Spoilers for the second season of The Boys follow.
The seventh episode of The Boys’ second season begins with a white man submerged in propaganda. Every screen he comes near has something to shout in his direction. He hears about a plot by sinister illegal immigrants to invade America and reveal themselves as homicidal superterrorists. He surfs the web and spots memes that read: “IMMIGRATE LEGALLY OR DIE.” He listens to talking heads bicker about how the left rushes to judgement. He catches wind of a congresswoman’s demand for an investigation of a powerful superhero company, Vought International.
The cacophony is on an unshakable loop and eventually, the man is pointing a pistol at a brown shop owner’s head. Stormfront, a mysterious new “hero” who quickly reveals herself to be a literal Nazi, is the chief architect of this propaganda. Later at a rally, she tells a crowd full of supporters she does not condone the shop owner’s murder. These are clearly empty words.
Eric Kripke’s Amazon original series, based on Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson’s comic, traffics in disturbing and macabre imagery mined directly from the present. The premise — a brutal, corrupt, racist, self-serving, evil Superhero Industrial Complex — deploys hyperbole and exaggeration to critically appraise our Donald Trump-stained culture and political landscape. Sure, The Boys is also a television program with an abundance of gunplay, exploding heads and superpowered beings who fight each other. But the aforementioned montage is so sober and reflective, you get a strong sense that it informs all of the excess that surrounds it.
For instance: after the FBI foiled a plot against Michigan’s governor, the president’s stance was to blame Governor Whitmer and proclaim that he does not condone violence, even though just days before the kidnapping attempt, he told white supremacists to “stand back and stand by” live on a national debate stage.
While the debut season of The Boys, which aired in 2019, was packed with great satirical commentary on the jingoism, corporate corruption and warmongering tenor of George Bush and Dick Chaney’s eight years in power, the second season feels more immediate, contemporary, and urgent. Consider Stormfront’s (a pitch perfect Aya Cash) origin story: Her husband, Frederick Vought, a decorated Nazi and the founder of Vought International, injected her with a secret drug called Compound V in the 1940’s, making her the world’s first “supe.”
When Stormfront breaks this news to Homelander -- the American flag cape-wearing leader of “The Seven,” a melange of “super abled” people who act on behalf of Vought International’s malevolent capitalist interests -- whom she’s become romantically involved with, she says: “We are in a war for the culture. The other races are grinding us down and taking what is rightfully ours, but we can fight back with an army of supermen millions strong.”
Stormfront is a man in the comics; making her a woman turns the character into a critique of white feminists who claim to stand for social justice, but turn out to be looking after their own interests first. At first glance, Stormfront seems to be a badass liberal woman who just tells it like it is, calling out sexism like the provocative costumes women superheroes wear. But her name is an obvious reference to the notorious neo-Nazi message board, which experienced a resurgence after Trump was elected--and if that doesn’t tip viewers off that she might not be one of the good guys, episode three’s climax, in which she casually reduces dozens of innocent bystanders (including a black family) to collateral damage , then blames the destruction on an immigrant “terrorist,” will.
The introduction of Stormfront is a reminder that Nazis and fascists never left America--they just went into hibernation until the climate was right. Stormfront expresses genocidal fantasies, her uniform is subtly adorned with a Reichsadler belt buckle, and a key aspect of her agenda is giving the police force access to Compound V so law enforcement can operate as an invulnerable wing of white supremacy. She murders Black people in cold blood just for existing and hurles racial epithets when she thinks nobody’s watching. When they are, she dog whistles like she’s training an army for Tucker Carlson’s Westminster Club Dog Show. She creates deep fakes and memes for “your uncle on Facebook.”
In the season’s finale, when she’s finally outed as a Nazi, Stormfront says something that could come from the mouth of any powerful white nationalist: People like what I have to say. They believe in it. They just don’t like the word Nazi, that’s all. Tucker Carlson Tonight, the most watched news program in the country, recently lost its head writer, Blake Neff, after he was exposed as a member of a racist forum, even though the monologues he penned for Carlson took the same tone as his forum posts. David Duke, the most infamous Klansman in the world, doesn’t think he’s a racist. Political candidates who espouse white nationalist views, but don’t explicitly admit to them fare much better than those who do. Stormfront might be on to something.
Congresswoman Victoria Neuman (Claudia Doumit) is another new character who was originally male in the comics. Victor Nueman was a satirical take on a president born with a silver foot in his mouth, but in the television series Victoria has turned into a version of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She purports to be an unstoppable force of good, but in the final minutes of the season finale, it’s revealed that she is yet another murderous supe, responsible for a bevy of mysteriously exploding heads throughout the season. The future of this character is unclear, but the cynical twist is at once surprising and typical of The Boys’ worldview — there is no good in this world, just power. And power corrupts.
The brutality and cynicism of The Boys, and its willingness to depict evil characters with some complexity, are what make it a great work of satire. Without the brutality, The Boys would merely be Hancock — a film about a flawed superhero that’s all bluster and surface level grit. Without the cynicism and deep-seated distrust of institutions, The Boys would merely be Kick-Ass — a film that is little more than children participating in stylized violence. These films are fine, oodles of fun even, but they don’t have anything particularly interesting to say outside of their kitschy premise. Great satire smuggles lessons into entertainment.
Just like Watchmen, The Boys is meant to induce discomfort. It’s vile and disgusting in parts, telegraphing the transgressions and evil of American institutions. The two shows are family — Watchmen is the erudite, tweed jacket-wearing intellectual, while The Boys is the pulpy, dyed-hair anarchist cousin. Damon Lindelof’s series excavated atrocities like the Tulsa Massacre, using it to completely reimagine the superhero origin story through the lens of generational trauma. But Watchmen is ultimately prestige TV, its story beats handled with care, grace and Serious Acting. The Boys is openly nihilist pageantry that revels in the inherent darkness, absurdism and ridiculousness of its premise.
Pulp or polish, the two shows cut to the very core of America and use the fraudulence of the selfless superhero concept as a conduit for their brutal realities. Which is brilliant, because in the real world, there are no such things as superheroes, or villains or even monsters for that matter — just people with power.
Originally Appeared on GQ