How 'The Venture Bros' Quietly Snuck Weighty Themes Into a Slapstick Cartoon Comedy

Everyone is talking about the movie that came out on July 21 and its tender, meta approach to characters who were originally created as a crass action figure tie-in. It has something to say about finding your purpose in life, and how we fill the roles others create for us. That movie is, of course, The Venture Bros: Radiant Is The Blood of the Baboon Heart.

Baboon Heart is a feature-length movie, pitched as the ending of a series that started airing on Adult Swim in 2003. Twenty years later, The Venture Bros is the summer movie with the deftest approach to pop culture brain rot, power, and masculinity.

It’s become almost comically insipid and bland to say a film or TV series is “about trauma.” Partly, that’s because the TV and movies in question often try to “subvert” a genre like space opera, superheroes, or horror, without actually caring about or respecting the genre. Treating capes and monsters as a Trojan Horse for capital-S Serious themes is a recipe for a mediocre story that condescends to its audience. But years before love persevered into grief, The Venture Bros followed characters dealing with their shit in between incompetently piloting mechs and riding demonic robot horses. The emotionally serious character moments thrive alongside some of the dumbest jokes imaginable, rather than overshadowing them. The Venture Bros live at the intersection of pastiche and pathos, which is why the show’s approach to “trauma” will outlive that of its better-funded, more mainstream contemporaries and descendants.

Here are the basics: The Venture Bros began as a riff on Jonny Quest, a Hanna-Barbera cartoon about an 11-year-old boy who is basically Indiana Jones-meets-James Bond. Jonny travels around the world with his genius father, his bodyguard who is also a government agent, and his adoptive brother, an orphaned Indian boy (yes, really). The Venture Bros started by asking, “What would it be like to grow up in a world of super-science and supervillains?”

It turns out: Not good! Dr. Thaddeus “Rusty” Venture, the son of a famed super-scientist, is dealing with feelings of inadequacy and the psychological scars of a childhood marked by casual violence. Rusty’s sons Hanks and Dean—the titular Venture brothers—start out as carefree idiots who love the idea of solving mysteries and fighting bad guys, until they start experiencing adolescent angst in earnest. And while the Ventures bristle at a life of adventuring, their enemies love it: The Monarch, Doc’s self-appointed archenemy, treats his decades-long vendetta against Rusty as a calling. It’s like being a priest or an artist, but for building elaborate torture contraptions.

Despite 20 years of mythology, the character dynamics in Radiant is the Blood are strikingly simple. Hank has run away from home after learning that Dean slept with his girlfriend, and is experiencing an identity crisis. Dean struggles with guilt over this betrayal, and desperately wants to find his brother. Meanwhile, the Monarch and Rusty try to ignore the revelation that they’re related, all while tangling with a mysterious, Uber-like organization called ARCH that threatens to undermine the carefully-maintained bureaucratic status quo of heroes and villains.

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