This exchange basically sums up Guardians of the Galaxy thus far:

Gamora: Do you have any idea what you’re doing, Quill?

Peter: Some… a little… maybe… I don’t know.

Guardians of the Galaxy is all over the place. Fun, genuinely enjoyable episodes are followed by utter nonsense. It’s frustrating, particularly since animation takes so long to make, so it’ll probably be a while until the writers and animators actually figure out what they’re doing (there’s a lot of improvements in this episode but there are still some baffling visual/narrative moments). Yet when an episode clicks, Guardians is just stupid, exciting fun. Really, that’s what works best about this show–dropping these heroic losers into a chaotic battle situation and forcing them to do whatever they have to do to survive, while quipping, bickering, and chattering at each other. Sure, character development would be welcome, but insane action sequences masking character/narrative deficiencies can also work, if done well.

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Actually, I should clarify a bit. There is some character development here, but it’s hidden in the margins. Dare I say it… it’s nuanced? Allowing the characters to exhibit even a teeny bit of a personality outside of their cliched roles is always welcome, even if it’s essentially meaningless. Gamora spouting non-stop exposition on symbiotes was annoying (partly because the line readings never matched the urgency of the situation), but Gamora briefly opening up about the fact that she dealt with them before suggests more of her brutal upbringing. (Also, her “alone at last” statement wasn’t huge, but it was nice to see her not in angry/snarky mode for once.) In the lighter department, Drax cooks the meals. It doesn’t make a lick of sense, but, hell, it’s different, and it’s good to see the big lug doing something other than beating up everyone and misunderstanding metaphors. Rocket and Groot get the real character development though. It’s material that we’ve seen before, but it’s handled very well, with Peter being a strong peripheral to the situation at hand.

The set up to that moment is worth praising, in its own way. The Guardians get into an all-out battle with a bunch of symbiotes, and that’s literally half the episode, and it’s just awesome. It has the kind of chaotic, nonsensical action flair that makes Indiana Jones such a delight–hell, the episode directly references it (the weirdest one, Temple of Doom, specifically). I mean, during mine cart escape, the alien mine cart itself inexplicably has an auxillary audio output perfect for earth-based 1980s walkmen. Whatever excuse you need to play Peaches & Herb’s “Shake Your Groove Thing,” I’m all for. The entire sequence works because it’s all the Guardians together battling the symbiotes, arguing incessantly while working together. Everyone feels like they’re a part of the fight, and it looks pretty good, too. This is what the show needs more of.

“Hitchin’ a Ride” starts off with a prestige action scene, becomes a standard horror film, then ends with a sci-fi thriller, and the transitions are surprisingly smooth, partly due to the focus on one singular plot (the symbiotes, with a side of Yandu), and partly due to the emotional heft of the Rocket/Groot relationship. It’s the most reliable, understated element of the franchise, with Rocket’s aggressive hounding of Groot masking his own severe insecurity. Groot understands this, but even he can get sick of Rocket’s behavior, which is manifested when the symbiote takes him over. The episode uses the “echoes” of Guardians’ dialogue both as a creepy mood creator and as a method to reflect Rocket’s harsh words back at him. It’s not super-nuanced, but it’s strong enough to motivate real tears from the critter as he blasts symbiote-Groot into dust.

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Luckily, Peter remembers that one symbiote that snagged Groot’s arm, who also got sucked up into the storage dimension vial earlier. And, again, the odds of this happening is small, but it’s admittedly a clever idea from good ol’ Starlord, and the scene is played subtly to suggest a plausible friendship between human and rodent. The Rocket/Groot/Starlord connection is the show’s best material, and it uses it to full effect here. Gamora and Drax are still cyphers but, similar to “Can’t Fight This Seedling,” they’re best used as the show’s muscle until the writers can figure out a more distinct place for them (that would require more engagement with their pasts, I think, but I feel like Drax’s murdered family is too dark for the show, and they completely botched bringing Gamora’s past into the mix). It’s in the Guardian’s togetherness where the show works the best; just having the group stand around a newly-growing Groot speaks volumes. Amid all the chaos and insanity, this is a team. A goofy, disparaging, uneven team, but a team nonetheless.

STRAY OBSERVATIONS:

  • Yes, Yondu’s in the episode, but he’s mostly there to be yet another obstacle to the Guardian’s search for the Cosmic Seed. That’s fine! Throwing stuff at the Guardians is when the show is at its best, but there’s nothing about him that stands out, ya boyo?
  • The humor is getting better, at least. I laughed when Rocket pretended setting symbiote-Drax on fire without killing him was totally his idea, and Peter get smacked in the back of his head on the mine cart after gloating was perfect because it wasn’t belabored.
  • I also like the shift in color when Rocket heads inside the vial to find his friend’s arm; again, it’s a small thing, but the little things matter, and it’s animated really well.
  • There are still some funky moments, though. In the scene where Groot is supposed to be possessed by the symbiote, he stands in the background as the creature crawls on the ceiling in the foreground, then leaps at the camera, away from Groot. I think this was supposed to shock the viewer but it only failed to establish when and how Groot was actually possessed. Later, when Yondu traps the Milano in the tractor beam and announces his presence to Peter, there’s an utterly baffling… like… delayed moment where Starlord just fiddles with something before gasping in shock. I don’t know what happened there.

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