The Monarch gave roughly a million monologues. He would have a slight moment where he felt he had the upper hand, a brilliant opening or he just settled for everyone’s undivided attention. The Monarch knew when to immediately launch into his evil diatribe about how he was going to crush his enemy (usually Dr. Venture) with a number of extravagant and detailed metaphors for pain and suffering. More importantly, Venture Bros knew how to stage a perfect monologue. Shape camera angles and ominous music played up the intensity of the speech. Venture Bros also knew that if someone actually launched into these on a regular basis it would be fucking weird.
I am still grieving over the sudden cancellation of Venture Bros. Not that I was expecting season 8 anytime soon, but the series felt like an immovable object. There was always that future date when they would announce new episodes and I would be suddenly reminded of my love for the show. Long production cycles meant I had plenty of time to revisit the series over and over. It was a show laser targeted toward my interests; parodying old adventure cartoon shows, comics, music culture and a number of extremely nerdy things. That longline isn’t unique now and wasn’t really even then. As part Adultswim, it was nestled between other shows doing similar comic deconstructions like Space Ghost and Harvey Birdman. As Venture Bros aged, it showed an interest in actually exploring the lasting consequences of people’s actions. It moved away from mining humor out of “wouldn’t it be awful to be a real person in this scenario?” to “how do you live with the trauma?” It did that and so much more all without diving into a grim dark atmosphere that makes most “superhero exploration” fiction. Venture Bros balanced its sense of ridiculousness with a deep reverence for the genres they were sending up. Venture Bros cared for its characters and their growth and loved mining episodes out of their ever shifting lives.
Venture Bros’ other Adult Swim brethren all share a certain callousness. Absurdity is matched with heightened states of sex and violence all played for laughs. There’s usually no permanence; it’s easier to dive into increasingly bizarre scenarios if the world is reset each week. The ones that do continue their storylines tend to have a bleak worldview. Rick and Morty for example reinforces that the universe is awful and the best you can do is put aside your selfishness every now and take care of your own. The characters live with their trauma but it only makes them more aggressive to the world around them.
Venture Bros never completely succumbed to that dark viewpoint for its characters but instead explored how they could grow. That’s not to say there aren’t lots of traumatic events that happen in this show; Dr. Venture, both senior and junior, are at the center of a lot of horrific events in the show. Starting back at the beginning of season 2, Venture Bros asked how Dr. Venture can live with the collateral damage that his life inflicts on his children. Dr. Venture’s escape shows him start to crack under the constant cloning rebirths (and also makes for a killer intro). By the end of the episode he’s back to bottling his emotions but it sets up a long running theme around his duty to his twins and their mortality. After the explosive end of season 3 wipes out all the clones, Dr. Venture actually starts to participate in their lives. He’s still the same self-centered man who favors one of his sons, but nevertheless shifts his behavior to actually help them grow.
That definitely doesn’t mean he’s the perfect parent; he’s a scheming narcissist raised by an emotionally abusive narcissist. His actions paint him more as a villain (most of the “good” guys really) as he irreversibly upends multiple people’s lives. He wants to be a good person though even if he has no idea how to actually be one, something that his channel counterpart Rick could never be even in his best moments. He’s much more delusional than that, believing himself to be a super scientist even though he doesn’t know the first thing about it. He dives headfirst into reckless projects, like in season 5 where he mutates a giant population of grad students. The show before that even plays with that idea by giving him a choice in the season 3, “Doctor is Sin.” Henry Killinger sets up an impressive operation and hands him the keys to his own super villain empire, but he can’t take it. Dr. Venture is for all intents and purposes a villain but he could never classify himself as one. He wants to be the super scientist that his father was but his feelings of inadequacy have haunted (literally and figuratively) him at every turn and cause him to act recklessly and selfishly.
The Venture bros experience the largest amount of growth once they’re actually able to grow up. Hank, always the one who’s most game with any scenario, works to find his own path in the good vs evil business. He experiences rejection at the hand of Sphynx even though he is almost ridiculously overqualified. He also has to deal with his father’s favoritism towards Dean and constantly has to push back against his fathers wishes for him (mainly, for him to go to college). He’s always goofy, but he’s even more fun to watch when he embraces being a kid at heart and starts kicking ass in later seasons.
Dean meanwhile works in tighter constraints; meek and quiet at first he starts to push back aggressively to the path he’s being funneled into. Out of the two brothers, he’s the sensitive one meaning he ends up feeling more betrayed and heartbroken. His childhood crush goes unrequited (although him yelling “Fuck you” at the Outrider is a highlight), his dad funnels him into a super science career path, and he’s the one who finds out the boys are clones. Dean gets to experience a goth phase and eventually attend college on his own. He drastically changes over the entire series and the selfish, angry nerd we see by the end of it is very different from the quiet and anxious one that starts it. Watching Dean break only to put himself back together was a true delight to follow along with.
The villains change drastically as well. Monarch has a wild ride going from comfortably arching Dr. Venture with his large trust fund to losing almost everything. He even moonlights as the “what if Batman killed people” debate for an entire season to great effect. He’s constantly just outside his preferred equilibrium, eternally hating and arching Dr. Venture, and consistently having to shift to achieve his goal. He’s backed up and eventually surpassed by Dr. Mrs. Monarch (fka Dr. Girlfriend & Dr. Fiance respectively) who was always the more competent of the pair. Initially just a cheap joke about a woman with a deep voice, her stories center just how awful it would be to be a woman amongst an industry dominated by male narcissists. She’s always one step ahead of everyone else and her eventual rise to Guild Sovereign is well deserved. That promotion also sets up the biggest test of her and the Monarch’s relationship, which is less about him being emasculated as the main villain but more that she won’t help him get back to arching Dr. Venture. Their main henchman 24 goes from Simpsons comic book guy to Brock competitor after the death of 21 (why would you buckle your seatbelt?). He brings a true outsider perspective to the arching business and is one of the many characters serving as the nerd audience stand in. His naivety drives a lot of the audience’s understanding of being a villain. He learns the likelihood of survival (don’t prepare), navigating love (of course they swing), and the ruthlessness that comes with fighting (you can’t save everyone). While I love Gary’s arc, nothing will ever pass one of the single greatest moments ever committed to film.
This type of characterization extends all the way down the character list. The majority of side characters are treated to similar arcs from Dr. Orpheus navigating being a single father to Billy’s capableness being abused by everyone around him (the most tragic of all the characters). It was a delight watching these characters fail over and over again throughout the years. Seeing events pay off years down the road was gratifying, even if those payoffs were only small character moments. I will truly miss this weird, one of a kind show that understood how to navigate nerd culture without completely fawning over it. Venture Bros. was an off kilter version of “having your cake and eating it to” that somehow strangely worked.