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Homelander and Starlight sit on a talk show, pretending to smile at each other for the camera in The Boys season 3. Photo: Amazon Studios

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The Boys isn’t about superheroes, it’s about TV

Can a cinematic universe ever be a good thing?

Joshua Rivera (he/him) is an entertainment and culture journalist specializing in film, TV, and video game criticism, the latest stop in a decade-plus career as a critic.

The superheroes of The Boys are constantly watching TV. That’s because, like in our world, they’re on it: As the self-centered superteam known as The Seven, they’re constantly appearing on talk shows, speaking to reporters about current events, promoting their upcoming movie, or starring in a television show of their own. In season 3 of The Boys, one of the primary media ventures that The Seven are involved in is a reality show called American Hero, a talent competition where superhero hopefuls compete for a spot on the team’s roster.

American Hero is incredibly silly — the glimpses we see of it make it seem like a cross between America’s Got Talent and American Ninja Warrior — and notably has nothing to do with being a superhero. It’s a celebrity audition, one that’s built for a world where being seen as a hero is better than being a hero.

The Boys has been extremely concerned with superheroes as media products from the start, immediately and constantly assaulting the viewer with costumed stars using their image to sponsor products; the only use their corporate overlords have for their superpowers seems to be for off-the-books ops wiping out political enemies at home and abroad. In its third season, however, its self-serving superheroes — namely the nigh-invulnerable Homelander (Antony Starr) — starts to believe TV appearances are the real superpower, much more so than being bulletproof.

Homelander greets American Hero contestant Supersonic in front of Starlight on the set of their show. Photo: Amazon Studios

Homelander’s arc in season 3 directly follows the fallout of season 2, with the monstrous superhuman in check thanks to his teammates Starlight (Erin Moriarty) and Queen Maeve (Dominique McElligott) blackmailing him with footage of him leaving a plane full of innocents to die, and the very public revelation of his girlfriend/partner Stormfront (Aya Cash) as an avowed Nazi. Relenting to private and public pressure, Homelander is subdued, a good corporate stooge for his handlers in the Vought Corporation. Whenever he wants to step outside of those bounds he’s reminded that America’s superhuman sweetheart, Starlight, is the teammate that brings the most ratings, and therefore holds the most power.

The season turns on a moment in the premiere when, on live television, Homelander decides he’s fed up with it all. He goes on an unapologetic rant, saying that, despite the countless quotes he’s given about his indiscretion with Stormfront, he’s not sorry at all. Then the funniest thing happens: His ratings go up.

The Boys has always been an unabashedly political show, but it’s at this moment where it draws the most open and obvious parallels to real-world politics. From this moment on, Homelander’s season 3 arc strongly echoes Donald Trump’s political career, as the insecure and narcissistic antagonist continually tests the limits of what will be tolerated on air, and is continually delighted to find that no one ever pushes back. If the horror these men inflict on those around them stems from a deep-seated and constant hunger for validation, then they have found it, The Boys argues (as have media critics covering the former President), in the fickle yet adoring god of TV ratings, which, absent any safeguards, will always thrill to new lows.

The Deep talks to a news anchor about his book on cable news in Season 3 of The Boys. Photo: Amazon Studios

This then spills into American Hero, which Homelander eventually uses to his own ends: In addition to selecting a winner from the contestants (that winner already being filtered through PR, as a Muslim hero is shut out), Homelander uses the show to reinstate his former teammate The Deep (Chace Crawford) back on the team after he was exiled in season 1 for his sexual assault of Starlight. This, of course, follows an entire redemption tour The Deep has embarked on, with a book and Lifetime original movie being made about his journey, a careful and calculated rehabilitation spearheaded by his wife, Cassandra (Katy Breier), who is ultimately interested in becoming a media power player herself.

While season 3 of The Boys is still the violent satire it’s always been, it’s remarkable how much of it is also concerned with making television. There’s irony to that — the season starts with a film premiere — but among this season’s core convictions is in the idea, vital to the right-wing ideologues it satirizes, that real power is in the ability to shape reality regardless of facts. And what better way to assert a new reality than to repeat it on television, over and over again?

In this, a background theme of the show moves to the forefront, as superhuman idols — we’re reminded several times that people still love Homelander and the Seven, lest we think too many share the views of our hero-hunting protagonists led by Billy Butcher (Karl Urban) — are out doing less than before, but taking great care to shape their public narratives.

Billy Butcher stands in the wreckage of a house, ready to rumble in The Boys season 3. Photo: Amazon Studios

Superhero comics are often called modern folklore, a 20th-century art form that comes closest to the mythology of our ancestors. This idea, though seductive, can’t withstand any real scrutiny. Superheroes are — in the real world as well as in The Boys — products carefully safeguarded and monetized by corporations, created via exploited writers and artists to phenomenal profits. Does this public perception of superheroes — as powerful symbols to root for, to see ourselves reflected in, to willingly chronicle entire fictional universes for — outweigh the fact that they are just maintained in the interest of perpetually buttressing corporate profits?

Fuck no, says The Boys, a show that is streamed on Amazon Prime, where you can also stream an animated spinoff called The Boys: Diabolical, and someday soon, another spinoff about younger, college-aged superheroes in this world. Maybe they’ll do a reality show next.