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‘The Boys’ peels back its superhero mask to reveal TV’s most political drama

Review by Brian Lowry, CNN

(CNN) — “The Boys” began with an intriguing question for our superhero-infused pop culture – namely, what would happen if extraordinary powers were wedded with corruption, neuroses and corporate greed. Yet that dark, satirical take on the genre has blossomed into TV’s most political drama, a quality even more overtly on display in its much-anticipated fourth season.

Put more simply, don’t let the masks and capes fool you. The fact that the latest episodes drop as the US braces for a presidential campaign only magnifies elements that have existed throughout the show’s run on Amazon’s Prime Video, becoming the service’s signature series, including the spinoffs “Gen V” and “The Boys Presents: Diabolical.”

The fourth season features the usual conflict between superheroes in the uneasy employ of Vought International and those who oppose them. The former cohort begins with the near-invincible, psychopathic Homelander (Antony Starr), whose Superman-like public persona is carefully manicured to hide those qualities, while the latter take their lead from Billy Butcher (Karl Urban), even if they frequently question his methods.

The Butcher-Homelander standoff is complicated by their battle for the soul of the latter’s biological son, Ryan (Cameron Crovetti), which itself encompasses consideration of the question of nature versus nature.

More than any season before it, the new arc leans into the political realm thanks to the involvement of politician Victoria Neuman (Claudia Doumit), and efforts by Vought and Homelander to impact the political debate.

That includes thinly-veiled references to a group clearly intended to represent QAnon, the conspiracy-minded movement, and the use of propaganda tactics to manipulate the public and voters. At one point, the characters attend an event called Truthcon, where a banner that reads “There are no conspiracies – or coincidences” is prominently flown.

The show also reveals the private disdain of those in (and with) power toward their supporters, a point made in a uniquely “The Boys”-esque manner.

To punctuate that, there’s a new hero, Firecracker (Valorie Curry), whose political leanings echo Vought News’ conservative commentators (she even gets her own show). As series creator Eric Kripke told Entertainment Weekly, the character serves as a surrogate for “conspiracy-minded movements and the super extreme right-wing news media.”

Dispensing with subtlety, Kripke and company have surrounded that satire in violence and excess, qualities that feel organic to this world, where the traditional ideal of heroism is used to obscure brutal realities. Although the Deep (Chace Crawford), an Aquaman-like member of the Vought-backed superhero team known as the Seven, is often a semi-pathetic sources of derision, he sums that mentality up when he comes to the realization, as he puts it, “Violence is power.”

Inevitably, the new season involves new, unexpected and uneasy alliances, as well as the thorny (and seemingly perennial) issue of finding ways to neutralize Homelander, which hardly feels like a fair fight.

Having earned its reputation as the most gruesome and kinky show on television, “The Boys” grapples with a certain pressure to fulfill those expectations for the faithful. In its totality, the eight-episode season largely manages to clear that bar (or should one prefer, limbo under it), including a few explosively funny (and not incidentally, grisly) visual gags.

Success has also enabled “The Boys” to play a long game, meaning nobody should expect too much closure from this season when there’s a fifth and final season to come.

From that view, the series might have lost some of its freshness but not its ability to surprise and provoke, peeling back its mask a little further to issue a warning about the danger of brightly colored fascism, a message clearly intended to echo beyond its world and into ours.

“The Boys” begins its fourth season June 13 on Amazon’s Prime Video.

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