By Diana Helmuth | Film | July 24, 2023 |
By Diana Helmuth | Film | July 24, 2023 |
Most Adult Swim shows boast the title of “cult classic,” but few wear the sash better than The Venture Brothers. The show follows the trials of the Venture family, led by Dr. Rusty Venture, a washed-up, egotistical super scientist too traumatized by a childhood of “boy adventuring” to accomplish much actual science, along with Brock Samson, his ¼ James Bond, ¼ winnebago bodyguard, and his two sons, Hank and Dean — death-prone, homeschooled versions of the Hardy Boys. The show’s list of loveable side characters rivals that of The Simpsons, but the most notable are Dr. Venture’s absurdly serious, butterfly-themed archnemesis, The Monarch, his overqualified sexpot wife, Dr. Mrs. The Monarch, and his die-hard, enthusiastically nerdy henchman, 21. The show is a richly dark-humored twist on the original 1960s Johnny Quest; a study of failed dreams and the reality of trust fund kids LARPing as supervillains; a stick that prods every sacred facet of your personal, private nerdom, but keeps you laughing too hard to be offended. This show walked so Harley Quinn could run.
The Venture Brothers is the creation of duo Doc Hammer and Jackson Publick. First aired in 2003, the main joke shared within the fandom is how long we were forced to wait between seasons. By necessity, this show taught me about the comfort one can derive from a rewatch. When a fresh season finally did drop, fans were greeted with more plot twists, inside jokes, and homages to other superhero franchises than a bar outside San Diego Comic Con. This prompted an outpouring of online discussions and theory swapping, which helped pass the time for two years while we waited for the next season to drop.
To be a Venture Brothers fan in 2023 almost guarantees that you have been hanging on here for about 20 years. The early-2000s, nerd-basement humor that laces the first few seasons of this show is not easy to witness if you’re not armored in nostalgia, or the knowledge that much of it is gracefully addressed and removed with each ensuing season. Basically, it’s hard to introduce anyone to this show, today, unless you start them in Season 3 (which would rob them of the origins of the P.R.O.B.L.E.M, the birth of Jonas Venture Jr. and the perfect friendship between Henchman 21 and 24). It’s not that the show isn’t worth starting now, especially as Hollywood increasingly embraces content that interrogates its superhero emperors. The Venture Brothers, I’d argue, is more relevant than ever. And yet, the show always remained cult.
This makes the series finale of a movie, Radiant is the Blood of the Baboon Heart, all the more special. I think Hammer and Publick understood they were not really here to bring aboard anyone new. This is not a baby shower. It is a wake. It is for us, the long-suffering Venture fans, looking up like Billy Quizboy with his V-shaped fingers in the air, begging Rusty not to leave us hanging.
We are not left hanging.
Going into this film, I had a swirling of bittersweet emotions. I am not ready to bid this show farewell, this show that has effectively been a friend since high school; this show that gave me two decades worth of inside jokes about Molotov Cocktails and dressing up as Batman for Halloween; this show that allowed me to instantly bond with any stranger at a party who yelled “Ignore Me!” Still, I was excited to see some possible conclusions to the cliffhangers of season 7, plus theories I had harbored for years. Would Dr. Mrs. The Monarch complete her character arc from sidekick all the way to Sovereign? Is that white-caped woman in the trailer Dean and Hank’s real mother? Will Brock and Mol finally bang? Where is Hank? And above all - what will Rusty and The Monarch do now that they know they are brothers (because that’s what we concluded in the season 7 finale…right?)
(Slight spoilers) The show, blessedly, picks up right where season 7 left off. We are not being tortured with a seemingly-unrelated backstory that we can’t figure out how to fit into what we actually want to know. Rusty is still running Ventech into the ground. Dr. Orpheus (the show’s delightfully verbose parody on Dr. Strange) is keeping up the order of the Triad. H.E.L.P.eR (Dr. Venture’s 1960s robot butler) is as oversensitive and incompetent as ever. And Hank is on a quest to shed his boyhood and become the dark knight he’s always dreamed of (complete with original plastic batman mask).
The old-timey supervillain bureaucracy known as the Guild of Calamitous Intent is having its relevance threatened by an organization called Arch, run by a mysterious new character: Debbie. Arch is a perfect imitation of a minty-fresh startup, complete with QR codes, deep fakes, and apps for ordering robotic henchman (excuse me - “acolytes”), poised to eclipse the Guild’s doddering, technologically-outdated processes. I can’t help but see a metaphor here for The Venture Brothers itself — a show rooted in parodying 20th-century superheros and sci-fi, that is being put out to pasture to make room for shiny new content.
At the same time Arch threatens to undo the system we have known for twenty years, Hank is on a quest to find out who his mother is, and Dean is on a quest to find Hank. Along the way, the movie treats us to well-timed flashbacks and references to some of the series’ most iconic moments. (We even finally get a proper Jefferson Twilight blackula battle). Perhaps this is my bias talking, but none of it feels forced, which is a testament to the writing prowess of Hammer and Publick. You could watch this movie without having much knowledge (or memory) of any of the previous seasons of the show, and I think you’d still have a great time. I am convinced I have only ever gotten 70 percent of all the references that are present in The Venture Brothers show, and I still love it to the grave. The fan service moments are fun, but they are not required to understand what’s going on. The movie is simply more of what The Venture Brothers has always done best: displaying the office-like humor of the logistics of superhero-sci-fi land, while forcing characters into deeply satisfying “buddy buddy comic book team up crap.”
Dr. Mrs the Monarch (aka “Sheila”), does finally get her plot aired out. The movie’s fresh antagonist, Debbie, offers to save her from her long-suffering career serving as an underappreciated number 2 for an incompetent man. However, Sheila rebukes Debbie’s offering - and this analysis of her oft-debated character. Instead she says of her life, “I don’t need to be saved from it. I’ve always had a choice…I am not a victim.” Watching Sheila shed her bumbling male co-workers and strike out as a Ms. Independent would be fun. (I was secretly hoping she would become the Sovereign herself). But hearing her say that she actually loves her husband, her job, and her life is almost more satisfying. It’s rare to see a contented woman on screen, both successful in marriage and career, without having to assume she is doomed.
The movie continues, drawing plenty of plot inspiration from its favorite trope: childhood stars and prodigies whose parents never gave them a choice, now grown up and trying to deal with the PTSD of mummy attacks and lava pit hostage situations. Hammer and Publick make expert use of Hank and Dean waving goodbye to their childhood-fantasy-selves as metaphors for the boys embracing maturity through forgiveness. This is something their father never figured out how to do. Maybe the boys can end the harrowing generational trauma that comes with being a boy adventurer, after all.
The show does not tie up everything I hoped it would. In fact, many things are left unsolved. (And if I’m being honest, it could have used more Brock). But I was too warm from the glow of all the artfully-timed fan service to be upset about it. Of course, now I fear I will be hoping the show will somehow magically get re-green-lit (oh god, is this my new “Firefly is coming back”). I will try not to indulge it. After all, the show has been training me for years on how to enjoy a rerun, and there are enough easter eggs here to fill a church garden.
I am reminded instead, to “choose your family, and remember that complications make it special.”
Thanks, Doc Hammer and Jackson Publick. And Go Team Venture.