Guardians of the Galaxy started off with potential, but fell victim to some terrible narrative/thematic choices and really clunky animation. It wasn’t even making decisions that seemed to be in the interest of making young kids excited; they were baffling decisions to artificially add tension or conflict. After a step in the right direction with last week’s “Can’t Fight This Seedling,” the show could have easily fallen back on its lazier, lamer storytelling beats. “Undercover Angle” makes it clear that not only are the writers and animators way more comfortable with the characters and visual aesthetics, but that they also have a better handle on the tone and atmosphere they’re aiming for. (This usually happens by episode five of a live-action TV series, but for animated shows, this happens around episode nine-through-thirteen because of how cartoons are produced. The fact that Guardians managed to find its footing this early is shocking). It’s the kind of confidence that makes me think the show could possibly receive the coveted comparison that other sci-fi shows strive for, the infamous F-word that Fox cancelled so many years ago.

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Yes, I’m saying Guardians could be the next Firefly.

Of course, it’ll never one hundred percent replace the cult hit space Western. Hell, I can hear you already typing aggressive disagreements in the comments. And that’s fine. Guardians will never fill the shoes of those morally-questionable “Big Damn Heroes,” but when the show tries, it can at least exhibit Firefly’s spirit. “Undercover Angle” has that spirit right at the start, bouncing between the Guardians’ illegal infiltration of Nova Corps to the heroic rescue of that alien family in the crashing spaceship. Guardians has found that perfect spot between being outlaws and heroes, primarily by making everyone morally questionable and mostly having a lot of fun with it. The animation has also found its stride, with few, if any, abject mistakes. The various battles that occur when the Guardians are discovered in Nova Corps are portrayed via really great storyboarding–Gamora’s skillful vault escape from the Nova Corps soldiers followed by her sliiiide right into the battle with Supergiant was particularly well done–and the crash scene was complicated but portrayed with clarity and coolness.

That’s really at the heart of Guardians–complexity with clarity. I mean, it is a kids show, so it’s certainly not nuanced or subtle complexity, but it is throwing a lot of curveballs in the air and letting the chaos happen without being bogged down. When the Guardians are captured and Corpsman Titus says they’re going to prison unless they “can work out a deal,” of course it’s an off-the-books operation that eventually will expose Titus as corrupt. But it’s a fun reveal, and an organic one, which explains his behavior in previous episodes (not to mention it gets rid of the “obsessed cop follows protagonists everywhere” plotline, which would’ve gotten old fast). I also love the show’s tendency to subvert cliches without being smug about it; Peter’s “let me do the talking” mindset fails immediately when he tries to infiltrate the Black Order, allowing Gamora, Groot, Rocket, and Drax to easily come up with a plan on the fly to take advantage of Starlord’s failure. I’m actually quite impressed how well it snapped into place without feeling forced; it’s like the characters know each other without knowing each other, if that makes sense.

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Well, all except for Drax, who right now seems to be the show’s weakest element. It feels like the writers don’t know what quite to do with him; he’s kind of like the comic relief and the moral voice, which is a weird juxtaposition. The whole subplot with Drax’s confusion over how acting works is pretty inane, and the writers know it’s pretty inane, given how random and flippantly the whole thing is treated. Drax is a simple character: an alien meathead with a vengeful streak and an inability to understand metaphors. There’s no reason for him to be an idiot who doesn’t get what “acting” or “pretending” is. That’s playing too close to the kiddie line, and it’s not a natural extension of misunderstanding idioms. Drax is perfectly fine as is, and his natural interplay with the various characters creates just the right amount of humor; there’s no need to make him the requisite “stupid” character just to pile on more jokes.

Beyond that, “Undercover Angle” is just a lot of fun. I’m a big fan of chaotic, all-out battles, where sides and circumstances change in an instant (basically, every fight scene in Indiana Jones), and once the Guardians dig up Ronin’s Ultimate Weapon hammer, that’s exactly what we get. It starts off as a Black Order vs. the Guardians fight, then transitions to an everyone vs. Titus fight, with the Guardians and Black Order semi-teaming up to take him down. I kind of hope to see more of the Black Order in the future. They make a great foil to the Guardians themselves (and also learning their names would be nice), which Titus basically says when he dresses down the Guardians as “lowlives who want to be heroes.” But the Guardians are heroes, of sorts; they take Titus down with some surprisingly clever ideas from Peter and head off into the cosmos with all the crystals and a magic hammer. With the crystals fetch-quest done, it’s time for Guardians to really take the next step. And then maybe my Firefly comparison will be validated.

STRAY OBSERVATIONS:

  • I’m very hit or miss on Peter’s whole thing with “dating” and leaving various space gals. First of all, it’s a bit odd seeing the implication in a kids show (not unprecedented, but feels out of place here). Secondly, it comes dangerously close to the whole dated idea of women (of any species, I guess) always needing to settle down with whomever guy they sleep with. I will give this episode props, though–Supergiant didn’t give two shits about Peter leaving her, and just wanted to kill off a whole bunch of NovaCorp soldiers.
  • When Drax is hit by Supergiant early in the episode he lets out the infamous Wilhelm scream, which, 1) what the hell, and 2) another sign that the writers are playing coy with Drax as a character, at least for now.
  • Not sure how much Peter was bullshitting when he said he beat the mind control of that one guy in the Black Order (according to Google his name is Ebony Maw) early in that final battle. Re-watching that scene, it just doesn’t track. There’s no slick reveal, like there was when he secretly recorded Titus saying his name back at Nova Corp HQ.
  • Yes, Peter recording Titus’ confession at the end was a nifty callback to that early Nova Corp scene as well. It may be nothing, but I’m optimistic that the writers are starting to gel with the material.

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