The Venture Bros: “Hostile Makeover” part 1
It is a new season of The Venture Bros, and so it is time to once again ask “What does Rusty want?” “Hostile Makeover” answers the question before the titles even begin. Rusty wants his dead brother’s money, and receives it. Having outlived both his distant father and his parasitic twin, Rusty, who has lived in the past for so long, now has a new fortune to squander, and a new place to squander it in. Having been trapped since childhood in the dark, backward 1970s-Hanna-Barbera-netherworld of the Venture Compound, Rusty now has his own high-rise building smack on Columbus Circle in up-to-the-minute New York City. Now, perhaps, we can see him age in a 2010s-era Manhattan penthouse as his shiny new surroundings gradually get old and then burnish into nostalgia.
How wealthy was Rusty’s dead parasitic-twin brother Jonas Jr? He seems to have been a combination of Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, on steroids. Every electronic device featured on the episode bears his logo, and Rusty’s car (with RUSTYS BK license plate) as well, so he’s got both consumer electronics and luxury autos under his belt (not to mention the first hotel/casino in space). He also owns a Pollock, a Twombly and a Rothko. All this is Rusty’s now, and if we need any clue as to how Rusty is going to run Jonas’s business empire, before the episode is a minute old, Rusty fires the corporation’s entire board of directors.
Rusty has even inherited Jonas’s staff of robots, who speak with the voice of Stephen Hawking (no they don’t — see correction in comments). This leaves poor HELPeR out in the cold, not that Rusty would care. One of the most self-centered creatures ever devised for television, Rusty takes everything given to him in stride, as a given, with a deep sigh of contentment, as though to say “Yes, this is the world as it should be, with everything flowing toward me.” A stranger to success and a master of failing upward, Rusty can only gain upward mobility through the deaths of others.
At a breakfast scene, the Venture clan’s motivations for the episode are laid out: Sgt Hatred wants to maintain his position as the head of Venture security, Hank wants to go out and “be cool” by flaunting his status as one of the newly wealthy, and Dean wants to further his education. As the show’s plot progresses, we’ll see how each one of them fail at their goals, and the ways in which they fail, and they ways they deal with their failures. (Hank is off to a particularly bad start, dressing like Justin Bieber, who, if nothing else, is the epitome of not-cool.)
Before Dean can get to his school tour at Stuyvesant University (a not-at-all-altered version of Columbia about 40 blocks north of the Venture building), he has to deal with his “J-phone,” which speaks not with the voice of Siri but with the voice of Jonas Jr, his recently-dead uncle. Dean is horrified, but Rusty is only irritated — “Too soon, Dean,” he grouses, his mo(u)rning coffee perhaps spoiled with the reminder that he’s earned none of his new wealth.
Two minutes into the episode, a whole passel of new characters are introduced: The Crusaders Action League, an “pretty-much-the-Avengers” superhero team represented here by pretty-much-Captain-America Stars & Garters, pretty-much-Green-Arrow Fallen Archer, and pretty-much-Wonder-Woman Warriana. The Crusaders Action League, it seems, acts as a cross between the Justice League and the Mafia: they provide superhero services, but only to those who pay them protection money. That may seem harsh, but it raises a question inherent in all superhero narratives: if superheroes can solve all the world’s problems, why don’t they? Superman, still the mightiest superhero ever devised, is adamant about maintaining the status quo; it’s unthinkable that he would ever challenge authority or right serious social wrongs. Superman needs Lex Luthor and General Zod because otherwise he’d have to deal with actual injustice. Batman needs his rogue’s gallery of costumed psychopaths because otherwise he’d have time to think about how Bruce Wayne’s fortune is indicative of an unjust society, and how he’s done nothing to address the roots of crime, and how, ultimately, he fights crime in order to maintain profits for Wayne Enterprises.
The entrance of the Crusaders Action League into the narrative runs afoul of two of our protagonists’ agendas: Rusty, close-minded and backward-thinking, simply doesn’t want more super-powered bullshit in his life, while Sgt Hatred sees them as a threat to his position as Head of Security for the Ventures (again, a superhero fighting on behalf of corporate profits). It also introduces the “villain headquarters” across the street, which will come to figure largely in the plot.
Next, we check in with The Monarch and Henchman 21. The Monarch, like Rusty up until just recently, is living in his childhood home, a house rank with failure and diminishment. Rusty has failed upward, but the Monarch hasn’t mastered that skill. He would be living with his parents if they weren’t dead. That doesn’t seem to matter to 21, who is happy to serve as the Monarch’s second-in-command, even when the Monarch isn’t up to commanding anything. His diminishment has hit him hard, and, like Rusty, his sense of self is too strong to absorb change. Like Rusty, he’s an inherently crabby person who feels the world owes him, and when the world doesn’t deliver he’s confused and at sea. Luckily, Rusty’s arrival in town gives his life new purpose. Just as Batman couldn’t function without the Joker to distract him from the lie of his life, the Monarch cannot function without Rusty to distract him from his relentlessly downhill progression.
Five minutes in, the episode comes around to what I believe is its true protagonist, Dr Mrs The Monarch. While Rusty basks in the glow of his unearned billions and the Monarch gnashes his teeth on his path to ruin, Dr Mrs The Monarch has achieved a kind of realistic — in relative terms, of course — success. She’s worked hard, kept her nose to the grindstone, possesses the kind of emotional intelligence undreamed of in the rest of the Venture world, and now has a seat on the Council of Thirteen, the upper echelon of the Guild of Calamitous Intent. With impossibly perfect timing, David Bowie has died and created a power vacuum that has left the Council rudderless (and in a deficit far short of thirteen), and Dr Mrs The Monarch is suddenly in the catbird seat. The other members of the Council don’t seem like much competition, but Phantom Limb, with his George Sanders accent and genuine superpowers is obviously not one to let a power vacuum go to waste.
