The Venture Bros: “Shadowman 9: In the Cradle of Destiny”

Sonic Youth’s album of b-sides and rarities The Destroyed Room begins with a ten-minute-long jam session. The object of this is to separate the fans from the noobs. Similar demands are made by “Shadowman 9:In the Cradle of Destiny,” a dense, flashback-laden, complexly-structured season-opener that gives no quarter to casual web site hit counter

At this point in its development, The Venture Bros fulfills expectations by defying expectations, and in that regard “Shadowman 9” does not disappoint. Season 2 ended with a classic Some Like It Hot-inspired cliffhanger, as Monarch and Dr. Girlfriend sailed off into the sunset to consummate their marriage. The new season opens promising to answer the cliffhanger then immediately sidesteps the whole issue by plunging the Monarch and Dr. Girlfriend into a bizarre battle with some floating robots (which will, 22 minutes later, finally be identified — this is a show not likely to slow down for innocents).

(Speaking of upending expectations, it’s worth noting that this season-opener episode of The Venture Bros does not feature the Venture Brothers, nor their father, and goes out of its way to not picture the faces of any of the Venture clan (except Helper, seen in a long shot). Instead, the Monarch and his relationship with Dr. Girlfriend is placed front-and-center, complete with its own opening title sequence.)

The episode proper opens with the Monarch’s henchman, the surviving ones anyway, picking themselves up and dusting themselves off after the rout at Cremation Creek, lo these many years ago. 21 and 24 wonder what to do now that they are “ronin,” and 21 (or 24) says, nobly, “We forge our own destiny,” which becomes a kind of statement of theme for the episode. In this episode, the weak follow rules and join societies, the strong push ahead and make their own rules, form their own societies.

(You can tell the difference between leaders and followers because the leaders give themselves names and followers are assigned numbers. Interestingly, the “Council of 13” trying the Monarch, even though they are much more powerful than their prisoners, themselves have only numbers — they are leaders to the Monarch, but they are followers to the Sovereign.)

The dominant society examined in this episode is, of course, the Guild of Calamitous Intent. The Guild, we shall see, is very big on procedure, hierarchy and rules. Humans, however, invariably have their own ideas and the drama of the episode occurs where power’s zeal for order and the human instinct to forge one’s own destiny collide. The theme of instinct rebelling against order repeats itself again and again throughout the episode: The Guild brings the Monarch and Dr. Girlfriend to their tribunal, and the Monarch rebels against them (in his own childish, impetuous way of course). No sooner does a Guild lackey intone an absolute rule than another lackey comes along and carelessly flouts it, no sooner does one member of the Council of 13 demand “Silence!” than another member tries out the new command — and fails. The council can’t even decide what to call the event — a tribunal, a trial, or a crucible.

And what motivates the individual to break the rules, to rebel against authority? According to “Shadowman 9”, the answer is classic: sex and death — or love and murder, depending on your point of view. The Guild accuses the Monarch of breaking the rules because he wishes to destroy Dr. Venture, but the Monarch insists that he broke the rules in order to make it with Dr. Girlfriend (nee Queen Etheria). The Phantom Limb, on the other hand, is moved to rebel against the rules of society (and the Guild) by a romantic notion of evil, which is really only a trumped-up version of lust and revenge. The Guild can see only death as a motivation but the Monarch makes them see the equal power of love. In the end the Monarch triumphs, the Guild is convinced of the rightness of his cause, they seethe light and wed not only the Monarch and Dr. Girlfriend in villainy, but also weds the Monarch’s twin impulses, sex and death, by sending him to kill the Phantom Limb on his honeymoon. Dr. Girlfriend drives the point home by insisting on the Monarch carrying her over the threshold of the site of their first sanctioned assassination.

(In one of the episode’s two punchlines, her ass against the Monarch’s waist also accidentally deploys his wings — is Dr. Girlfriend’s ass the “cradle of destiny” of the title?)

To make things more challenging, the episode is thematically dense while the plot remains at a near-standstill. Employing a complex flashback/dual-interrogation structure for most of the running time, the episode is almost a clip show, albeit a clip show consisting of new clips.

The b-story, meanwhile, is both more straightforward and more perplexing. The Monarch’s henchmen are taken over by the Moppets, who are, seemingly, forging their own destinies. But are they? It’s unclear to me. It seems they are taking over the henchman for their own nefarious purposes, but then at the end of the show a swarm of other supervillains descends upon the scene, helping them re-build the cocoon, to put it back into the control of the Monarch. Was this the plan all along? If so, why don’t the Moppets seek the help of the other supervillains to begin with? Or are they, in the beginning, acting “against the rules” and undertaking the rehabilitation of the henchmen themselves, but, after the Guild has had their hearts softened to the cause of the Monarch, they are able to then bring in the other supervillains? And why is Brock helping out on this project? I’m sure these questions will be answered in a future episode.

