NOTE: This article includes spoilers for “Herogasm,” the sixth episode of The Boys.
“Herogasm,” the sixth episode of The Boys’ third season, leaves you with a lot to process. And yet, what stands out the most from the debauched carnage is Antony Starr’s performance as the evil superhero Homelander.
It’s easy to get a character like Homelander wrong. As the Superman stand-in for Amazon’s brutally superhero satire, he could be played in broad strokes. He could be a mustache-twirling villain, chewing up the chaos he allows and creates and spitting it out with cartoonish vigor. He could also be an instrument of pure evil, destroying the “good guys” with disturbingly cold efficiency. Neither approach says anything compelling about Homelander or his world. It might be fun to watch for a moment, but what does it leave behind?
This season, Homelander has gained insane amounts of power in his march towards outright demagoguery. He’s a demigod with a laughably small set of checks and balances. He is an enormous threat, one that Butcher (Karl Urban) and Hughie (Jack Quaid) have gone to extraordinary lengths to stop.
However, at the core of Homelander’s villainy is a toxic mix of deep insecurity and the inability to reconcile his tiny flickers of humanity and emotional vulnerability, which he critically perceives as weakness. Homelander is buried beneath unbelievable psychological pressures, pretending to be a hero when he’s a monster. There are no reasonable, healthy ways that he can cope. He also can wipe out a crowd of protestors with his heat vision if he wants to. Homelander is teetering on the edge of oblivion and has the means to bring the world down with him.
“Herogasm” fully realizes Homelander’s volatile inner turmoil and the sympathy and horror it evokes. Homelander spends much of the episode in a daze, haunted by the looming threat of Soldier Boy’s (Jensen Ackles) return. When The Deep (Chace Crawford) tells him about Noir’s escape from Vought, Homelander is almost meek in his disbelief and despondence. He is still undeniably powerful but doesn’t have the control he should. Starr beautifully carries that vulnerable misery, letting it rest uneasily on his face because he knows the people around him won’t see it anyway.
When Homelander’s alone, the whispers of pretense fall away. Alone in his room, Homelander chats with his reflection in the mirror. In that reflection is the Homelander he wants to be, the viciously carefree superhuman with the persistent smirk. Mirror conversations depicting mental illness or dissociative disorders are a standard Hollywood device. Here, The Boys deliberately references 2002’s Spider-Man, where the spirit of the Green Goblin terrorizes Willem Dafoe’s Norman Osborn. The scene strongly suggests that Homelander suffers from a mental health disorder.
The two Homelanders in that scene are unsettlingly distinct. Mirror Homelander is the same arrogant, and obnoxious sociopath audiences have loathed for three seasons. Real Homelander, meanwhile, is tentative, scared, and tearful as he admits his desire to be loved. Besides their looks, the only trait the two personalities share is a palpable sense of loathing. Mirror Homelander may comfort Real Homelander as he grapples with his fears of fighting Soldier Boy and running Vought, but you feel how much he resents having to do so.
While “Herogasm’s” editing and direction drive the point home, Starr is in arresting command of his shattered character. He perfectly modulates Homelander’s two separate identities without a single slip or misstep. He embraces Homelander’s emotional and mental weakness to powerful effect, building empathy for him at the moment. However, Starr doesn’t let Homelander’s monstrosity go unchecked. In fact, he carefully threads the needle that tracks how Homelander ended up this way and why his instability is a disaster in the making.
Only an exceptional performance could pull focus from the sexed-up superheroes and gallons of spilled blood that defined the rest of “Herogasm.” Antony Starr has always been fun to watch, but his performances this season and in this particular episode are on another level entirely. He devastates, terrifies, and disturbs in equal measure, even in one scene. He is riveting, delivering not only one of the best performances in genre television but all of television this year.