The Venture Bros.' Legacy is a Prescient Bridge Between Alt-Comedy and Superhero Domination

Comedy Features The Venture Bros
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<i>The Venture Bros.</i>' Legacy is a Prescient Bridge Between Alt-Comedy and Superhero Domination

The Monarch is dead, long live The Monarch. Co-creator Jackson Publick (AKA Christopher McCulloch) announced that the slow-produced and beloved series he and Doc Hammer (Eric Hammer) created, The Venture Bros., has been canceled by Adult Swim, stomping out plans for an eighth and final season like so many henchmen’s dreams. It’s a shame to see it end, but the Adult Swim parody goes out as one of the best animated series of all time. Its legacy is one of emotional depth, hilarious alt-comedy, and fluent pop cultural vocabulary that built a prescient bridge between late-night animation and world-dominating cinematic superhero universes.

The story of Hank, Dean, and Rusty Venture (alongside iconic bodyguard Brock Samson) started off as a pulpy Jonny Quest joke and grew into a complex world of calamitous Guilds, occult Triads, and in-universe fandoms. Its meta-humor expanded beyond references to form, giving us a demented Scooby-Doo riff one episode and a standalone story that functioned as the latter half of a surreal two-parter the next. “Escape to the House of Mummies Part I” just doesn’t exist. That kind of joke, one that rewards its audience’s genre fluency and media intellect—prizing sharpness, bitterness, and insight over nostalgia—was The Venture Bros.’ lifeblood running through a tangled nervous system of legacy, failure, and celebrity.

In a world where Z-list supervillains participate in “scared straight” programs and henchmen live with their moms and/or drive their dad’s powder blue Nissan Stanza, The Venture Bros. both predicted the self-referential and self-effacing turn that the world of superheroism would take and provided one of the most nuanced, affecting, and hilarious stories about it. The show’s plots tracked moral side-switching; losses of life, love, and financial security; and the relapse of an ex-pirate captain into tranquilizer addiction. It’s certainly as complicated and melodramatic as the most convoluted multiverse. Its devoted production team kept everything straight and continued to map out inventive, sobering, and consistently funny places for its vast cast of characters to go. Metered out every few years (an eternity in the modern media landscape), The Venture Bros. proved that the best parodies grow beyond their source material. And its growth had a greater industrial impact: just watch its DC-approved spiritual successor, Harley Quinn.

Seven seasons ago (which translates to seventeen years ago in The Venture Bros. time), it’d still be half a decade before Marvel would decide that poking fun at its own legacy was the way to launch its superhero universe. And not just that—its heroes needed to be people. People that understood the ridiculousness of their own ambitions but were still, perhaps reluctantly but earnestly, devoted to them. Iron Man would give fans of the comic world a snarky super-scientist mocking the pomp and circumstance of superhero convention in 2008—a few years after Henchmen 21 and 24 took to the sky as Jet Boy and Jet Girl (though no, there wasn’t really ever a Jet Girl) and Dr. Venture snarked his way through a tag sale of supervillains and shrink rays. Tony Stark was “not the hero type—clearly,” as he put it at his big superhero press conference. Sounds like the Ventures… and everyone they ever ran into.

Playing on expectations gave the Marvel Cinematic Universe nerd bonafides on a Disney scale, something that Team Venture had been forming a cult around for years. It’d be a bit before the DC Extended Universe realized the potency of that kind of humor, the kind that appealed to nerds’ backlog of comic knowledge rather than attempting to replicate the (often corny) humor of the comics themselves. Then Shazam! began riffing on Superman and Batman, getting much better reviews than its Universe-mates (aside from Wonder Woman, a film with its own superfish-out-of-water jokes). Blockbusters would always be better if they learned from Dr. Girlfriend and company.

Apart from spreading its self-effacing, reference-heavy gospel back to the pop cultural world that helped create it, The Venture Bros. was a rich palimpsest where its creators’ favorites were warped and combined to form an impressive new work. It’s a show built with love, constructed from highly individualized and immediately recognizable pop culture lexicons.

David Bowie has a major role and his work is everywhere; Henchman 21 wears a “Porkchop Sandwiches” shirt from those online G.I. Joe PSAs. The closest creation I can relate it to in terms of sheer density is the game Kingdom of Loathing, where every line is a joke and every idea comes from a brainworm mulled over a million times since formative years. The Venture Bros. continued this loving tradition of cannibalized, reinvented culture, becoming the show a specific clique of nerds quoted to each other as a badge of honor. If you always think of The Venture Bros. when you hear Holst’s “Mars,” you speak my language. If you are reminded of “gentle cuttlefish” when you think of lame supervillains, we understand each other.

There are a million jokes that could be used as passphrases to an exclusive club of dorks, just as the nerdy world of comic books once signaled a haven for bullied geeks rather than corporate juggernauts. The best thing that can be said of The Venture Bros. (a show deserving of endless praise) is that it was able to craft this insider world in a relatively short time, building itself into an alt-cultural titan as the kiddie alt-culture of Saturday morning cartoons and comic books that it used as its source shifted to the multibillion-dollar mainstream.

As The Venture Bros. welcomes an uncertain future and the possible closure it brings, fans of the show won’t be holding their breath. The series taught patience. Scarcity was just another way it was special. Now that it’s ending, Team Venture is only more welcoming to the curious—no matter which side of the bridge they come from, the fringe or the masses. It always felt like a miracle that it was still going and now that it’s been made finite, it’s clear how miraculous its run really was.

Jacob Oller is a film and TV critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Hollywood Reporter, Vanity Fair, Interview Magazine, Playboy, SYFY WIRE, Forbes, them, and other publications. He lives in Chicago with his two cats and a never-ending to-do list of things to watch. He likes them (the cats and the list) most of the time. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.