The Boys: Virtue and Community

When the Garden of Eden is discussed in present-day Christianity, the debates often revolve around the treatment of marriage in Genesis 1-3. However, on a far more fundamental level Genesis describes how we are to relate to one another in community as we observe the characters of Adam and Eve. 

After all, in Genesis 2, the Lord God declares that “it is not good for man to be alone,” so He sets about remedying the problem by finding a helper suited for Adam. Long before marriage and sexuality are brought into the story, Genesis declares a fundamental truth: humans are made to be in relation to one another. We crave community and desire communion with one another. One of the hard realizations (seen through the crisis of loneliness and backlash to governmental lockdowns) of the Covid-19 global pandemic was the fact that human beings do not easily adapt to solitude, confinement, and isolation. 

This idea is just one of the reasons why I find this season of Amazon’s The Boys so fascinating. Season 3 marks the darkest turn for the show in what is already a dark (yet at times darkly comic) television series. Season 3 looks to test each one of our main characters by pushing them to their limits and stripping them of some of the sense of security that had surrounded the main characters. 

For those unaware, The Boys is a darkly comic satire that revolves around several characters who have all been slighted or victimized in some way by the self-centered super-powered celebrities in this universe. The series revolves around each member of “the boys” and their quest for personal revenge and retribution in response to crimes committed by these so-called heroes. 

Annie (known by her superhero moniker Starlight, the one somewhat traditional hero in this universe) and Hughie find themselves apart and on separate adventures for most of the season. MM, Frenchie, and Billy Butcher similarly find their fellowship broken apart. A well-known character like Kimiko has lost her powers so that we can see who she really is at heart. 

One of the arcs that is of particular interest in terms of the theme of community is that of Hughie and Butcher. At the start of Season 3 life is seemingly on the up and up for Hughie. His relationship is going well, the new job that he has started seems to be fulfilling, and there is apparently real progress being made in keeping super-powered people accountable. Butcher on the other hand finds himself on the down and out. While he is technically achieving success by operating within the lines of what’s legal, the viewer can easily tell that he is personally unfulfilled. He misses the (as Homelander puts it) “blood and bone, scorched earth” approach to dealing with superheroes. There’s the sense that he can’t get his hands dirty anymore and, as a result, this has placed him in isolation compared to the rest of “the boys.”

Born out of isolation and his longing for the days of being forceful in his pursuit of revenge against supes, Billy Butcher turns to the McGuffin for Season 3’s conflict, which is temporary compound V or “temp V.” The Temp V grants non-super people abilities but only for 24 hours. The V is used intravenously so the series invites us to see Temp V as a metaphor for drug usage and dependency. 

The show intends us to see Butcher’s further step toward anti-hero status in conjunction with his separation from his family (Butcher cuts off his mentor relationship with his wife’s son Ryan at one point during the season) and community as well as reliance on self in response to the rejection he feels as a result of the changing tactics of Hughie, MM, Frenchie, and Kimiko. Isolation and lack of communal fellowship grants Butcher the time alone that he requires to be tempted and to succumb to the allure of Temp V. All that he required was the nudge of being alone with his own thoughts in order to take matters into his own hands, inject the Temp V, and step onto the level of power that characters like Homelander require.

Christians understand the power of community. Christianity focuses on the gathering of saints so that individual believers are not left alone in their fight against their passions and desires. St. Augustine said that the problem with desire is not desire itself, but rather that we desire wrongly. Specifically Augustine says, “Simply by making us wait he increases our desire, which in turn enlarges the capacity of our soul, making it able to receive what is to be given to us.”

How is the Christian to be trained in orienting desire toward God? Traditionally, Christians have said that this comes through three cardinal virtues: faith, hope, and charity. Some of these come as a gift and yet others are exercised through acts of the will under guidance of leaders in the Church and other followers of the faith. The community, absent these virtues, can actually help to cultivate vice in the person’s heart rather than virtue. 

Enter Hughie Campbell. Hughie Campbell also feels powerless to save his girlfriend Annie and, in a confession to Annie, admits that it does bother him a little, sometimes. After the revelation that his boss, Congresswoman Victoria Newman, is also a supe who is manipulating public opinion concerning Vought International for her own gain, Hughie decides to turn to Butcher’s methods finally deciding to indulge in Temp V in order to gain superpowers for short periods of time. Here, Billy Butcher and Hughie are in communion, but it is fellowship and community that is detached from any kind of virtue.

The hope for our characters, Hughie in particular and Billy Butcher by extension, comes in the form of Annie. Her Starlight moniker is apt given Judaism and Christianity’s focus on guiding stars that point in the direction of the divine.  Annie continually pushes Hughie away from Butcher’s methods and towards her own, which do operate outside the traditional lines of justice, yet are importantly guided by a moral and ethical code. Eventually, it is Annie who discovers that Temporary V comes with deadly side effects after 3-5 uses and works to intervene to save Hughie from his addiction to being superpowered. 

It’s interesting to note that Annie is the most traditionally heroic character in The Boys. She functions as the show’s moral compass in many ways and is one of the few superheroes who is focused on saving people rather than hedonistic exercises in self-indulgence. I think the show, perhaps unintentionally, echoes the theme of female intercessors and paragons of virtue present in Christian theology and history. Mary is, after all, one of the central figures of the faith and she is seen interceding on behalf of guests at a wedding who are in need of new wine. The Church itself is often referred to in feminine terms and it is chiefly known in its intercession on behalf of the world. In Dante’s Divine Comedy, the chief work of Christian poetry and fiction, it is a female figure, Beatrice, who intercedes on Dante’s behalf and sets him on his path toward paradise and his encounter with God.

All of this is to say that, amidst the gore, nudity, and grotesque humor of The Boys, there are occasional glimpses of themes quite familiar to Christians. Christians recognize the value of community, as does The Boys. The Church confesses the need for virtue in the midst of this community, something disastrously absent from The Boys in Season 3. And Christianity values the lives of the female saints and heroes who intercede in order to guide others in their wrestling with God. Through the character of Annie, the viewer is able to once again be guided by the starlight of virtue as she works alongside our titular “boys.”

Content Warning: The Boys is an extremely graphic satire of American politics, religion, and the superhero genre of film and TV. Viewer discretion is both advised and encouraged when handling sensitive subject matter.