As the culture grows more aware of toxic masculinity, there’s been a greater emphasis on pinpointing how such tendencies take root. In other words, where do bad men come from? The answer, of course, is the bad kids they once were, possibly raised by bad (or absent) parents when they weren’t hanging out with their equally bad friends.
There’s good reason to be concerned about how boys are conditioned to be cruel, learning the wrong lessons at an impressionable age about what it means to be a man. But sometimes, you come across boys who, while not the brightest, aren’t inherently evil. Sure, their views are cro-magnon, and they won’t ever change — but with any luck, these kids just end up being so harmless that they don’t do any real damage in the wider world. You know, guys like Beavis and Butt-Head.
It’s been 13 years since those two dumbass Texas teens were last on television — and 26 years since their last film — and while they’ve been gone, men have only gotten worse and more shameless in their ugly behavior. And yet, I’m very happy to report that I had a blast watching Beavis and Butt-Head Do the Universe, which finds the title characters just as stupid as they ever were. And what’s especially appealing about this full-length sequel, which premieres on Paramount+ tomorrow, is that, although they still laugh at the most sophomoric stuff and refuse to give up on their dream of getting laid, there’s not a mean bone in their body. (Heh heh, I said “bone.”) There are many pejoratives you could hurl at Beavis and Butt-Head, but “toxic,” blessedly, is not one of them.
Co-written by Mike Judge, who created these characters in 1992 — he still does their voices — Beavis and Butt-Head Do the Universe has a plot, but who ever watched the 1990s series (or 1996’s big-screen Beavis and Butt-Head Do America) for the story? Alas, movies have to have at least the semblance of one, with Do the Universe’s proving sturdy enough to hang myriad jokes on.
It’s 1998, and Beavis and Butt-Head have just turned their high school science fair into a warzone full of explosions and fleeing teachers. (It all started innocently enough, with Butt-Head kicking his buddy in the nads.) As a result, they’re sentenced to attend Space Camp. (I’ve rewritten that sentence 10 times: Trust me, there’s no way to phrase it in which the logic makes any sense.) But although the guys aren’t jazzed about visiting NASA, their interest is piqued by the discovery that they can operate a heavy-duty docking system that allows them to insert a large phallic object into a big round opening, which they proceed to do over and over, giggling all the while.
Impressed by Beavis and Butt-Head’s love of docking — and clearly unaware how teenage boys’ pervy minds work — mission commander Serena Ryan (voiced by Andrea Savage) invites them to join her team on their interstellar assignment to meet up with the Mir Space Station. But because she keeps couching her request in terms such as “Would you like to do it with me?” these idiots think she wants them to have sex with her — to “do it” for real. She meant docking, but you know how Beavis and Butt-Head are about not understanding things.
What does any of this have to do with the boys eventually being transported to the present time? Or Serena, now the Texas governor seeking reelection, deciding she must have them killed? Or the U.S. government chasing after Beavis and Butt-Head, believing they’re dangerous aliens? That’s for me to know and you to figure out while you’re busy laughing at all the dumb things the boys do while trying to find Serena so they can score. (Seriously, these morons cannot get it through their heads that she didn’t ever want to sleep with them.)
Like any remotely edgy comedy entity that caters to young people, the original Beavis and Butt-Head show, which aired on MTV from 1993 until 1997, was denounced in some quarters as being beyond the pale, supposedly inspiring young people to cause real-life mayhem similar to the kind practiced by Beavis and Butt-Head. Around the same time as the NC-17 film Kids suggested that the youth were feral, immoral heathens, Judge’s series showcased two snickering suburban cretins who loved hard rock, hot chicks and watching television, critiquing which music videos sucked and which ones ruled. (Sadly, Do the Universe, like Do America, doesn’t feature any video reviews.) Not unlike Bill and Ted, and Wayne and Garth, Beavis and Butt-Head represented a gleefully antisocial youthful alienation, as well as a certain type of slacker dude who was obsessed with pop culture and just about nothing else — not school, not society, not a single respectable value that adults tried to instill in them. Well, that’s not completely true — they cared very much about the faint possibility that, maybe one day, a female would want to have sex with them.
Beavis and Butt-Head were the most awkward and adolescent of this crop of fictional teen buds, which also made them the most endearing. They objectified women — they were both entranced and repulsed by the notion of the mythic “slut,” a word they used a lot on the show — but it was largely done in the way that insecure boys sometimes act before they wise up. The fear, of course, is that guys like Beavis and Butt-Head don’t grow out of it, turning into misogynists, or worse, but not unlike Judge’s later series, King of the Hill, Beavis and Butt-Head always exuded a wholesome air, convincingly arguing that its main characters were basically decent, even if their attitudes or politics might not be your own.
Similarly to fellow Texan Richard Linklater, whose Boyhood came out a couple decades later, Judge envisioned Beavis and Butt-Head as a casually profound encapsulation of what’s eternally true about the icky, work-in-progress reality of being a boy. Everybody in Beavis and Butt-Head knew that Beavis and Butt-Head were idiots — thoughtless, coarse and profoundly uncool — but their immature behavior seemed, in part, to be a byproduct of living sans parental supervision. Without blaming the entertainment industry or whoever was occupying the White House, the show made a persuasive case that kids — and especially boys — are deeply influenced by what they see around them, for better and mostly for worse. They’re basically helpless, fumbling around trying to act tough so that nobody catches on to how unconfident they feel, turning to heavy metal and the TV in the hopes of finding male role models.
That’s if you wanted to see Beavis and Butt-Head as a cultural commentary, of course, which many people didn’t. (It was easy enough to just enjoy these knuckleheads and the appealingly crude animation.) Do the Universe only occasionally seems to be about anything more than nostalgia, which is okay since there’s plenty that’s hilarious in the movie. (Of the sequel’s many running jokes, my favorite involves a parallel-universe Beavis and Butt-Head.) When the film does address contemporary culture, it tends to be benign fish-out-of-water stuff — our heroes are confused by smartphones — but it can also be more pointed. One especially memorable moment occurs when they stumble into a college lecture about white privilege, which — because they are morons — leaves them elated because they think they’re now allowed to get everything they want as white males. They proceed to walk into a cafeteria, cutting in front of everyone else and grabbing all the food: “It’s okay, you didn’t know,” Beavis says in response to the shocked faces. “We didn’t either.”
It’s one of the few recent white-priviledge/“cancel culture” jokes that’s actually clever, illustrating how a lot of idiot white people — not just Beavis and Butt-Head — misunderstand why other people find them so exhausting and entitled.
Touchingly, the dynamic between these buddies hasn’t changed in 30 years. Butt-Head remains the alpha of the friendship, demeaning Beavis and carefully asserting his dominance. In Do the Universe, Beavis shows a little bit more of his sensitive side, developing real feelings for Serena — which, naturally, Butt-Head will mock him for. (It’s worth pointing out, though, that he doesn’t resort to using any homophobic slurs.) But deep down, Butt-Head knows he couldn’t live without his old friend — as time goes by, they seem even more destined to be together, navigating hormones and social discomfort with that nervous laugh they use to punctuate any situation, mostly because they’re terrified of silence.
Perhaps you can relate from being that age. Maybe you’re raising a teen boy yourself right now. You want him to grow up to be a good person, but at that age, god, it feels like a crapshoot. And yet, Beavis and Butt-Head Do the Universe is weirdly optimistic — not just about its protagonists, but boys in general. Near the end of the film, a side character comes to a realization: “They’re just two very, very stupid and horny teenagers,” she says, her voice heavy with acceptance.
That’s all they’ve ever been. Which doesn’t mean you can’t hope that, someday, they’ll be more than that. In the meantime, though, this film is here to remind you what an awkward, delicate age it can be — but, also, a really damn funny one.