Rick and Morty has always been known for its biting commentary on narrative. A typical episode will take a well-worn storytelling trope and deconstruct it, subvert it, and/or simply rip on it outright. When it’s at its best, Rick and Morty manages to do all three at once. And one of the best examples of this was their recent episode “Vindicators 3: The Return of Worldender.”
Meet the Guardians of the Gal… er, the Vindicators
Right off the bat, the premise of the episode sets up a sly bit of satire. Rick and Morty are summoned to join the Vindicators, a group of superheroes who are “guardians of the unguarded,” and we discover that this isn’t their first adventure. As Morty goes on about how great the Vindicators are, Rick fires back with this deliberate barb:
“They’re a bunch of drama queens that spend an hour talking and 20 minutes jumping around while s*** blows up. They’re a phase. We did one, it was the big event of that summer, let it die.”
It’s hard not to see Rick’s jab as a bit of needling at the expense of the Guardians of the Galaxy. Even if you ignore the part about how Guardians of the Galaxy and its sequel are structured, the comment about doing one adventure and its status as “the big event of the summer” certainly comes across as a complaint that there was a Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
Parallels and Inspirations
When we meet the Vindicators, their team makeup is definitely modeled after the Guardians. There’s cocky leader Vance Maximus, Renegade Starsoldier (Star-Lord), cybernetically-enhanced animal Crocubot (Rocket Raccoon), golem-like shape-shifter Million Ants (Groot), muscular machismo Alan Rails (Drax), and spacey female character Supernova (Gamora).
Granted, it’s worth noting that the designs of the characters and even some of their traits incorporate several superhero references. Cyborg, Starfire, Iron Man, Clayface, and Green Lantern are definite inspirations for the Vindicators, but their basic team structure is very much riffing on the Guardians.
An additional chuckle comes when we realize that the Vindicators left Rick and Morty out of a previous adventure and this new one is actually their third gathering. It reads as a very subtle slight against the endless barrage of sequels superhero movies engender.
It’s All the Same
Probably the most brutal piece of criticism came when the Vindicators had to match up their character traits with their portraits. It was all part of a sick Saw-like deathtrap game that Rick put together when he was blackout drunk. The reveal is that all the character traits apply to all of them. It’s a scathing examination of how samey superhero characters are from a basic building blocks perspective.
The Marvel movies often get a lot of flak for being formulaic, and Rick and Morty clearly agrees. But, what the show does with its own parody characters is a lesson for superhero films going forward, and one that they have sometimes enacted on their own.
Complex Characters are More Interesting Than Plot
As the episode progresses, we learn a lot about the Vindicators’ interpersonal conflicts. Alan Rails and Supernova used to be married, but now they are divorced, and Supernova is in a relationship with Million Ants. It’s here that the real conflict of the episode begins to take shape, and the petty “human” aspects of the Vindicators come to the forefront. That’s when they become truly interesting and compelling characters instead of just wacky parody concepts.
Look at Captain America: Civil War. The enormous superhero showdown at the abandoned airfield is what most people would call the best part of that film. That’s the base spectacle and toyetic approach that Rick and Morty is pointing out and lampooning. But, the fight between Captain America and Iron Man at the end of the movie is far more moving. It’s not a battle motivated by a larger plot mechanic like the Sokovia Accords; it’s a conflict that comes from the characters and their personal secrets and histories.
Superhero stories work best when the characters drive the plot and not the other way around. That’s why movies like Wonder Woman work while Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice doesn’t. Rick and Morty put a spotlight on this in its typically zany and offensive way, and it gave us one of the best critical looks at superhero cinema we’ve had in a while.
Loving, Not Hating
At the end of the day, it’s not that Rick and Morty is hating on these movies or the genre. Criticism is not a synonym for negativity. It means examining something with a multitude of perspectives. You should take away a reading of it that is more than just its surface pleasures.
In a way, Rick and Morty decided to make its own superhero story. The best art always inspires creators to make something new. And because of that, we now have the Vindicators.