Since its debut in 2004, the Adult Swim show The Venture Bros. has built a steady cult following. Elevating itself from the one-joke premise of goofing on Johnny Quest, it built an extensive pantheon of supporting roles in a consistent world with a complex backstory, riffing on everything from comic book superheroes to pop music legends.
Other influences, however, run a lot deeper. The Venture Bros. touches on Friedrich Nietzsche‘s philosophies through its recurring theme of finding humor and beauty in failure, and somehow it all ties into the creators’ fascination with David Bowie.
“There is no good news — just bad news and weird news”
The world of The Venture Bros. is an askew version of our own, where costumed heroes and villains, super-science, and magic all exist. But it’s a world nonetheless still plagued by mediocrity, failure, and meaningless suffering. The potential wonders of a world in which superheroes exist is balanced by the mundane approach it takes to the way heroes and villains operate. Most “antagonists” are members of the Guild of Calamitous Intent, a supervillain trade union that provides their members with legal aid and insurance, and matches them appropriately with “protagonists” to “arch.”
Within this system, we find The Monarch, a low-tier supervillain with a singularly obsessive desire to arch Doctor Thaddeus “Rusty” Venture. His attempts to thwart Venture are always doomed to failure, and the justification for Monarch’s ressentiment of Venture has not yet been fully explained. And yet, this gives meaning to his life in a way that no other arch does. This is demonstrated during periods when his arching rights to Venture are revoked or disputed, and he is shown murdering his replacement arches with ease, to no satisfactory avail. In his own words, the Monarch’s pursuit of Venture reflects his particular will to power, what Nietzsche saw as the fundamental ambitious drive of all life: “I just wanted to kick his ass! I wanted to build a machine to kick his ass! I wanted to build an empire to house the machine TO KICK HIS ASS!”
Eternal Recurrence and the Beauty of Failure
This sense of failure is not exclusive to the Monarch either. His rival, Doc “Rusty” Venture, is a college dropout living in the shadow of his super-scientist father Jonas. He is forced to live off his father’s past glories, and is an alcoholic, pill-popping narcissist who resents his lot as a former boy adventurer and the trauma that life entailed. However, rather than break the cycle, he too allows his sons, Hank and Dean Venture, to be drawn into the family business, often putting them in harm’s way with only their bodyguard Brock Samson for protection. His work as a super-scientist is largely ineffectual, prone to embarrassing failures or only creating new problems to face. In this world, there is no good news — only bad news and weird news.
Whether it’s Brock having a crisis of conscience over his homicidal tendencies, mauve shirt Henchman 21’s angst over the loss of his comrade Henchman 24, or Dean’s discovery that he and his brother are the last in a long line of clones, the show focuses heavily on a sense of existential nihilism. The suffering of the main characters is eternal and absurdly pointless. On the commentary for the episode “Home Insecurity”, co-creator Doc Hammer explains :
“It’s about the beauty of failure. It’s about that failure happens to all of us… Every character is not only flawed, but sucks at what they do, and is beautiful at it, and Jackson and I suck at what we do, and we try to be beautiful at it, and failure is how you get by… It shows that failure’s funny, and it’s beautiful and it’s life, and it’s okay…”
This notion rhymes thematically with Nietzsche’s solution to the problem of eternal recurrence. This was a thought experiment that Nietzsche used to interrogate what he saw as a formula for human greatness. It was a test of one’s strength of character in the face of a nihilistic world to see if they can aspire to the heights of what Nietzsche called the Übermensch, described as “a person strong enough to revel in tragedy and suffering, and love life for its beauty and ugliness.”
“My formula for human greatness is amor fati: that one wants to have nothing different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely to bear the necessary, still less to conceal it — all idealism is mendaciousness before the necessary — but to love it.” – Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo
“Make way for the Homo Superior”
Early in his career, David Bowie was fascinated by Nietzsche and the concept of the Übermensch. He incorporated the philosophies into his songs like “Oh! You Pretty Things” and “The Supermen”. Despite being the head of an evil organization, The Sovereign is generally affable and rarely comes into conflict with the heroes of the series. Where the Übermensch represents a goal for humanity to strive towards, the Sovereign defies easy categorization as a villain, anti-hero, or anti-villain while being out for himself at all times.
Writers name-drop Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil several times in the series, but it applies most closely to the Sovereign’s actions. This is particularly apparent in “All This and Gargantua-2”. In the episode, he purges the Guild and attempts to destroy a space station with Team Venture aboard to get out of a Faustian deal with the Investors (“Right, the heir to the global evil organization is a bad man, who’d’ve guessed? Total shocker.”) Ultimately, the Sovereign admits that he is “no one. Just someone who wanted to be anyone but himself.” He’s then killed by a stray bullet, unknown to anyone present.
So if in the future you’re watching The Venture Bros. and you spot a nod to Beyond Good and Evil or David Bowie, don’t dismiss it. Instead, consider what it means in the context of the show and even your own life. With any luck, you’ll have a deeper understanding of how such a crazy show actually mimics the human experience in a timeless and philosophical way.