[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “Rick and Morty” Season 3, Episode 4, “Vindicators 3: The Return of Worldender.”]
At its best, “Rick and Morty” is a show that’s been able to take the basic, ordinary parts of human life and spin them into grand, misshapen sci-fi horrors. Dogs taking over the world, parasites taking over happy memories, and a school dance becoming the platform for an army of Cronenbergs all came from a simple premise warped so fully that the result was twisted, unrecognizable bliss.
“Vindicators 3: The Return of Worldender” is an episode as deceptive as its title. What starts as a means for a “Guardians of the Galaxy”-style adventure against a looming foe gets the “Rick and Morty” treatment by putting that formula in reverse. It’s no surprise that this show would take a premise with unlimited possibilities and trap this supersquad in a simplistic “Saw”-bstacle course. Even if some of it feels a little familiar, at least it’s sending things in a different direction.
The Vindicators, as an organization, feel like a writers’ room dream of random-yet-viable superheroes: Supernova, a celestial being with the power of a collapsing star, crocodile-robot hybrid Crocubot, ghost train summoner Alan Rails, a blob of a Million Ants and a Christian Slater-voiced offbrand Star-Lord as the human leader with swagger and a jetpack. And the very idea that this episode works off an unspoken assumption of “Vindicators 1” events that are never actually explained is a fun bit of joke by omission.
Even when deconstructing the superhero team-up idea, it’s fun to see the unlimited possibility of this character design shine through. The Vindicators wisely aren’t a direct send-up of a specific team. (If anything, the closest analogue in the world of super-powered entertainment is probably another animated series, “The Awesomes.”) But the highly specific powers of each member, all the way down to the regenerative properties of the ant mound, hint at a highly lucrative spin-off had each of them not been systematically destroyed by some booby-trap machinations.
Sure, all of these death traps are of a riggity riggity wrecked Rick’s design, but once again “Vindicators 3: The Return of Worldender” uses another Season 3 installment to nod toward what Rick’s partners in crime are learning after spending some dangerous time at his side. Summer took charge in “Rickmancing the Stone”; seeing Morty do the same while navigating this horror show mirrors the steps he’s taking in Rick’s estimation. When he explains why Morty might be the answer to save the team at the end of the final puzzle, there’s some genuine affection sprinkled in amongst the desire for self-preservation.
(It’s also the second episode in a row with a not-so-oblique reference to on-screen representation: After Pickle Rick’s casual mention that Dr. Wong might not have been the most appropriate name for the Susan Sarandon-voiced therapist, Morty rattles off a list of more diverse erstwhile Vindicators members that didn’t survive to see the sequel.)
As entertaining as parts of this episode are, it’s hard not to spot the growing sense of greatest hits syndrome that also crept into the show’s surprise season premiere. In some ways, this felt like a superhero story grafted onto the “Anatomy Park” episode, another series of bizarre obstacles resulting in unexpected character deaths. And although the Disneyland-inspired ride through Drunk Rick’s feelings had a satisfying Noob Noob fakeout, that character felt a little like Mr. Poopy Butthole Lite. (On second thought, maybe the fact that this show can make a sentence that nonsensical actually have some meaningful character moments behind it means we should give it more credit.)
There’s an element to the “Morty gets to choose the adventure” punch card at the end of the cold open that feels like the rest of the show is taking on as well. Maybe hindsight is working against this season, given that by this point in Season 2, “Rick and Morty” had already brought in fresh spins on quantum timelines, the bizarre concept of Jerry day care, and a long glimpse at Unity (the last of which arguably works as a better “Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2” spoof than “Vindicators” does).
Not having a Summer/Beth subplot back on Earth puts some extra pressure on the Vindicators to carry the story, making this feel like a more straightforward episode than its execution does. But after laying the groundwork for some meaningful shift in this family’s emotional dynamics and setting the stage for a Rick and Jerry episode next week, this feels like a minor bump in the post-”Pickle Rick” road back to the show at its peak.
Guest Star Recon: Killing off Christian Slater’s character first was another nice bit of misdirection that also kept the show from repeating the “Archer” trick of using him to riff on a swashbuckling persona. Clearing Maximus Renegade Star-Soldier out of the way gave the show’s other two notable guest stars a chance to shine. Gillian Jacobs is great as the aloof-but-mighty Supernova, pulling off the exasperation in the board room just as well as the marital dispute right before Alan Rails meets his untimely end. (Plus, her first delivery of “Million Ants” is precise level of seriousness that character intro needed to sustain the joke through the rest of the episode.)
If there’s anything from “Vindicators 3: The Return of Worldender” episode that’s truly memorable (aside from another week of extremely graphic dismemberments), it’s more brilliant work from the always-reliable Lance Reddick. Whether it’s in his on-camera work or in other voice roles, Reddick has excelled at playing the strong-but-measured authority figure. Hearing him get to really let loose and dig into Alan Rails’ angry side is a particular delight.
And that’s actually Logic headlining the big Terrania-wide funfest at the episode’s close. (Flu-hatin’ MC Haps must have been booked for the night somewhere else.)
“Rick and Morty” Season 3 airs Sunday nights at 11:30 p.m. ET on Adult Swim.