Running through all of this, of course, is the constant theme of the show, the construction of an identity. We witness the Monarch and Dr. Girlfriend plow through three or four identities each in this episode as they forge their destinies and are finally united in villainhood. Meanwhile, the Phantom Limb, stripped of his hard-won identity, is left with only his “rules” (in this case, “anyone on my ‘shit list’ must die, regardless of whether they actually someone who has harmed me or not”).

Hand in hand with “identity” is “mistaken identity” — Dr. Girlfriend wonders how Phantom Limb could fail to recognize his own henchman as the Monarch when she herself has failed to recognize that same henchman is now her husband. (Phantom Limb takes this a little too far — he tracks down people based on their assumed identity, in spite of the fact that they bear no physical resemblance to the people he’s looking for.)

Tying in the theme of dual identities, we see that the Monarch, like Batman, has a giant penny in his flying cocoon.


37 Responses to “The Venture Bros: “Shadowman 9: In the Cradle of Destiny””
  1. blake_reitz says:

    I wonder if he’s got a T-Rex robot in there?

  2. Anonymous says:

    Bravo, sir! Beautiful analysis of a show I love immensely but have mostly seen when I’m… umm…

    Good Sonic Youth reference, too.

  3. earthsage14 says:

    Augh. I was going to write my own Alcottian analysis on the Identity theme in this episode, but you hit on it at the last moment. I had some other points that you didn’t touch on, but your analysis of the use of destiny is just too awesome.

  4. If so, why don’t the Moppets seek the help of the other supervillains to begin with?

    I think thematically Publick and Hammer needed to get the two groups of henchmen (because, after all, the Moppets are Dr. Girlfriend-Au-Pair-Monarch’s henches) alone together. Plus, it’s really, really funny to see little people in Fauntleroy suits talkin’ jive at butterfly men.

    And is the Council member to the Monarch’s immediate left in this picture the fop from the Fallen Arches‘ Guild video?

  5. schwa242 says:

    Dr. Jonas Venture’s death still hasn’t been explained, has it? I’m guessing it’s going to this season, with Monarch’s hint at it. Also, is the Guild’s wedding ceremony a reference to Eyes Wide Shut?

  6. greyaenigma says:

    It’s a crucible!

    Dr. Venture, Jr. does actually appear in the episode, even if he’s not featured per se. I was pleased to see a reprisal of the fight scene that was earlier dealt with in just a split second, although the original had more… kick to it.

    I was expecting the moppets to just say “sidekicks outrank henchmen”, but the way they did it was amusing.

  7. faroffstar says:

    i was particularly fond of the Monarch whispering “It’s David Bowie…” when the Sovereign showed up on the screen.

  8. mcbrennan says:

    Ah, it’s good to have Venture Bros back. And timely, as the equally labyrinthine and enjoyable but frankly not quite as well-executed Lost just concluded its season, so I have a vacancy on my obsessive-overanalysis calendar.

    You know, long ago, when some minor reference to Dr. Girlfriend’s backstory cryptically said “she was previously associated with Phantom Limb”, my cynical mind assumed it was just a clever throwaway joke at, um, her personal expense. But since Phantom Limb actually showed up, he’s become one of my favorite characters, and this episode helped flesh out why. One of the strongest themes for me in VB is this notion of idealism lost, and we already know from earlier episodes that Phantom Limb was once a good guy, a noble idealist who–either as a result of his “accident” or perhaps more likely just as the result of living in a very non-ideal world, became corrupted by his own core beliefs. His speech in this episode was really terrific–but I think his “romantic notion of evil” is more complicated than lust and revenge. I think he believes–like Anakin Skywalker–that he’ll get more good done by brute force and canny manipulation than he ever would have when he was a good-natured guy with limbs. I could go off on a riff about how being “good” rendered him impotent (limbless) and how he now vacillates between overcompensation and righteous vengeance, but nobody wants to read that. In any case, I think Phantom Limb will now find that, as institutional good failed him in the past, institutional evil is failing him in the present, and he’s reduced to running around settling old grudges–probably ones he knows are inaccurate–because it feeds the illusion of power, or because there’s nothing else to do. Sing along with the common people…

    Yeah, VB is hard on institutions, and rightly so. Brock said the Guild was “the only organization I still respect” but here they’re mostly bumbling, nitpicky bureaucrats in silhouette, who, one almost feels, are staging this tribunal-thing just to assure themselves they still can. The Sovereign still cuts a fearsome visage (even after Tin Machine, apparently), but the rest of the Guild’s inner circle seems just a step or two up from #21 and #24. Maybe it’s sex and/or death that encourage rebellion against authority, but–in Phantom Limb’s case, and maybe Monarch’s too–maybe the best reason to rebel against authority is that authority is unbearably fucking incompetent. It’s bad enough having some guy telling you what to do, but when that guy is an idiot, well, it’s only natural that eventually you’re going to want to overthrow that. Limb’s failed coup, Monarch’s operating outside the bounds of Guild bureaucracy–forging their own destiny–who can blame ’em? What else can a thinking person do in a world like that–or this?

