By the time Alan Moore’s The Watchmen finally hit the big screen, there was very little idealism left in the world of superheroes. Frank Miller had performed the double-whammy of revealing Batman as a barely-reined-in psychotic and pegging Superman as an anachronistic boy scout. Kurt Busiek’s Astro City looked at superheroes from the perspective of the average citizen. Warren Ellis’s The Authority explored the combination of superpowers with an ends-justifies-the-means philosophy, while his Planetary (among many other things) turned a thinly-veiled Fantastic Four into mass murderers with messiah complexes.
For some time, it’s seemed like every “with great power comes great responsibility speech” uttered in the Marvel Universe has been met with skepticism by writers who are interested in how the genre fits with today’s sensibilities. So by the time The Dark Knight allowed Batman to get his full brood on, and The Watchmen pulled its heroes out of retirement, this viewer/reader was already deep in the funk of deconstruction fatigue.
Granted, I’m a geek, raised on the monthly neuroses to be found in Spider-Man and X-Men comics, archetypal tweaks common in Neil Gaiman’s work, and a political junkie’s inherent suspicion that even the noblest utterings are suspect. So these days, something needs to go completely over the obsessive line to stand out.
Oddly enough, a prime haven for people like me has been the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim block of shows. Usually consuming the 11:00PM-to-whenever time slot frequented by stoners and insomniacs, Adult Swim has built an empire on revealing our cartoon heroes to be nincompoops. They made Space Ghost an oblivious talk show host, populated Sealab 2021 with narcissistic idiots, and filled Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law with portrayals of Fred Flinstone as a Mafia don (all that work in construction), Boo Boo as an anti-corporation terrorist, and Scooby & Shaggy as munchies-driven stoners (admittedly not much of a stretch there).
Into that proud tradition enters The Venture Brothers, which exists mainly to take the piss out of old Jonny Quest cartoons (happily taking super-science, super-villains, and the military-industrial complex down with them). Created by Jackson Publick (a writer for animated series The Tick), The Venture Brothers follows the family of Dr. Thaddeus “Rusty” Venture — his naive sons Hank and Dean, his berserker secret agent bodyguard Brock Sampson (voiced with maximum testosterone by Patrick Warburton), and their robot companion H.E.L.P.eR — as they try to survive experiments gone awry and the machinations of self-proclaimed arch-enemy The Monarch.
Forever living in the shadow of his world-renowned and world-saving father, Dr. Jonas Venture, as well as his own celebrity as a Jonny Quest-style child-action star, Rusty Venture falls short in both the ethics and competence department. It doesn’t help that his sons think they’re the Hardy Boys, or that Brock is a daily reminder of his own lack of virility in every aspect of his life.
For its first two seasons, The Venture Brothers contented itself as a heady, anarchic blend of deconstruction and animated mayhem. Walt Disney is parodied as the evil Roy Brisbee, in his honeycomb lair at the heart of a theme park, pestered by the Orange County Liberation Front. The Doctor Doomish Baron Ünderbheit seeks revenge on Venture for the accident that cost him his jaw, while elastic-bodied super-scientist Mister Impossible maintains an iron grip over the other members of his fantastic foursome. A mystery-solving group of teens in a green van investigates a forgotten part of the Venture compound, only this time the dog speaks to his hippy companion in a thick German accent, prodding him to kill the others. And then there’s the Monarch, always the Monarch, seeking to destroy Venture and everything that he (or rather, his father, has built).
As the series progresses, the Monarch is as much a central character as anyone in the Venture fold. Season Two found him sparring with fellow villain Phantom Limb (his arms and legs are invisible, and his touch carries a killing charge) for the affections of the male-voiced Dr. Girlfriend, who had gone from Phantom Limb’s arms to the Monarch’s lair, and back to Phantom Limb. Dr. Girlfriend, dressed in her standard costume of pink dress and pillbox hat (a la Jackie Kennedy) represents one of the show’s few competent characters, and it’s partly through her testimony that most of Season Two’s chaos doesn’t result in the Monarch’s execution at the hands of the Guild of Calamitous Intent.
It’s from those seeds that Season Three goes past the destruction of icons for its own sake, and begins to really craft a mythology of its own. The world of “arching” is shown to be as rule-laden as any other workaday profession, with super-scientists having their arches assigned to them, and every encounter governed by a strict set of regulations.
At the beginning of Season Three, the arching of Dr. Venture has been handed over to fatigues-clad basket case named Sgt. Hatred, while the Monarch takes up residence in a villainous gated community and must suffer through less than inspiring adversaries (such as Dr. Dugong, who’s basically a peaceful manatee in a lab coat).
Meanwhile, as the Monarch obsesses over ways to get Venture back in his sights, the show takes on the task of exploring the intertwined origins of characters like Phantom Limb, the giant-headed Master Billy Quizboy, Dr. Girlfriend, and the Monarch himself. Before we knew what happened, The Venture Brothers became a real show that existed in a universe with a more profound mission than “make fun of the stuff we enjoyed as kids”.
That’s not to say that there isn’t great delight to take in murderous moppets, overly dramatic Dr. Strange parodies, a black vampire hunter who hunts blackulas, a villainy consultant named Dr. Killinger, or a Sean Connery-type figure who seems to represent the history of British colonialism in his every carnal pursuit. But now there’s actually some interest in where the show’s going from week to week, and that’s pretty darn satisfying.
Extras are fairly slight on the Season 3 DVD’s, consisting mainly of commentary tracks and storyboarded deleted scenes. The Blu-Ray edition, however, includes a CD of JG Thirlwell’s soundtracks for the series. Even so, you’d almost have to count the show’s fondness for cursing and full-frontal male nudity – uncensored on the DVD — as an extra. Turns out Cartoon Network was bleeping out lots of profanity and using lots of strategically-placed black bars every week. So often that you didn’t even notice after catching an episode or two on television.