“Where am I? Hell? Or a children’s TV show set in Hell?”
There’s a blurry line between the everyday and the exceptional. Plenty of superhero flicks have made fodder out of the murkiness of that division. Think back to Mr. Incredible’s super-powered midlife crisis, his inability to reconcile his power and ability with what he sees as a humdrum domestic life. Pursuing that thread to a happy conclusion in which our hero learns how to integrate his identities made for a heartfelt, satisfying movie, but it’s not something you’d see on The Venture Bros. ‘Maybe No Go’ looks at the same line, but its thesis is not that the mundane and the magical are two halves in need of reconciliation; rather they are one huge mess containing all there is in life.
From the Monarch, pathologically incapable of separating his now-in-tatters supervillain identity from his bizarre but functional marriage, to Brock and Hatred relaxing together after a low-key Batman gambit by parachuting off Venture Tower, ‘Maybe No Go’ offers a look at super-life that’s at once chaotic and pleasantly workaday. Billy and Pete’s half-assed arching session with Augustus St. Cloud places this idea in the spotlight while welding it to another central Venture Bros conceit: the inherent sadness of adult men who never stop dreaming like boys. Billy’s belief that a prop from a Duran Duran music video is a magical lodestone of romantic rock ‘n roll is contrasted against St. Cloud’s fetishistic disrespect for icons of culture and childhood, a simultaneous urge to possess the artifacts on which pop culture is built and to defile and devalue them. It’s the show in a nutshell, a retreat into a cluttered storehouse of references to old bands and weird movies which, while comforting, is bitterly critical of the value of such comforts.
For all its cynicism, though, ‘Maybe No Go’ is still an episode of television in which a gorgon can shoot shrink rays from her eyes, Billy reveals he’s built a grappling hook into his hand, and a mechanical whale submarine can explode through the lobby of Venture Tower. The gorgon lives in a dump in Patterson, NJ, though, and Billy’s hand has no winch and can’t retract. The lives of superheroes and their nemeses are just as full of everyday failure and shortsightedness as our own, and the games they concoct elaborate excuses to play with one another are an indulgence in the same nerdy pleasure we get out of watching the show itself. It’s a fine balancing act, that mixture of the deep-seated desire to believe that a ball is more than just a ball, that supervillainy isn’t just another grind with a more colorful uniform, that you can do more with your life than periodically update your company’s fancy phones, and the necessity of confronting the fact that the poop in the bucket next to the bed with the space-themed sheets, the posts of of which you are handcuffed to, is very much yours.
Being a burnout and being a hero aren’t necessarily so far apart. If Billy is still straining toward an impossible world, it’s the desire to be and do more that has led him to live in a trailer in the middle of nowhere. The Captain, in between Trainspotting references and breaking into polar bear enclosures to get a hit of dart, is really just a reminder that obsession and addiction are both representative of an inability to let go and to change. His recovery does a lot to illustrate how the show has softened up around its edges in its old age, opening up new avenues of storytelling even as it closes off the more brutal, high-stakes plotting of seasons 2 and 3. Maybe I’m overselling how seriously you should be taking The Venture Bros, but episodes like ‘Maybe No Go’ feel like reminders that there’s value in creating work that’s inherently uncomfortable with itself.