The Venture Bros.: Shadowman 9: In the Cradle of Destiny
Season three of The Venture Bros. kicks off Sunday night on Adult Swim, but they were kind enough to upload the entire episode to their website for the benefit of all those who just couldn't wait that long.
A review of the season premiere (the cryptically-titled Shadowman 9: In the Cradle of Destiny) can be found within. There will also be many, many spoilers, so don't read it if you plan on watching the episode yourself on Sunday.
Suffice it to say: this episode is not what you're expecting, but it's exactly what you need it to be.
Shadowman 9, huh Jackson? When I first learned of the title of this week's episode I assumed it was just an overlong string of nonsense intended to baffle the audience. Sure enough, though, it's an entirely appropriate title--just not for any of the reasons one might assume.
Shadowman 9 is the name The Monarch used to go by when he was henching for Phantom Limb.
Remember that? Remember way back when The Monarch was one of Phantom Limb's henchmen? Don't worry...Dr. Girlfriend doesn't remember it either, and she was there.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Let's spend a little more time on the title.
Calling the episode Shadowman 9: In the Cradle of Destiny was clearly an intentional attempt to throttle the audience. After all, we had never heard of a character in the Venture universe known as "Shadowman," which meant that either the title was irrelevant or they'd be inventing a brand-new character to focus on in their season premiere...when they know damn well that there are lingering questions and plot-threads from season two (and a few from season one!) that we'd rather see addressed.
It was a smart move as it makes the audience second-guess what's coming. We know from last season that when questions are raised we do get answers...but what's this Shadowman standing in the way?
Well, it's a flashback episode...and also sort of a trial. Think Trial of The Monarch crossed with Past Tense and you'll get an idea of what's happening here, but the similarities are superficial only. This is a story completely unto itself, no matter how often it may cross paths (and time periods) with other episodes we might already have seen.
We are never told exactly what Dr. Girlfriend said to The Monarch at the end of season two, but we get a definite feel for what she was getting at: The Monarch is on trial with The Guild of Calamitous Intent for creating his villainous persona without proper approval. The council-members believe this was done simply so The Monarch could make the younger Dr. Venture's life a living hell, but flashbacks (courtesy of the Guild's bank of surveillance videos) reveal otherwise: The Monarch became The Monarch so that he could win the hand of Queen Etheria--better known today as Dr. Girlfriend.
The Monarch invents a life and history for himself superior to his actual existence as a lowly henchman, because without status he is without confidence. I don't know how many viewers of The Venture Bros. are going to recognize this as the plot to The Great Gatsby, but that's okay, because it stands just fine on its own without knowledge of the source material.
Take special note of the change wrought in him between the scene in which he meets Dr. Girlfriend in his henchman costume, and the completely different, fully-animated personality that appears when he first shows off his new Monarch outfit in the locker room. Excellent character stuff...very subtle, and very well-handled.
The entire episode exists within the trial and the flashbacks; the Venture bros. themselves do not appear at all, and we have only unvoiced cameos by Dr. Venture and Brock. Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer have given us--for the first time--an episode that is truly The Monarch's. And are we satisfied?
Well, how could we not be? It's beautiful. The animation in season three is kicked up another step from season two. (It really is remarkable how choppy and static season two made season one look by comparison, and now I'm afraid it's only going to become more obvious.) It's extremely well-written and well-acted, and there's a moment of genuine heart when Queen Etheria offers to make The Monarch a set of functional wings to complete his new costume. Why is it touching?
Well...I'm not sure. I think it's because we know--now more than ever--how fragile The Monarch is on the inside...how vulnerable to absolutely everything in the world...yet the soon-to-be Dr. Girlfriend sees something else. She sees all the things that he might someday be...she sees his potential before she sees his failings. She sees what he needs her to see. She's made his metamorphosis complete.
(There's all sorts of caterpillar / butterfly imagery here, but I'll leave the rest of it to you.)
Of definite note is...well, lots of stuff. There sure seems to be a lot of milestones going on here. In terms of the show itself: we have a new opening sequence (for this episode only, I'm sure, but God was it lovely), the photographs in the end-credit sequence now move, and this episode has the smallest voice cast in the history of the show--weighing in at a mere three voice actors.
In terms of in-show history: we learn that The Monarch's first name is Malcolm, we learn how Dr. Girlfriend met both Phantom Limb and The Monarch, the relationships that developed between them, what happened to Baron Underbheit's jaw, what happened after the final scene of Past Tense when Brock tells Rusty that his father died, how The Monarch came to arch Dr. Venture, and--most excitingly--we've had confirmation of Myra's story from last season's I Know Why the Caged Bird Kills. She did work for Dr. Venture after all, lending some credence, perhaps, to some of the other things she claimed...
And in terms of the show's future: Dr. Girlfriend and The Monarch are, it is at last confirmed, married. They are also a certified villainous duo. The henchmen have rebuilt the cocoon. They've moved into Phantom Limb's old house. And...we see Phantom Limb at the very end of the episode, scarred and hobbled by last season's battle with The Monarch.
I, personally, had a feeling we wouldn't be seeing Phantom Limb at all for some time, so this may hint at an interesting development occurring sooner rather than later.
All in all, character-development seems like it's going to be a top priority in season three, if this episode is anything to go by. And I, for one, can't wait for more.