Spoilers follow for seasons one and two of The Boys and the comic book series by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson.
The Boys are not effective. Billy Butcher is deviously charming, Frenchie is adorably cavalier, Mother’s Milk is appreciably stalwart, Kimiko is delightfully laconic, and Hughie is sympathetically idealistic. In Eric Kripke’s adaptation of Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson’s graphic novels, they’ve embodied how loss, grief, and trauma can transform into rage toward and resentment of a system that prioritizes the exemplary few over the ordinary many. But as foes to the former in defense of the latter? They are consistently useless, and there is only one solution that can remediate this sluggish storytelling: The Boys series needs to take a page out of its source material, and Butcher et al. need to inject Compound V in the recently ordered season three.
Conceived by Ennis as a response to the George W. Bush presidency and the War On Terror, The Boys graphic novels are most persistently a critique of the slippery merging of America’s military and corporate interests—of the rah-rah patriotism and casual xenophobia that so gripped the United States after the September 11, 2001 attacks, and continues to this day. Ennis’ reliance on rape, homophobic language, and overly sexualized female characters (CIA director Susan Rayner is introduced in a scene of hate-filled sex with Butcher; Annie’s group-rape initiation into the Seven is revolting) has been decried by detractors as the tactics of a schlocky edgelord. To be fair, there is a lot of that stuff. Hughie adopts a gerbil that crawls out of a dead superhero’s ass. Some of the Boys’ blackmail includes threatening to out supes. The series’ stand-in for Batman, Tek Knight, becomes an uncontrollable sex addict, taking out his urges on everything from a hot cup of coffee to his unwilling butler’s ear.
It’s a lot, but to dismiss The Boys on that basis would be to miss how clear Ennis and Robertson are in their argument that superpowers are inherently corrupting, that superheroes are ultimately fascist, and that we’re all in danger from the kind of consolidated force that they represent. Those supreme beings who are meant to care for us? They probably don’t. As Butcher says in the first issue, “The Name Of The Game, Part One:”
‘Superpower’s the most dangerous power on Earth, there’s more an’ more of ’em all the time, an’ sooner or later they’re gonna wise up. If you can dodge bullets or outrun tachyons or swim across the sun, you’ve better things to do with your life than save the world for the two hundredth fuckin’ time. One day, you might twig what you’re really invulnerable to is your humanity. An’ then God help us all.’
The only way to fight figures like this, The Boys asserts from the very beginning of its print run, is to use their own weapons against them—and that means boosting up with Compound V. When we meet the Boys, they’ve all already injected themselves (with the exception of MM, who was born with mutated genes because of Vought’s amoral testing of the compound on its factory workers, including MM’s mother, and the Female/Kimiko, who fell into Compound V waste as a baby and subsequently developed powers). By the fourth issue, “Cherry, Part Two,” the CIA has provided Compound V to Butcher and his team so they can keep an eye on superheroes, and Butcher injects Hughie with it as soon as he joins their ranks. Without Compound V, how else could the Boys hold their own (“Can’t operate without it,” Butcher says to Hughie), or make any headway in tamping down the superheroes’ worst impulses and behaviors? The Boys wastes no time in either presenting how the practical invincibility of superheroes opens the door to their depravity, or arguing that the only way to take a stand is to use the weapons of the enemy against them.
As The Boys’ print run progresses, Butcher’s zealousness also grows. Described by the CIA as the “possibly single most dangerous individual ever encountered by this agency,” Butcher has more than a little bit in common with Rorschach from Watchmen in terms of murky moral positions presented compellingly. Under his leadership, the team’s antics are never boring. Hughie, upon taking Compound V for the first time, accidentally kills a supe by punching through him. Butcher is powerful enough to warp a gun with his hands. There are countless missions, some of them international (including one to Russia that is alluded to with all the head explosions in the second season of the show). Butcher states that there are 200,000 supes of all ages, some of whom are organized into various teams (not just Vought’s Seven) for the Boys to fight, and there are physical brawls, blackmail scenarios, and the omnipresence of U.S. propaganda regarding terrorism. And the Boys mostly stick together: They are committed to their anti-superhero ideology, and they are willing to—and often do—kill in support of it.
The Boys TV series, though, has eased quite slowly into much of this; at this point, it’s taken two seasons to reach where the comic series starts off, with the Boys operating under a presidential directive to fight supes. On the one hand, that has allowed the show to replace or entirely slough off many of the source material’s problematic elements: Annie is a fully rounded character; Homelander’s narcissism has more depth; and there aren’t Game Of Thrones-levels of rape in each episode. On the other, The Boys as a show seems primarily interested in considering superhero obsession as a capitalist sales strategy and marketing tool. Fandom as identity has been handled well—the cold open in “Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker” was particularly horrifying in its depiction of right-wing radicalization, as inspired by Stormfront—but that has left little room for the show to also incorporate the source material’s larger questions about the drastic measures needed to embolden individual resistance. And because, save for Kimiko, the Boys in the series are still resolutely human, their inability to fight back against supes has made for increasingly nonsensical choices from these characters.