    Interesting that, as the episode ends, Monarch and Dr. G are married not only to each other, but to the very organization they both so recently disdained. Love in the service of the company. I wonder how that’ll work out. Goethe supposedly said you must either be servant or master, hammer or anvil. Lots of characters making that choice in this one. I doubt Goethe had murderous moppets in mind when he was thinking of the hammer, but they made Monarch’s henchmen into anvil pretty quickly. Still, I like the idea of a potential future #21 and #24 Ronin-spinoff series. And I also like the fact that the spirit of random, non-institutional community cooperation–just making some phone calls–got more done in this episode than any centralized institution could. A good old fashioned barn-raising. Only, um, with a gigantic floating cocoon of death.

    I also think that, as cute as it was to see Dr. Girlfriend’s ass trigger the deployment of the Monarch’s wings, I also think it’s a good metaphor, because it’s clear in this episode that she quite literally gave him his wings, made him become the man he is. He’d be in the break room with 21 and 24 without her ass.

    It was almost a clip show, yeah, and I loved the reference to “Night Court”, that frequent clip-show offender. Those flying robots looked like they escaped from Disney’s The Black Hole, too. Very fun. Ah, how glad I am that Venture Bros has returned.

    • Anonymous says:

      ah, and how wonderful it is to have alcott and mcbrennan commenting on new VB episodes! sweet.

    • Todd says:

      “I think his “romantic notion of evil” is more complicated than lust and revenge.

      No doubt it is, but I was concentrating on its purpose within this specific episode. Phantom Limb gives eloquent speech, but his actions in the episode involve putting the moves on Dr. Girlfriend and murdering a completely innocent supervillain out of misguided revenge.

      • mcbrennan says:

        You’re right of course. I get carried away sometimes. Okay, often. Only the restrictive length of the comment form spared you from a detailed essay on the evolution of the gentleman thief/romantic villain ideal from A. J. Raffles to Arsène Lupin to Fantomas to… Hey, “Fantomas”…”Phantom” Limb…hmm..

        Carried away, yeah. Sorry.

        “Completely innocent supervillain” is also a pretty wonderful turn of phrase. Come on, you know that guy had it coming for something. Again, Limb trying to make the world a better place by being pure eeevil. It’s a win-win.

        Also, minor correction: I believe that hammer/anvil quote was originally said by Jim Nabors. I regret the error.

        • Todd says:

          I wouldn’t call myself “right,” more accurately “currently too busy to re-watch the previous two seasons of The Venture Bros. in search of echoes and resonances in the current episode.”

  9. jbacardi says:

    Maybe one of the most satisfying things so far has been the Monarch’s rise from the complete buffoon we seemed to be in the beginning to the far more competent, almost admirable buffoon he is right now. Of course, Dr. Girlfriend (Dr. Wife?) had a lot to do with it, but you gotta admit, that was pretty sharp setting up Manotaur like that!

    • Todd says:

      If he did so on purpose. I thought the joke was that the Monarch just made up the name “Manotaur” on the spur of the moment and Phantom Limb has been stalking him ever since.

      • jbacardi says:

        Why, then, that devious bastard fooled me too!

        • Todd says:

          When Phantom Limb asks the Monarch his name, the Monarch glances toward his car window, where he had written it moments before. When he sees the car window is shattered, it looks to me like he just blanks on his name and just makes up “Manotaur”. But I could be wrong.

          • jdurall says:

            That’s how it read to me, as well. He was clearly making stuff up to save his own ass… and my guess is that he’d be surprised to learn that there really was a Manotaur.

            • Anonymous says:

              I also figured that Manotaur was something he made up at the spur of the moment, but I also assumed that it was also somehow tied to the tattoo on his back. Either the initial inspiration for it (he came up with the idea that night then just started running with it), or he’d started it at some earlier time (cause that’s a lot of work on a tattoo).

  10. I watched the last six episodes of season 2 in a marathon (for the first time, except I’d seen “Viva Los Muertos”, which BLEW MY MIND the second time around) before the new one. Then I dreamed in Venture Bros all night. Disturbing.

    I really liked the new episode, and it seems like the production values have been bumped up another few pegs, both due to talents solidifying and budgets possibly increasing.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Brilliant beginning of season 3.
    Did Phantom Limb retrieve the “phantom limb” he lost in the season 2 finale? Was there any reference to said during the ep that I may have missed?

