Waiting List Cinema: Venture Brothers

an AI generated image, looks like two boys wearing backpacks walking through snow covered woods, but it is very jumbled and looks very confusing.

I am a child of the 1980’s. Like so many men of my generation, I have an unhealthy obsession with the media of my youth. Whether it’s GI Joe or Ghostbusters, I have absolutely gotten into too many arguments over the years where I was emotionally invested in a discussion of something absolutely pointless, like “Who’s cooler, Batman or Wolverine?” or “How cool would it be to have Dr Strange as your next door neighbor?”

Venture Brothers is pretty much the show you get when some decently intelligent people of that same background take the time to thoughtfully approach such media and comment on it, while making a show that’s just as cheesy and entertaining as the original material. It’s a parody in the richest sense, an artwork that understands and critiques its own genre while simultaneously loving what makes that genre special.

A fairly simple and surface example would be this clip from the third episode of the third season, depicting the clash between the fictional groups “O.S.I.” and “Sphinx” which are riffs on GI Joe and COBRA, respectively.

The OSI “Joes” are really bullies engaging in over the top violence for childish enjoyment, but that’s okay we’ll still depict it with bright colors and a cheery song, because childish bullies engaging in pointless violence is perfectly okay if we wrap those bullies up in a flag and say the people they’re committing war crimes on are “terrorists.”

And that’s one of the biggest reoccurring themes in the Venture Bros, trying to navigate that tension between nostalgic love for the fictional entertainment of our past, while also cynically realizing the harmful undertones and lessons that entertainment was getting across.

Another interesting theme of the show is ego, and both its benefits and costs. We see how the demigod Brock Samson can be the most badass dude ever, mostly because he just believes he is. He defiantly wins a Rock-paper-scissors match with a fellow OSI agent because he insists that “Rock is the best one” and won’t acknowledge his loss. His ego, in spite of his ignorance, helps him succeed and be an icon for other characters to admire.

But Doc Venture, on the other hand, oozes with ego as well, but his seems to draw him back into failure over and over again. His ego causes him to constantly swing from destructive mania to dejected depression. He knows he’ll never be as great as his father, and he’ll never live up the promise of his gifted “boy adventurer” childhood.

I should mention here that the show unfortunately engages in some jokes that feel pretty uncomfortable at times. With characters like “Princess Tiny Feet,” a character depicted as fitting a mid 1950’s cartoon stereotype of an “Indian princess” who in this case is also into BDSM play as an extreme sub, the show is clearly commenting on shallow racial stereotypes from the same era as the other genre staples, but some such jokes can feel like repeating a racist joke unnecessarily.

Gender is another theme the show tackles over and over again. Where some discussions might stop at simple “toxic masculinity,” the Venture Bros attempts to depict a wider range of male expression, from the studious and dramatic Doctor Orpheus or the aforementioned herculean Brock Samson, to nerdy Henchman 21, who goes through a character arc struggling with the loss of his friend and identity, to becoming a badass dork who trains with LARPERS so he can kick enough has to become the main henchman of the show’s primary antagonist, The Monarch.

However, similarly to how some of the racial commentary can get uncomfortable, some of the gender depictions in Venture Bros feel the need for a more nuanced discussion, for lack of a better term. In the character of Colonel Hunter Gathers, we have a iconic “man’s man” patterned largely off of parody of General Patton, complete with corncob pipe, who undergoes a sex change early in the show, ostensibly to escape a “no killing women” rule the OSI apparently has when he goes rogue. After spending time as a “femme fatale” character who still acts like a parody of Patton, he eventually gets a reverse sex change, but later admits to a group of characters on two occasions that he misses being a woman, or at least misses having breasts.

Another character, Doctor Girlfriend, is depicted as a highly capable and driven woman supervillain. She plays into many of the trope of more qualified henchwoman serving an inept man, but the character is also voiced show creator Doc Hammer, and is given a voice more reminiscent of a grizzled film noir detective. Other characters repeatedly question the cause of this voice, and even make blunt comments asking if the character has had a sex change. While these scenes are uncomfortable, it also strikes me as interesting that the show seems to indicate that the question of whether or not she’s cis or trans isn’t important. She at least, doesn’t seem particularly interested in entertaining the question, she’s more interested in kicking ass. That said, I don’t have any room to declare that the show is or isn’t transphobic in it’s treatment of the characters in either case. I’d be eager to read or listen to a trans writer’s take on the topic though, if you’d like to suggest one.

I’ll end with a recommendation of this song from the show. It’s “Jacket” by the in show band, “Shallow Gravy.” It’s ridiculous and it’s fun.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: