The very first shot of Marvel’s new Guardians of the Galaxy cartoon is of Star-Lord’s cassette player. A hand reaches down onto it, the thumb presses play... and then Hooked on a Feeling blares out, as if a million executives simultaneously cried out “Oh god you loved that weird movie we made last year. What do we do next!?”
Spoilers ahead, of course.
Last night, Disney XD premiered “Knowhere to Run”, the second half of its Guardians of the Galaxy animated series’ first story—the first half of which, “Road to Knowhere,” aired almost a month ago, before running with the second part as one-hour special. It seems like a bit of a weird thing to do, but honestly, the real point is that perhaps you don’t need to remember what happened in the first part, because this premiere tale was essentially a remixed, reheated version of several beats from last year’s incredible Guardians of the Galaxy movie.
The thrust of the two-parter is, essentially, the overarching story of the film—the Guardians luck their way into possession of a mysterious cosmic doohickey called the Cosmic Seed, and when they go to sell it, they learn that it holds the power to destroy worlds (and that Thanos wants it), so instead they decide to be heroes and keep it out of Thanos’s hands. Conflict ensues, Thanos doesn’t get the doohickey, and the Guardians blast off for more adventures as a team. That’s not me being facetious and obfuscating the story enough that it sounds identical to the movie: that is the plot to “Road to Knowhere/Knowhere to Run”. Here’s a brief bullet point breakdown of the distinct similarities between this story and the film:
- There are three primary locations: A prison, the space station/head of a dead Celestial called Knowhere, and Korath, the Pursuer’s ship that is not unlike Ronan’s from the film.
- Star-Lord’s Ravager friend Yondu flits in between helping the team and wanting them dead/captured for a bounty at the drop of a hat.
- At one point early on, Groot sacrifices his body and has to be planted as Baby Groot.
- Star-Lord’s alien “special-ness” from his heritage ties into the Cosmic Seed, which is shown through visions of his mother.
- There’s an almost direct lift of the movie’s opening scene where Korath corners Star-Lord in the chamber where the Cosmic Seed is kept... only this time, Korath knows that it’s Star Lord instead of going “Who!?”
- When the team come to Knowhere to find out more about the Cosmic doohickey, they’re cornered by Thanos’ Sakaaran goons... because Drax called them there, so he can try and get vengeance on Thanos. He fails, and the Guardians (and Knowhere) get pummeled by Thanos’ forces.
- The climax is solved when Star-Lord decides to go it alone to try and save the day by controlling Knowhere’s defences manually, but when he loses control Gamora and Rocket join him in manipulating the giant Station, because teamwork yay!
It’s understandable that part of the hook for this series is that it’s a continuation of the tone and vibe and visuals of the critically adored film. Using certain elements of what worked in the movie—moments like the ones above, or things like the licensed soundtrack based on Star-Lord’s mixtapes—will hook in an audience whose only exposure to these characters is from that film.
But so far the Guardians cartoon is far too brazen in re-appropriating beats from the movie, all too eager to nudge you in the arm and go “Hey, just like that bit in the movie, huh??” Why not take these familiar characters and send them on new adventures that feel like the movie, instead of just being an all-too-similar rehash?
Unfortunately, the rehashing of these elements just makes you wish you were watching the far better movie instead of the cartoon. In desperately aping the film, it just highlights the flaws, especially in the voice acting—on the whole the cast isn’t bad in its recreation of the main team, but sadly Will Friedle’s Star-Lord comes off as more of a whiny teen at times instead of having Chris Pratt’s irreverent charm.
The thing that makes Guardians of the Galaxy disappointing instead of straight-up bad with all this aping so far is that, when it actually decides to dip its toes in something that isn’t directly lifted from the events of the film, it can actually be pretty fun. Case in point so far is the introduction of Cosmo, the Knowhere Security Chief that happens to be a telepathic dog that was sent into space by the USSR during the Cold War, only to be abducted and experimented on.
Cosmo appears in the Guardians comics, but it was brilliant to see him here not just because he was something that wasn’t a part of the movie (in a major way, at least—he makes a cameo in the Collector’s archives), but also because he’s a ton of fun whenever he’s on screen. James Arnold Taylor does a great job with his goofy Russian accents, and all of Cosmo’s little quirks—his Das and his comrades and his wonderfully stilted way of addressing Star-Lord as “Peter Quill, also called Star-Lord”—are well done. He has a rapport with the team so quickly established and enjoyable to watch that you’re almost sad that he’s not coming along for the ride at the end of the episode. Fingers crossed he’ll become a regular character going forward.
Like I said, this isn’t a bad start for Guardians of the Galaxy, just a slightly worrying one. The brilliance of the Marvel Comics is that there is so much weird and wonderful stuff out there that the Marvel Cinematic Universe will never touch. Guardians of the Galaxy needs to dive into all that space goodness head-first, instead of desperately trying to ape what made the movie so unique in the first place. Hopefully, now that it’s established itself as very much “more of that thing you liked,” it’ll be a bit more confident in forging its own identity.