was never an America [like] when they say ‘Make America Great Again.’ It was always a struggle. That's the point. It's a struggle to make things better.”

These may not be the kind of superheroes — or show — that we expected to take center stage in an age dominated by Marvel and DC movies. But, at a time when a sitting president won’t condemn white supremacist groups outright, perhaps these are exactly the kind of superheroes we need.

Direction and Photography by Mark Leibowitz. Styling: Sharon Williams/Art Department; On Set Grooming (LA): Su Naeem/Dew Beauty Agency; Prop Styling: Lisa Bazadona; Production: Ruvi Leider.