Ed. note: this essay contains major spoilers for The Boys seasons 1 and 2.
“I’m vengeance,” Robert Pattinson growls in the first trailer for Matt Reeves’ The Batman. It’s a direct reference to the Caped Crusader’s refrain in the opening of the early-1990s Batman: The Animated Series, but it’s also the declaration of a motivation that’s become depressingly ubiquitous in superhero stories.
Batman fights criminals because his parents were shot in an armed robbery. Oliver Queen kicks off The CW’s Arrow by murdering his way through a list of powerful people he believes have failed his city. Nick Fury adds extra pathos to Loki’s killing of S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Phil Coulson so The Avengers will have someone to avenge. The Punisher spends the second season of Netflix’s Daredevil killing everyone responsible for his family’s death. Rather than doing good or helping people, the heroes in these stories are more focused on violently stopping those who have already done wrong.
Garth Ennis’ comic book The Boys falls squarely in this camp, telling the story of a group of vigilantes out to stop the monstrous behavior of the world’s so-called superheroes. They’re led by Billy Butcher, whose motive for vengeance comes from his wife’s death. A particularly grotesque manifestation of the Women in Refrigerators trope, named for a plotline where Green Lantern’s where girlfriend is murdered by a supervillain and stuffed in a fridge, Billy’s wife was raped by the Superman-like hero Homelander, and died when his superpowered fetus tore its way out of her womb.
The version of Billy Butcher played by Karl Urban in Amazon’s adaptation of The Boys explains that motivation in the show’s first season, but he’s wrong about what happened. The season 1 finale reveals that Becca Butcher (Shantel VanSanten) secretly carried the baby to term and has been raising her son Ryan (Cameron Crovetti) in a nurturing but highly controlled environment, meant to keep him from becoming as sociopathic as Homelander (Antony Starr).
That dramatic story change shows how The Boys creator Brian Kripke has built on the source material. While Ennis played at being subversive with his perverse heroes reveling in gratuitous sex and violence, Kripke and his writers have produced a show that’s genuinely subversive in the way it critiques the superhero genre’s big clichés.
Kripke and his writers give Becca agency, rather than just using her as a prop to motivate her husband. When Billy attempts to rescue Becca from the custody of Vought International, the company that creates superheroes, she refuses to go because she doesn’t trust Billy to protect her son. While she loves Billy, she admits she always felt he was just “one bad day away from pounding someone to death in a parking lot.” She went into hiding because she expected that hearing Homelander had raped her would push him over the edge.
“When I found out I was pregnant, I went to Vought,” she eventually tells him. “I didn’t come to you because I was scared, because I knew you’d chase after him and you’d seek revenge, and it wouldn’t be good for anybody.”
Billy is portrayed as a hero in the comics, but in the show, he’s an antihero bordering on villainy. He finds people who have also been hurt by superheroes, and tries to fan the fires of their quest for vengeance until they become just as consumed by it as he is. He’s first introduced recruiting Hughie Campbell (Jack Quaid), a mild-mannered superhero fan and electronics-store employee whose girlfriend was accidentally killed by the speedster A-Train (Jesse T. Usher). When Hughie shows a willingness to move past his grief and start dating the superhero Starlight, Billy does everything he can to undermine their relationship.
Amazon’s The Boys is filled with examples of the terrible toll Billy’s quest for vengeance takes. His co-conspirator Mother’s Milk (Laz Alonso) joined Billy to avenge his father, who died of a heart attack after failing to bring Vought to justice in court. But fighting superheroes endangers M.M.’s wife and daughter, who are pushed into protective custody. Kimiko Miyashiro (Karen Fukuhara) and her brother Kenji Miyashiro (Abraham Lim) were members of an extremist group that subjected them to horrific experiments to give them superpowers. When they’re reunited, Kimiko proposes that they move past the terrible things that were done to them and start a new life together, but Kenji refuses. His predictable thirst for vengeance plays right into the plans of Homelander and Vought by proving superheroes are necessary to fight “Super Terrorists.”
The Boys’ writers also posit that the quest for vengeance actually just provides an excuse for cruel people to act violently. While Billy has dedicated his life to destroying Homelander, the darkness that Becca saw in him originated with his abusive father, Sam (John Noble of Fringe). Sam claims he hurt his children to toughen them up and show them the world was a harsh place, and he actually expresses pride when Billy assaults him.
That’s the opposite of the dynamic Becca has tried to build for Ryan, raising him in an environment calculated to have the gentle perfection of The Truman Show. When Homelander tries to teach his son to use his heat vision, he suggests Ryan thinks of someone he hates, but Ryan finds that emotion nearly alien. Unfortunately, that utopian peace doesn’t last, as Homelander and the Nazi superhero Stormfront seek to use Ryan for their own ends.
Season 2 repeatedly returns to the idea of letting go of past wrongs, as Billy’s mom pushes him to put aside his anger and avoid becoming as cruel as the man who hurt him. The season’s final episodes test his resolution, as he gets the chance to hurt Homelander, if he betrays Becca and Ryan. He makes the right choices, but recognizes that in his bitterness, he’s still capable of betraying people he cares about.
It’s a powerful arc, because it forces Billy to give up something he truly values. Most vengeance arcs center on emotionally stunted men who are willing to die for their myopic quest to hurt the people who hurt them, but can’t actually show the strength required to forgive, change, or grow. Becca points out that she doesn’t want to be an innocent victim for him to avenge with his righteous wrath — she wants to be a partner who helps him to live with his anger and become a better man. She pushes him to honor his love for her through radical forgiveness, protecting Ryan instead of attacking superheroes. Ryan’s powers make him a representative of everything Billy hates and everything he’s has lost, but he does what he can to comfort Ryan and help him grow into a better man than Billy or Homelander.
The Boys’ writers believe in a clear difference between justice and vengeance. While Billy embodies the most brutal, aggressive aspects of modern superhero narratives, Starlight and Hughie find a way to not just fight evil, but to be good. While most of Starlight’s peers are sociopaths, narcissists, or nihilists, she’s the real deal. She and Hughie work to keep each other from despairing in the face of terrible threats, while inspiring others to do the right thing. Their largely nonviolent work to uncover Stormfront’s motives, expose Vought’s secrets, and persuade other heroes to do the right thing produces more results than any of Billy’s gory assaults. “I still want to fight Vought,” Hughie tells Billy toward the end of the season. ”I just want to do it the right way, not covered in quite as many guts.” He doesn’t want vengeance. He wants to be a real hero.
All of season 2 of The Boys is now streaming on Amazon Prime.