The Boys, season 4, review: outrageous superhero satire shows signs of outgrowing its Spandex

Antony Starr as Homelander and Cameron Crovetti as Ryan in season four of Amazon Prime Video's The Boys
Bad dad: Antony Starr as tainted superhero Homelander and Cameron Crovetti as his son, Ryan - Amazon/Jasper Savage

Early in the latest season of superhero satire The Boys (Prime Video), it is revealed that Homelander, the show’s sociopathic answer to Superman, is suffering the ravages of ageing. Greying hair, a midlife crisis – this psycho-in-Spandex (a grippingly unsettling Antony Starr) is struggling to hold it together. The same might be said for The Boys itself, which arrived with a thunderclap on Amazon Prime Video in 2019 when caped crusaders were ripe for parodying.

Five years on, is there any fun left to poke? Everyone is fed up with Marvel movies – including many of the actors who star in them. Setting aside Ryan Reynolds’s giggle-a-minute Deadpool & Wolverine, the summer of 2024 will be the first in living memory in which the box office is untroubled by heroes in world-saving jumpsuits.

In these changed times, The Boys must learn to fly on its own – and series four suggests it is starting to lose altitude. As before, its calling card is a provocatively jokey mix of ultra-violence and sexual depravity – one memorable early set-piece winks towards notorious B-movie The Human Centipede (if you don’t know, don’t Google). But the formula is starting to feel played out (not even the occasional hush-hush celebrity cameo can spruce things up). If you are drawn to the gore, you’ll have seen it all already. If you find it repellent, you will have long since given the boot to The Boys.

As the action begins, American democracy is threatened by incoming Vice President Victoria Neuman (Claudia Doumit), who is secretly a “supe” (as these maniacal superheroes are known) who can cause heads to explode at a distance. The outlook is grim. It becomes even grimmer when you realise the only people standing in her way are The Boys – a rag-tag of freaks and outcasts who have made it their mission to take down the supes and their corporate backer, the evil Vought International conglomerate.

The Boys are led by the sweary Billy Butcher (Karl Urban, still doing battle with an ear-bleeding “Cockney” accent) and the earnest Hughie (Jack Quaid), along with Hughie’s superhero ex-girlfriend Starlight (Erin Moriarty). Urban is enjoyably larger than life but, as ever, it’s much more fun hanging out with the degenerate supes: the insane Homelander and hangers-on, such as pathetic Aquaman parody The Deep (who has acquired an octopus lover) and Black Noir, a Batman-like martial-arts expert.

The show is also not afraid to take on American politics. The previous season ended with the alt-right Homelander zapping a protester on live television with his laser eyes to cheers from his MAGA-like supporters. In a (presumably intentional) echo of Donald Trump’s recent legal headaches, the new series begins with the stained Superman stand-in going on trial.

He’s also recruited two new supes to his Avengers-like team, The Seven  – right-wing conspiracy theorist Firecracker (Valorie Curry) and Sister Sage (Susan Heyward), whose superpower is her blockbusting IQ. There’s a lot going on (another subplot involves Homelander attempting to train up his reluctant son as a supe). Alas, the multitude of storylines fail to cohere in a satisfying way.

Until this year’s Fallout video game adaptation, The Boys was Prime Video’s biggest hit. The original plan was that it would run for just five years. However, showrunner Eric Kripke recently said it was “ridiculous” to artificially limit its lifespan. Does that mean The Boys might continue indefinitely? Hopefully not. In 2019, it was the superhero satire the world needed. In 2024, with its work done, The Boys might be best served by fastening its cape and soaring into the sunset.

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