At long last, when I sing the praises of Jensen Ackles, I no longer have to direct people to a 15-season saga about two brothers stabbing demons and dating angels. After moving on from his longtime stint as a star of the CW’s “Supernatural,” Jensen Ackles is carving out a new rep for himself as Soldier Boy, the latest twist on superhero culture from “The Boys.” Grittier and much more lethal, Soldier Boy is about as far from Dean Winchester as it gets. For one thing, not once has he worn flannel! More importantly, he’s not half the hero that Dean was — though he’d probably argue otherwise.
In the world of “The Boys,” Soldier Boy was the Vought Corporation’s first attempt at creating a superhuman icon. He’s a clear parody of Captain America, right down to the World War II backstory. The main difference? Soldier Boy is no patriotic war hero — he’s an arrogant, misogynistic bully who’s reckless in battle, and constantly abuses his teammates. Every sentence that leaves his lips is worth a wince — but when you’re not preoccupied with glaring at his face, you’ll find yourself applauding Ackles’ performance.
Warning: this post contains spoilers for “The Boys” season 3, episode 7, “Here Comes A Candle To Light You To Bed.”
Soldier Boy steals the show
It’s never easy to join the ranks of a well-established cast, especially when the character dynamics are such a huge part of what makes the show gel. The begrudging yet loving relationship between Hughie (Jack Quaid) and Butcher (Karl Urban) is often the crux of the series, but the third season dares to throw in a wild card when their latest Supe-killing adventure happens to include Soldier Boy’s presence. The duo also spend a good chunk of this chapter distanced from their usual crew, parting ways with Starlight, Mother’s Milk, Frenchie and Kimiko, who all disapprove of Butcher and Hughie’s Temp V usage.
It should probably be more of an adjustment to see a new team-up, but Jensen Ackles makes crashing their party look easy. Having him along for the ride only makes things more entertaining. Soldier Boy’s crass nature is a hilarious fit for Butcher, and a bit of a shock to Hughie’s sensibilities. At the same time, his heroic reputation brings out the optimist in Hughie — at least for a little bit. By the time the penultimate episode rolls around, Hughie’s heard every offensive term in the book, seen the guy haunted by voices, high as a kite and unnecessarily violent. (Nothing kills a budding partnership quite like shooting a nun!)
As Soldier Boy, Ackles wears his meanness on his sleeve and lumbers around like he thinks he’s John Wayne: he’s exactly what a vintage ’40s superhero would be like if you plopped him into the modern day. He’s even got all the righteous determination and self-assuredness that we’re used to seeing in Steve Rogers-like figures, giving lots of unprompted speeches about being a real hero. But minus the eloquence, truth, or inspirational efficacy.
The truth behind America’s first hero
“I stormed Normandy,” Soldier Boy declared to Hughie, not even batting an eyelash when they lost Butcher to Mindstorm. “I fought the Nazis! You wanna know what I do when I’m sad or scared? F***ing nothing. Because I’m not a f***ing p***y.” Whoa. Not exactly the kind of language you expect from The Hero of Heroes but then again, this is “The Boys.” And when it comes to Soldier Boy, being the original hero also means being Vought’s original lie.
All the nonsense he preaches about being an American icon is just another fantasy crafted by Vought, much like the “heroic Homelander” who was quickly revealed to be the biggest bad of them all. Sure enough, Soldier Boy opens the season by decimating an entire city block then spends the remaining episodes on a warpath for revenge against his former comrades. Contrary to what Hughie wants to believe, Soldier Boy is no hero. Most of the time, he’s not even good at pretending to be one.
Soldier Boy’s true colors
“Every single thing you say is so gross,” Hughie realizes by the end of the season. The vintage Supe doesn’t even realize he’s doing it — he just blabs every politically incorrect thought he’s ever had, like a parody of a senile old man. Yet somehow, Ackles balances the reality of all that Soldier Boy actually is with what he’s meant to be: it’s not difficult to understand why he’s been heralded with statues and worshipped by the masses. He is, to an extent, oddly charming. But anyone who spends a couple extra minutes with him (i.e. Hughie and the audience) will quickly see his mental fragility. Still traumatized by the Russian torture he endured, Soldier Boy has a tendency to completely lose his cool. And, among the many things he has in common with Homelander (DNA included), revels in attention and praise, but can’t handle being insulted or overlooked.
All of this gets us an effectively layered performance from Ackles — swaggering with his shield in one shot, then keeping his lip from quivering in the next. And for his performance, Ackles is getting the reception he deserves: lots of critical praise and a very thirsty fanbase. The actor certainly boasts an impressive resume (“Smallville,” “Days of Our Lives,” “Big Sky”), but spending so many years on a single show means that this is the first time he’s stretched those acting legs in a while.
Jensen Ackles thrives on the dark side
None of this is to say that Ackles didn’t do great work over on “Supernatural” — a show doesn’t last that long if its leads aren’t putting their all into the performance. But 327 episodes is a long time to play a single character. Sure, in its 15-season run, “Supernatural” did take extra care to spice things up and stay interesting; usually this involved digging deep into lore, introducing new characters and kickstarting the apocalypse. Like, multiple apocalypses. But other times, it meant doling out big changes to Sam and Dean — but mostly Sam. In his tenure, Jared Padalecki got to play many versions of Sam Winchester, along with entirely new characters: one season saw Sam going through the motions of life without a soul, another saw him possessed by the devil. Meanwhile, Dean’s transformations were few, far between and much too short-lived.
One season 10 plotline saw Dean’s soul damned by a ritual, tuning him into a demonic version of himself: arrogant, cruel and hedonistic. It was gloriously refreshing, but only lasted three episodes. A couple seasons later, he’s possessed by an archangel and Ackles got to play an entirely new character — not a different version of Dean, but a wrathful, almighty angel. He doesn’t stick around for very long either but this little respite offered a taste of Ackles trying on something new and villainous. In the end, they make great lead-ins to Ackles taking on his most vile and effective role yet. While it’s probably in the best interest of our Supe-killing gang for Soldier Boy to meet a grisly end (hopefully after taking down Homelander), it’s hard not to cross your fingers for another season of Jensen Ackles suiting up to be an absolute menace.