Part of the issue is that the series, unlike the comic books, has built out only the Seven as the Boys’ foes. There are no other superhero teams, like the Teenage Kix or the Young Americans, to investigate or target, and the show has instead pivoted into exploring Vought’s shady history. The result is that the second season of The Boys fell into a recognizable pattern: Butcher and the team would plan an attack against a supe, be shocked by failure of said plan, get saved by a good supe (most often Annie), and then fail to adapt in response to persistent incompetence. That set-up made for repetitive, increasingly unsatisfying storytelling. On an episodic basis, The Boys entertained: “Over The Hill With The Swords Of A Thousand Men” was one of the season’s best for Aya Cash’s performance as the villainous Stormfront, and for how the show revealed her true Nazi motivations. “We Gotta Go Now” fully committed to the series’ satirical spin, mercilessly mocking both the Marvel and DC Cinematic Universes. Looking back on the season overall, though, it’s difficult to identify what the Boys actually accomplished.
The last time the Boys actually did anything against a supe was in season one: Butcher was able to hold his own against Translucent with Hughie’s help, and their eventual killing of Translucent required some ingenious thinking into how to penetrate his skin. But they don’t seem to have been nearly that successful since. Instead, the Boys keep relying on guns, missiles, and other weapons that for the most part are easily repelled by the supes. Black Noir, who has superpowers, only stops himself from killing Butcher during their fight at Butcher’s Aunt Judy’s house because Stan Edgar calls. Kimiko is the only member of the Boys able to engage with Stormfront, because she has superpowers. Lamplighter sacrifices himself to free Annie from Vought Tower, because he has superpowers. Frenchie is successful with his superhero-specific frequency in the finale “What I Know” (a nod to one of Butcher’s plans from the comics), but the Boys fail to act on that blow against Homelander, who manages to kick their asses because he has superpowers. Annie and Queen Maeve join Kimiko to beat up Stormfront in that same episode’s twist on vacuous “girls get it done” messaging because they have superpowers. Collaboration is great, but the frequency with which the Boys are rendered inept might make you wonder what threat they really pose.
Kripke has confirmed that the third season of The Boys, which will include Jensen Ackles as comic book character Soldier Boy, is currently being written. But in interviews about the recently concluded season two, Kripke hasn’t elaborated much on whether viewers should expect the Boys to incorporate Compound V into their arsenal. When the show’s first season wrapped in July 2019, Kripke told Entertainment Weekly, “I always say the only magic that you’re allowed in the show is this vaccine called Compound V and it happens to give people unpredictable superheroes, and that’s all you get... Anything that comes out of this drug is viable, and anything that doesn’t we’re not allowed to do, and that’s a good way to maintain a certain amount of discipline.”
In hindsight, that comment seems to allude to the Sage Grove subplot of season two, which cemented that Vought is using Compound V not just on babies, but also on adults—to some success, as with the escaped Cindy. Does that revelation open the door for the Boys’ future use of Compound V? Potentially. And to be fair, perhaps Kripke and The Boys’ writers room has avoided the Compound V development because it compromises the characters who are meant to be the show’s heroes. But that argument doesn’t hold much weight when you consider all the other stuff the Boys have already done to try and bring down Vought and Homelander, most of which has already been explained away by an “ends justify the means” ideology. The aforementioned kidnapping and killing of Translucent; Butcher using a laser-eyed baby as a weapon; their awareness of A-Train’s killing of his girlfriend, Popclaw, who was working for them as an informant; the Boys eviscerating a whale by driving a speedboat through it; Butcher trying to convince his surprisingly still-alive wife, Becca, to leave her superpowered son, Ryan, for him and then trying to cut a deal with Vought’s Stan Edgar to allow for this scenario; and, of course, their indiscriminate killing of whoever is on their tail, whether they’re Vought operatives or police officers.
The initial twist of The Boys was that the best of us are actually the worst of us, and that our idea of heroism has been shaped by decades of complicit comic books and pro-military propaganda that encourages romanticized, worshipful awe of crushing power. Kripke’s series has mastered the first part of this, portraying supes like Homelander and Stormfront as all the bad -ist words (racist, sexist) as well as selfish, deceitful, and power-hungry. But The Boys now needs to take its central argument one step further and commit to the idea that the Boys, as adversaries of the likes of Homelander, must rise to the standard set by the supes in order to seriously oppose them. Narrative balance comes from equity between heroes and villains, and by the ability each has to strike against the other; stories need that equilibrium to help us decide who we’re going to root for or against. In The Boys comic books, Compound V is that equalizer—it is what allows the Boys to truly inspire fear in the supes they’re watching, hunting, and punishing—and that development provides an additional layer of moral complexity. What do you lose when you transform yourself into a version of your enemy? As Hughie asks Butcher in the comic book issue “The Name Of The Game, Part Two,” “They’ve got superpowers. I mean, how are you gonna make any impression on them?” Two seasons in, The Boys series has yet to fully answer that question—and it needs the Boys to inject Compound V to do so.