WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for The Boys Season 1, streaming now on Amazon Prime Video.
With the superhero trend in television and movies showing no sign of slowing down, there's a flow of constant caped content competing for our attention. While the bar for quality rises higher with each passing year, there's a growing concern the subgenre will start to feel played out or redundant. However, Amazon's The Boys proves there are still plenty of tricks up the superhero sleeve.
Based on the comic series by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson, the show inverts the expectations of superhero fiction, portraying their heroic status as existing solely in the public eye and the cult of personality that surrounds them. In reality, the superheroes of The Boys are selfish, petty, indulgent monsters who will smile for the camera while plotting the death of the cameraman. No character on the series embodies those qualities more than than primary antagonist Homelander, helping him to emerge as, quite possibly, Hollywood's greatest supervillain.
The Homelander in the comic book source material is typical of much of Ennis' work: He's hyper-violent, sexually deviant and as purposefully demented as possible. Ennis was, after all, part of the later "British Invasion" of comic writers who sought to complicate and darken the archetype of the superhero.
In its adaptation, however, Amazon elevated the source material into something more human and interesting. The comics and the show share a scene early on in which series heroine Starlight eagerly joins the ranks of the superhero team The Seven, only to be sexually assaulted by her teammates shortly after her initiation. While the comics involve half the team in the sexual assault, with Homelander as their ringleader, the show confines the horrific act solely to the character The Deep.
Quite the contrary, the Homelander of the show is said to be one of the only superheroes who keeps his nose clean of vice and indulgence. Rather than painting all of the evil characters of the cast with the broad brush of "rapist-murderer anarchist," the portrayal of Homelander gains dimension and intrigue. While there is a clear air of menace around the character in early episodes, his backstory develops throughout the first season.
Early on, it even seems the Homelander is genuine in his desire to protect and serve his country. While the rest of the team is portrayed as perverts who invisibly hide in bathrooms or rapists who use their status as a coercive bargaining chip, the Homelander interrupts a meeting squabbling over pay rates and percentage points. He wants to talk about who The Seven saved lately, instead, and the camera lingers on Starlight's silent appreciation of his focus.
His facade of morality makes the character no less menacing early on, however. It's clear the Homelander is committed to the preservation of the team, and when The Seven member Translucent goes missing (kidnapped by the titular Boys), it's the Homelander who leads the search to find him. As he sweeps the city at super-sonic speeds and scans its every inch with his enhanced senses, the series protagonists are scared out of their minds at the possibility that the Homelander will discover their plot.
As the season wears on, the cause of their fear becomes clearer to the audience. Homelander shows a complete indifference toward the lives he takes, more annoyed by a man he kills bloodying his glove than anything, and the insincerity of his public persona increases the more the viewer sees his smiles drop when the cameras turn off. Before long, it's perfectly clear he knows of his teammates' atrocities and is utterly indifferent toward them. As the plot wears on, the Homelander develops a desire of his own to seize power over the corporation controlling The Seven and, by extension, the entirety of the United States they protect.
At the same time, at no point does the Homelander descend into a cackling, cartoonish villain. Far from it, his primary obsession throughout the season is his boss Madelyn Stillwell, a powerful executive managing The Seven's exploits and public image who tries to balance her professional life with the responsibilities of caring for her newborn. The Homelander uses his X-ray vision to watch Madelyn through the walls, his obsession consuming him in his every unoccupied moment.
His relationship with Madelyn is itself complicated, and his jealousy over her child is not as simple as being an egoist who dislikes attention directed at anything other than himself. More than that, the source of his envy reveals itself to not just be Madelyn's attention toward her child, but her caring for the baby maternally in particular. Madelyn knows exactly what it is Homelander wants, and in the course of manipulating him she invites him to lay his head in her lap and suck his thumb in order to placate the tantrum he throws.
The true masterstroke with the character is that Homelander's desire for maternal affection does not fall into the trap of trying to make a sociopath sympathetic. His scenes with Madelyn come across as creepy while also striking the balance of humanizing and complicating his villainy without condoning it. That balancing act is the one Hollywood supervillains fail at all too often. Antagonists like Thanos or Magneto are complicated villains portrayed sympathetically, to be sure, but in the injection of sympathy dilutes the sinister quality that makes for a transcendent villain.
While the viewer can understand intellectually why a boy raised in the isolation of a lab would grow up to be a sociopath hungry for affection, the portrayal of Homelander never really asks the audience to empathize with him. He is not an ignored genius who watched his planet die out because he didn't take action, and he is not a crying boy watching his mother taken away at Auschwitz. He is a creepy, menacing, but multifaceted character masterfully played by Antony Starr in a performance that juggles his many disparate qualities without dropping the ball once.
The Boys stars Karl Urban as Billy Butcher, Jack Quaid as Hughie, Laz Alonso as Mother's Milk, Tomer Kapon as Frenchie, Karen Fukuhara as the Female, Erin Moriarty as Annie January, Chace Crawford as the Deep, Antony Starr as Homelander and Simon Pegg as Hughie's dad.