Marvel Animation’s current output of shows leaves a little to be desired—too much of a focus on nodding to the movies, not enough doing their own thing. When Guardians of the Galaxy began, I thought much the same. But somehow, in a few short weeks, it’s gone from disappointing to delightful.
Spoilers ahead, of course...
“Undercover Angle” is a genuine shock to the system for the show—considering this turnaround that has happened just 5 episodes in, it’s nothing short of remarkable. Guardians felt unsure of itself, whether that was in its tendency to fall back on elements from the movie, or its outright fear of what to do with characters not well-expanded upon in the film, like Drax and Gamora. But basically, it seems like for Guardians to realize itself as a fun cartoon, it basically just needed to become Firefly: The Animated Series. I’m not going to complain about that at all.
It’s a very Firefly-ian premise: A crackpot heist plan sees the team infiltrate Nova Corps headquarters on Xandar to loot another Pandorian crystal for Star-Lord’s cosmic seed/doohickey device, only to be captured—and sent on another heist at the behest of Nova Corpsman Titus, requiring them to infiltrate a gang that’s attempting to sell Ronan’s hammer from the film. This was a clever way of integrating plot threads from the movie without just repeating them wholesale (it’s natural that Ronan leaving behind a hugely powerful weapon would lead to it ending up in the hands of some unsavory characters). But also, this plot also lets “Undercover Angle” do three things to transform Guardians of the Galaxy from disappointment to a show with a lot of fun promise.
The Guardians are best as characters when they’re basically just sort of winging it—not quite heroes, not quite scoundrels, waltzing around with just enough planning to make themselves dangerous (and a hoot to watch)—and they get to do that not just once, but twice in “Undercover Angle”. The Nova Corp heist the episode opens with is perfect, since the team does its best to look like more than a gang of goofballs in disguise as Corpsmen. It leads to some great jokes, and when they inevitably screw up—Rocket accidentally trips an alarm while deactivating a shield around the crystal they’re swiping—it’s less of a failed plan and more of a snowball into some zany action. The Guardians aren’t a slick operation, and thats what makes them so fun.
The second “heist”, infiltrating a gang of criminals called the Black Order who are looking to sell Ronan’s hammer, equally positions the Guardians as a team that’s much more comfortable in the seedier parts of the galaxy than up against (or with) the Nova Corps. It’s a genuine delight to see them trick their way into good standing with the Black Order, and this also relies on the fact that the Guardians aren’t really a superhero team as such. They’re a team of adventurers who get by doing whatever they can, that decide to be heroes when the need arises—like how they get themselves caught by the Nova Corps in the first place because they stop their escape to save a small ship that’s about to crash.
Throughout all this, we get some truly great and funny banter between the team—and not just Rocket, Star-Lord and Groot, which the show has already shown it excels at. It’s still great here, and this time the whole team gets in on the fun.
There’s a great recurring joke about Drax, who takes everything literally, trying to grasp with the concept of acting and lying to people—something Star-Lord is a natural at—and this leads to some fun moments between the pair as Drax tries being undercover, to various levels of success. Even Gamora gets to joke around a bit instead of solely being someone who likes fighting a lot, and admonishes Star-Lord for past romantic dalliances. It’s zippy and fun, and it does a lot to make the characters enjoyable in their own rights instead of relying on what love we felt for them in the movie. It’s no Whedon-esque quipfest, sure, but for a cartoon series, it works well enough.
It turns out, after the Black Order discover the Guardians are working for the Nova Corps and head to the drop-off point for the Hammer’s buyer with them as prisoners, the real villain is actually Corpsman Titus—the equal parts useless and annoying Nova Corps officer/thorn-in-the-side-of-the-Guardians we’ve seen a lot of over the last few weeks. It turns out, his past asshole-ish nature was simply because he’s an asshole himself—he’s betraying the Corps to make easy money dealing with criminals, intending to sell Ronan’s weapon on the black market. The problem was, without knowing this information, Titus’ past appearances just made him look incredible petty towards the Guardians. He was just an annoying authority figure for them to defy, and one who was seemingly downright incompetent in his ability to stop them.
This all made Titus a total bore to watch—but thankfully, Guardians of the Galaxy seemingly realized that, and nipped Titus’ presence in the show in the bud, having him foiled and imprisoned at the end of the episode. It’s a good thing, aside from the fact that Titus was completely ineffective as a villain: it goes to show that the Guardians don’t need a repeating villain cropping up for no real reason each week (aside from a much larger, overarching threat like Thanos, of course). Hopefully with Titus behind bars we can a) never see him again, and b) have some more interesting “villains of the week.”
Last week’s episode was filled with stumbles, but showed a tiny sliver of promise that Guardians of the Galaxy could defy the bad reputation of Marvel Animation’s current output. This week, it got a lot closer to doing just that—and I’m really hoping it keeps this good streak going.