This week, social media was abuzz over photos of Jensen Ackles, which is ordinary: Ackles is a frequent trending topic on Twitter, where you’ll find dozens of accounts dedicated solely to sharing pics, updates, and barely concealed lust for the Richardson-bred actor.
But these new photos of the former Supernatural star, clad in his Soldier Boy costume from the upcoming season of Amazon’s The Boys, were more than just the usual eye candy, desperately tossed out to stop those same accounts from badgering its showrunner. Along with the recent trailer for the animated movie Batman: The Long Halloween, Part One, for which Ackles voices the Dark Knight, we’re witnessing the culmination of Ackles’s career-long quest to be a superhero. After several near-misses with some of the most iconic names in comicdom, this year he’s finally getting his wish.
Of course, when it comes to The Boys, “superhero” comes with an asterisk. In the show’s warped spin on comics tropes, superpowers are just the prism used to expose the more insidious forces behind our hero mythologies, like capitalism, jingoism, and white supremacy. Soldier Boy’s comic-book incarnation is a parody of Marvel’s Captain America, a shield-swinging super-soldier who boasts a similar reputation for Nazi-punching. But Soldier Boy’s corny, apple-pie patriotism masks his utter cowardice and—as with many characters on The Boys—a blithe, self-serving attitude toward genocide.
The Amazon version of Soldier Boy is more menacing, less bumbling. Ackles teased his role with a photo of a battle-scarred shield and the caption “Every dent, every scratch, every mark tells a story. A story that ends with me, winning.” Ackles’s Soldier Boy is less of a joke, but the satirical subtext remains the same. He’s a means for the show to explore the dark history of American exceptionalism, through a character whose bravado feels cobbled together from various masculine ideals.
As costume designer Laura Jean Shannon puts it, “Soldier Boy is the original badass. … We knew that the actor had to have Steve McQueen looks and chops with a John Wayne attitude, luckily Jensen Ackles embodies all of that.”
The Boys isn’t the first production to see a bit of Captain America in Ackles. According to IndieWire, Ackles was once in the running to play Cap himself, before Marvel set its sights on Chris Evans. Ackles reportedly so impressed producers that they offered him the role of Hawkeye instead. But Ackles turned it down, citing his commitments to Supernatural—commitments, it must be noted, that somehow wouldn’t have conflicted with playing Captain America. It seems just as likely that Ackles saw bigger things for himself than settling for some second-stringer (no offense intended to Jeremy Renner).
Ackles was also in the running to play Guardians of the Galaxy‘s Star-Lord. Meanwhile, fans have lobbied for him to play everyone from Deadpool to Iron Man to Nick Fury (regardless of whether those roles were, you know, occupied).
Ackles’s superhero ambitions were apparent early on, in 2001, when he went out for Superman—or Clark Kent, anyway, whom he auditioned to play on the CW’s Smallville. As Ackles later explained in an interview, it came down to him and Tom Welling before Ackles lost out, although he was given the consolation prize of getting to play a major villain in the show’s fourth season. Ackles conceded that Smallville was right to go with Welling, because “he looks more the part than I do.” Still, that didn’t stop Ackles from auditioning for Superman again, this time for a Brett Ratner–directed, J.J. Abrams–penned film that fell apart at around the same time.
Until recently, the closest Ackles has come to actually appearing in a comic-book movie was voicing Red Hood in 2010’s Batman: Under the Red Hood. Yet throughout his career there’s been a not-so-tacit consensus between audience and actor that Ackles was simply born to play a superhero. Ackles, for his part, has played along. He inflames rumors by donning Captain America and Cyclops costumes at fan conventions. For Halloween, he’s commissioned professionally designed Batman and Red Hood suits, just to rile up Instagram.
That Ackles is now getting his shot at living out his superhero dreams seems, on its face, sort of overdue. Supernatural finally wrapped its fifteen-season run last fall, freeing both Ackles and San Antonio’s Jared Padalecki. Thanks to that show, Ackles boasts an unusually obsessive fan base—surely an asset within the increasingly crowded comic-book genre. Plus, as this fan base will gladly tell you, the dude is jacked. At the age of 43, Ackles still looks like a living action figure, with or without the rubber molding, and he’s still capable of inspiring thirsty tweets from across the spectrum of sexuality.
But despite all those years of impatient fans Photoshopping masks on him, Ackles has arguably benefited from the wait. Marvel’s success stories aside, history is littered with Dean Cains, Brandon Rouths, and, yes, Tom Wellings, who assumed the super-mantles early, then were never really able to escape. Even Chris Evans narrowly missed being “that d-bag from Fantastic Four.”
In middle age—even his ridiculously shredded version of it—Ackles has acquired a gravitas that lends itself to playing more conflicted, more interesting heroes such as Batman and Soldier Boy. Supernatural fans watched Ackles grow up alongside his character, Dean Winchester, who evolved from a slightly callow, monster-hunting grunt into a deeply haunted soul who’d literally tangled with God and the Devil both. Ackles can do emotional complexity in a way that wasn’t apparent, or likely accessible, back in the days when he was just another handsome twentysomething angling for a cape. And while all those near-misses surely frustrated him and his fans, Ackles’s drawn-out chase after superhero stardom brings a unique edge to the roles he’s being given now. Playing a dark, tormented shadow of Captain America on The Boys is a sly revenge against the archetype Ackles was seemingly destined for, yet was for so long denied. Some actors may be born to play superheroes. But this year may prove that Jensen Ackles is meant for something far more powerful.