To say the overall first season of Guardians of the Galaxy was a mess would be an understatement. It’s hard to tell if the show was rushed into production or driven by laziness (probably a bit of both), but needless to say, audiences seemed to run away from the show in droves; even Disney seems uncomfortable with it now. I more or less stuck through it to the end, mainly because it always had potential (and I have a high tolerance for “bad cartoons”), and while I can’t say at this point it was worth it (there’s still that second part next week), I can say that I am very satisfied. This “Asgard War” two-parter is shaping up to be the best thing to happen to this show: an absolute, all-in conflict that raises the stakes and the seriousness by adding a couple of personal touches, solid action, and, perhaps most importantly, general acknowledgment of most of its past flaws.

That last point is handled rather subtly, but hilariously, such as Victoria slamming Peter on the ground and telling him how monumentally stupid it was for him to run into a meeting with everyone in the room to accuse J’Son of thievery. Another great example: Drax’s unwillingness to listen to Peter’s (and the show’s) overly complex plotting. There’s some definite, “yeah, that was stupid,” self-acknowledgment in these moments, and writer Marsha Griffin smartly condenses that overall Cosmic Seed story arc into something simple: two people manipulating people and forces in inciting a war between Asgard and Spartax. This means a simple objection: Peter needs to find proof that his father (and then Loki) stole the Seed to start this war.

Here’s the thing: J’Son is the best thing the show could have ever done. He’s a twisted, sadistic, remorseless monster, who philosophically believes in thievery and manipulation as a way of life, to the point that he’s willing to try and force it on his son–and kill him when he refuses to abide by that same philosophy. This is crazy bold for a show (a Disney animated show!) that almost reaches Gargoyles-levels of shockingly deep characterization. Loki’s plan, comparatively, is basic: take over Asgard when Thor is fighting in the war, then kill him while he’s fighting. Loki has always been a manipulative jerk–he’s the Lord of Chaos for a reason–but J’Son is a villainous revelation. The fight between him and Peter is so good and so rich that even its obvious Last Airbender/Legend of Korra-imitation fight doesn’t distract from it. J’Son has no familial love for his son (or how much his actions broke Peter and their mother), and he exhibits no remorse or regret or guilt. He’s only disappointed in Peter since his own plan to make him into “a proper thief” has failed. (Except for a brief moment when it looks like Peter is falling to death–and more on that in the Stray Observations).

The majority of “Lightnin’ Strikes” is about that fight and the overall battle between Thor, Angela, and some Asgardian warriors, versus the entire of army of Spartax. The animators, under the guidance of director James Yang, bring much-needed dynamism to the various way the Asgardians take out the Spartax ships, making an entertaining battle with minimal visual shortcuts (although there are a few). Unfortunately, other than Rocket, the Guardians don’t really do much but quip and intimidate, and Peter’s final plan to expose the truth is ridiculously, narratively forced: Thor and Peter pretend to be killed by the Destroyer Armor, which leads to the war somehow being blamed on the Guardians, which leads to Rocket exposing the recording he stole from the Destroyer Armor. It barely makes sense. (I guess it was to let J’Son’s and Loki’s guards down, but the assumption that they would have a ceasefire, or not have immediately killed the Guardians right after, was way too big of a risk.) Sloppy ending aside, the episode handles itself extremely well, and J’Son’s ultimate twist is finally revealed, calling for Thanos and his massive army for an all-out attack. If next week is as good as today’s episode, then the first season may have been worth it–or, at the very least, a good sign for season two.

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Stray observations

  • Seriously, J’Son is such a fantastic character. Unlike Loki, who wants control of Asgard/Spartax just because power, etc., J’Son wants to take it merely for the sake of taking it–it’s what he does, what he’s basically bred for–and was willing to align with Thanos to make it happen. It’s a silly idea but Frakes drives home the complete conviction of J’Son’s very core belief.
  • If you’re dropping in on this review because of the high grade (probably after abandoning the show), there’s absolutely no reason to catch up. Just watch this episode on the Disney XD app.
  • So, did anyone else get the impression that when Peter let go while hanging from the building, he was trying to kill himself? The episode kind of plays it off in a “Peter does crazy stuff all the time” way, but the expression he possesses back on the Milano suggests something entirely different. The fact that he’d drop to his death, versus receiving any kind of assistance from his father, is a huge character moment.
  • When it’s revealed that Loki stole the Seed (and his part in orchestrating the war), he pardons himself. But I can’t believe the other Asgardians just stood there and did nothing. Loki committed traitorous acts! Get him!
  • With Thanos on the way, there’s a good chance Ronin will be in the next episode, adding to the stakes and the insanity of it all. Guardians of the Galaxy, surprisingly, is in a good narrative place.

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