“Hey, now is not the time for your cold hearted analysis.”
The war is over. The mouse has won. And I, as a neither respected nor award-winning reviewer can only bow down to The Simpsons’ new Disney masters and say, “Welcome to this poorly aging, once-majestic animated universe! Wring from it every last penny you can!”
And yet . . .
Memories stir. Long-ago echoes of jokes like Principal Skinner being shocked and dismayed when he finds that the local historical park has been bought by a mega-corporation named Diz-Nee, which has priced out Springfield’s poorest public school with the park’s new motto, “Sorry, but there’s profit to be had.” And, here, here lie the dusty remnants of a story poking suggestively at the much-hushed tale of how Walt iced out original Mickey Mouse co-creator Ub Iwerks, culminating in the Disney-esque merchandising factory Itchy & Scratchy Studios being (temporarily, in the way of all Simpsons plots) signed over to the creator it had unceremoniously slighted. So many heroic Disney slams, now lost to time and corporate synergy.
But I kid the single entertainment concern now forcing yet another streaming service down America’s throats should it ever want to see those old Simpsons stories again. “Bart The Bad Guy” is, after all, technically, another such in-jokey mockery of the hand that now feeds The Simpsons, as Bart—through some refreshingly well-established narrative chicanery—gets his hands on the new Avengers (sorry Vindicators) series-ending mega-blockbuster, Vindicators Crystal War 2: Resurgence and, being Bart, blackmails the entire town in advance of the sure-fire global cinematic behemoth’s opening. Written by Dan Vebber, the episode is a whiz-bang piece of entertainment itself, as the mighty and—as shown throughout—murderously self-serving Marble Corporation (eh, they can’t all be winners) essentially kidnaps Bart (then Marge and Homer), runs them through a mind-bending VR experience designed to erase all desire to spoil the unspoilable, and, only once that’s all been settled, deactivates the bomb (with Disney font LED display) they’d left in the Simpson house as a fail-safe. So, you know, not exactly pro-Disney as such.
Still, much of the episode’s fun comes from the creators’ cosy knowledge that we’re all owned by the Disney machine now, so a little light jabbing isn’t going to matter to anyone’s bottom line. Meanwhile, The Simpsons can prop up its sagging reputation for Bart-esque prankish corporate master-goading, much as its done to bullying entertainment division cousin Fox News over the years. (The joke slogan “Fox News: Not racist, but number one with racists” remains the late-game gold standard.) There’s the “spot the half-imaginative Avengers analogue” game, with the episode’s main catalyst being the secretly Australian Hawkeye figure, Air Shot (voiced by guest Taran Killam). Team leader the battle-suited Magnesium Man (guess) is shown to be piloted by a goateed wisecracker whose incessant chatter is mocked as “funny but not too-funny banter” by even lumpier-chinned Thanos simulacrum Chinnos. Add to that a female Atzec Thor type, the whale-headed DC swipe Moby Man, a more articulate lady Groot, and the Black Panther-esque “champion of the French Quarter” Black Voodoo, and you’ve got yourself a passably silly Avengers knockoff.
Avengers movie masterminds (and genuinely cool guys) the Russo Brothers show up, as does Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige (voice processed into a passable Josh Brolin-esque Chinnos), lending the whole enterprise a “we can take a li’l joke from our vassals” imprimatur that’s just obtrusive enough to be annoying. (The Russos are fully prepared to firebomb an entire family to ensure that the Vindicators finale maintains its all-important “55 percent hold on its second weekend,” so that’s at least something.) And there’s a kernel of an actual “Bart finds a conscience” episode lurking within all the superhero shenanigans, as Springfield’s own El Barto eventually faces up to the whole “with great power comes great something-something” ethos once he’s literally stuffed in a sack (gussied up as a comic-book portal) and strapped into a psyche-warping virtual reality device.
Gossamer-veiled product placement aside, any Simpsons episode built around a high-profile guest, premise, or real-world event is only as good as the actual story it’s trying to tell. And, again, “Bart The Bad Guy” almost gets there. Vebber’s script takes the time to set up the circumstances by which the ultimate power (in the form of a top secret Marble laptop) winds up in Bart’s greedy paws. (An injury to Milhouse, a Make-A-Wish from Air Shot actor Glen Tangier, and a dash of mistaken identity do the trick.) And while Tangier’s Aussie slang gags get old fast, Killam actually has some fun with his character, as Bart holding the wrath of Marble over his head forces Springfield to be Glen Tangier’s prime PR destination for the week before the premiere. Even how Bart gets the laptop is built on some human emotion, as the careless Tangier’s hospital drunkenness stems not from just being an irresponsible drunk, but from how his endless rounds visiting dying children have left him a broken wreck.
Bart’s reign of terror in town also gets a few more beats than strictly necessary, as his first attempt to bribe Comic Book Guy fails after GBG himself undergoes a fairly admirable trial by temptation, ultimately overcoming his weakness for pre-release hot takes and collapsing in deserved vindication. Bart, being Bart, spots the real weakness at the heart of goodness, however, and switches from bribery to blackmail, threatening to spoil the long-awaited movie until he’s got a cart full of Android’s Dungeon swag and the rest of the town at his feet. It’s only when confronted by a (mostly) healed-up Milhouse that Bart starts to feel the first sliver of the light, as he admits that extorting the entire town into building him a deluxe treehouse in the beloved old oak tree Old Susie in the town square sounds, on its surface, a little super-villainy. “You just blackmailed the whole town to build you a lair!,” is how Milhouse puts it, but it’s not until corporate goons (presumably with Marge and Homer’s permission) yoink him into their clutches for a Marble mind-fuck that Bart really sees that the path of evil leads to ruinous, conglomerate-lawsuit ruin.
And that’s the episode’s krypotnite (yes, that’s a DC property, shut it) in the end, as the traditional story where Marge or Homer (mostly Marge) finally reaches the breaking point in worrying about her special little guy’s soul is short-changed by the gimmick. Here, the big twist (Bart gets hoodwinked into thinking that superheroes are real and that his spoilers have comic-world deadly consequences) takes any sense of growth or character interaction out of the Simpsons’ hands, leaving the whole episode little more than a breezy little goof.
- Homer, while immune to Bart’s powers (since he thinks superhero movies are silly), yet hops aboard as henchman once he realizes he can use Bart to get free beer at Moe’s.
- That’s a really funny gag when Homer, looking to blackmail Moe, unzips the suitcase he’s carrying and Bart serenely strides out.
- I’m always tickled to remember that Vebber wrote “The Zeppo.”
- Milhouse’ injury is caused by Bart imitating some manner of real-life YouTube personality, whose name I just don’t feel like writing down.
- Bart nods toward the easily undone stakes in any superhero franchise by noting that one of the big reveals he’s holding onto is that some member of the Vindicators “loses a third of their powers fighting Karate Scorpion.”
- Not to kick The Simpsons in its dotage, but Rick And Morty already did the superhero team thing, wedded it to a real story much better, and even claimed the name “Vindicators” more than two years ago.
- Moe appears to be dating Lunch Lady Dora at this point. Which is sort of a lateral move for both.
- Homer, assuaging Marge’s doubts about letting a massive corporation brainwash their son, claims “nobody’s ever been hurt by a little gaslighting,” a repeated assertion to which Marge eventually concedes she’s agreed before.