Dean, pursuing his goal of touring the university (but too cowardly to face the voice of his dead uncle for directions) takes the subway uptown and arrives too late for the tour. He does meet Brown Widow, however, who is stuck in his own Rusty-style rut. He’s a college tour guide, and seemingly a grown-up, but he’s stuck in a high-school-level rivalry with a high-school-level jock, who, despite being “like, 40,” relentlessly taunts Brown Widow until he humiliates himself by “spinning a web” in his pants. Brown Widow, modeled on Spider-Man, wants only to be a friendly neighborhood superhero, but, like many of the show’s major characters, cannot get past the let-downs and oppressions of his teen years. Our hearts go out to Dean, who is living his teen years “for real” for the first time (after many, many aborted attempts as a clone) — will he be able to escape the rut of his adolescence?
Rusty, meanwhile, has to deal with an unexpected burden of great wealth — the handing out of giant checks (written from a giant checkbook) to various charity organizations. “Charity” is as antithetical to Rusty as “erudition” is to Donald Trump, and the long line of disease-curers and indigents at his doorstep, he feels, puts a serious crimp in his self-regard, and his hating-the-world time.
The Monarch and 21 start their second act by dressing up as classic New York tourist-trap characters: the Statue of Liberty and the Naked Cowboy (which is, for those in the flyover states, a real thing), in order to scope out the limits of the security force for the Venture Building. Oddly, they don’t just dress up as normal people; it’s as though they can only think in terms of “secret identities.” Even Brown Widow, humiliated as he is, goes through the motions of normalcy. But the Monarch and 21 can only think in terms of dress-up. Which points to something that some commentators say about Batman: that Bruce Wayne is the costume, Batman is who he really is. (If that is the case, then Batman is insane, which has also been pointed out elsewhere.) Venture hanger-on Pirate Captain catches them in the act of pilfering a security badge, and receives for his trouble a tranquilizer dart from the Monarch. So for his story beat, the Monarch manages to both succeed in getting access to Rusty and inflict pain on one of Rusty’s employees, which shows the Monarch’s fortunes on a definite uptick. Unbeknownst to the Monarch, the Pirate Captain is not only unfazed by the tranquilizer dart, he’s been set on the road to a new addiction. (Perhaps the true theme of The Venture Bros is “People Who Can’t Live in the Real World,” which is, perhaps, the true theme of show business as well.)
Dr Mrs The Monarch begins her second act with a gathering of the rag-tag group of misfits that constitute the current Guild of Calamitous Intent. Always a Venture Bros strong suit (pun intended, I guess?) is the “crowd of unnamed bad guys” joke, and this group is no exception: a riot of colorful character design compelling, in and of itself, to make the viewer ask “Wait, what’s that guy’s story?” That is, I’m convinced the key to great character design, a design that makes the character appealing enough that the viewer wants to get closer to it, and mysterious enough that the character always remains a little larger than the narrative presents. Hellboy is great character design, and so is Kim Possible, not to mention Hello Kitty, Marv from Sin City and Sherlock Holmes. The Venture Bros rogue’s gallery has always teemed with great character design, my personal favorite being Baron Underbheit’s squad of desperadoes that included Catclops, Girl Hitler and Manic Eight-ball. Honestly, The Venture Bros has the richest pool of bad guys outside of Batman; the group assembled here would, by themselves, justify their own show.
That, in spite of the fact that the assembled group seems desperately powerless, griping about disability checks and website glitches when they should be out terrorizing the world. They’re not happy about the power vacuum David Bowie (or whoever he was) left behind, and Dr Mrs The Monarch finds herself with an uprising on her hands. When she tells the assembled throng that the Council of Thirteen is now a Council of A Handful, they are understandably distressed: the remaining council seems profoundly ordinary. The idea of a truly magical leader, a hovering, glowering head, is something that a group of evildoers needs to feel like their organization has a direction. The secrecy of the Sovereign was very much by design. A hovering head might be evil, but it’s not ordinary, whereas the group of sad-sack miscreants on the stage of the gathering might as well be among the sad-sack group of miscreants on the floor. In a very real way, the curtain has been pulled aside on the Guild this night, and, in leveling with the crowd and assuring them about the council’s intentions, Dr Mrs The Monarch begins to establish herself as a genuine leader.
Just as Sgt Hatred feels a need to cling to his place in the Venture Bros hierarchy, HELPeR feels himself being displaced by the Jonas bot who now serves as Rusty’s butler. He brings Rusty his pipe and slippers as though he was an Irish Setter, while the Jonas Bot brings him a drink. Rusty is appalled to find that Hank has spent what seems to be tens of thousands of dollars in an afternoon on various toys, appliances, wild animals and foreigners. This is, to Hank, what constitutes “cool:” spending money like water, glorying in his new wealth. His attitude is an obscenity, no doubt, but in some ways it’s preferable to Rusty’s, which is to remain unhappy despite his wealth, crabbing about every nicety he’s forced to undergo.
At the mid-point of the episode, in walks Brock Samson, back to take over his job as bodyguard to Rusty and the boys. This, we shall see, constitutes a clear and present threat to both Sgt Hatred’s claim to power and to Hank’s understanding of coolness.