    • Todd says:

      Based on his haggard appearance in the coda, I’d say that doesn’t look like a man who’s retrieved his lost limb.

  12. “Your ass deploys my wings” is sure to become one of my favorite euphemisms.

    I noticed that when Phantom Limb was talking to the Council of 13 in the flashback (when Queen Etheria ran off with Monarch), there were only ten sillhouettes. Intentional omission or a simple artist error?

    I was also particually pleased at the use of one of my favorite classical music pieces, “Jupiter, Bringer of Jolity”. Considering the use of “Mars, Bringer of War” in the previous season, I’ve got to wonder if Mssrs. Hammer and Publick intend to weave the rest of The Planets into the VENTURE BROTHERS, or if Holst is just cheap to license.

  13. teamwak says:

    Was so good to see VB back again. And it sure does defy expectations. Loved the Monarch and Dr Girlfriend opening credits.

    Great use of Holst the Planets, again. Im sure it was Jupiter that was playing over the cocoon building scene – which incidently reminded me of the barn building scene in Witness, (English!)’cept with super-villains instead of Amish! lol

  14. mikeyed says:

    Two things… no wait, THREE things.

    The Guild, we shall, see, is very big on procedure, hierarchy and rules.

    Nice use of the comma, monsieur.

    I’m sure these questions will be answered in a future episode.

    I laughed so hard that my heart ached when I read this.

    Lastly, could you do a review of Le Corbeau? I just rented this movie from the library and it feels like such a weird movie I was wondering if you could give it a whirl.

    • Todd says:

      Re: Two things… no wait, THREE things.

      Excessive commas unintentional.

      I haven’t yet seen Le Corbeau, although I have enjoyed Diabolique and Wages of Fear in the past — I shall have to pursue it one day.

      • craigjclark says:

        Re: Two things… no wait, THREE things.

        Le Corbeau is a nasty piece of work. High recommended. Clouzot managed to get everybody mad at him with that one.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Do you think that Dr. Girlfriend’s secret was simply that she was in cahoots with the Guild all along and knew that they were coming after the Monarch, or do you get the feeling that the battle was a distraction meant to draw out the suspense of her confession? I can’t make up my mind about that yet.

  16. toku666 says:

    Two things:

    1) The fact that Phantom Limb now ostensibly lacks his “manhood” seems a salient point in your on-going rhetorical analysis of VB on the subject of “identity.”

    2) I have known for quite some time that Dr. Girlfriend’s ass is, in fact, the cradle of destiny. 😀

    C) Thanks for continuing to do this into season 3!

    • Todd says:

      Phantom Limb’s castration was not mentioned specifically in the episode, so I temporarily spaced on its existence.

      Or rather, it is mentioned in the negative — and through inference. Phantom Limb with his penis dresses well, has great hair and sips wine in floral parks with comely lasses, Phantom Limb without penis (presumably) shuffles around in the night in a tattered trenchcoat and hat, meting out wrongheaded justice to complete strangers.

      • toku666 says:

        Exactly. He seems to operate very much as an avatar of gestalt, if insincerely refined, machismo. Therefore, more than anything else (he can still walk and still has his original right arm for the “killer hand thing”) that particular loss seems to have “un-manned” him. Definite catch for analysis of the identity narrative.

        That was an intentionally bullshitty paragraph, before you call me on it. 😉

  17. creepingcrud says:

    FYI, this post isn’t tagged for Venture Brothers. Also, your reviews are awesome, and I’m reading them all now after James Urbaniak linked to them.

    • That’s how I discovered these as well….Though I’m reading only a few reviews at a time, every once in awhile, so as not to make my brain explode.

  18. noskilz says:

    Maybe only tangentially related, but uniforms can be funny things. I spent a large chunk of my academic career at a military school, and one of the things I noticed very quickly is that as long as you could act as if whatever you were up to was what you were supposed to be doing, no one paid much attention – they’d just focus on the outfit. This could be very handy, but the downside was that off-campus, many of the locals would do the same thing, so if you happened to be around when one of your fellow students did something stupid, far more attention was also likely to be paid to the outfit than the person wearing it. Which in a way is kind of odd, since we all had name tags and – obviously – didn’t wear masks.

    • Todd says:

      What about butterfly wings?

      • noskilz says:

        No, but while it may have made sense in it’s own setting, when one had to catch multiple connecting flights at airports scattered across the country wearing what was basically an imaginary military outfit, it may as well have.

        Kind of the look-like-an-idiot/at-least-I-look-like-popular-idiot dilemma: not so bad in it’s natural environment, but kind of awkward for when one happens to be the only instance.