Rick and Morty does the threequel thing with Vindicators 3: The Return of Worldender, a hilarious send-up of action movies and their heroes.
Rick and Morty is no stranger to the world of action movies. Last week's 'Pickle Rick' took the one-note joke of Rick transforming himself into a pickle to avoid family counseling and expanded it into a wild, exceedingly violent half-hour that poked fun at a number of action-movie clichés while also embracing them for the sake of its own narrative. Rick's misadventures as a pickle may have been one of the weirdest episodes of the series yet, delivering the sort of unexpected story that sets and unusually high bar for the follow-up.
This is a common issue for Rick and Morty, as co-creators Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon have said that one of the reasons for the extended delay between seasons 2 and 3 was the concern that the new material wouldn't live up to what had come before. So far, season 3 has been firing on all cylinders, with 'Rickmancing the Stone' becoming a solid example of how, despite the fantastical nature of its stories, the show can often be sincere and direct above all else, especially when it comes to underlining and understanding the deeply flawed family dynamic at its core. And if 'Rickmancing the Stone' was the show revealing its emotional bona fides, then 'Pickle Rick' is Rick and Morty baring its action-loving soul to those watching.
And now, in 'Vindicators 3: The Return of Worldender', the show spoofs the formula of superhero team-up movies (especially spacefaring ones) and manages to take a look at itself in the process.
As such, the show takes things a step further with 'Vindicator 3: The Return of Worldender' by seemingly setting up a situation wherein Rick is pitted against Morty's hero Maximus Renegade Star Soldier, a roguish brigand with the swagger of Chris Pratt's Star-Lord. The social drinking Star Soldier is a walking sci-fi/superhero trope, and in a surprising change of events that again demonstrates how often unpredictable this series can be, especially when it comes to a willingness on behalf of the writers to call out their own main character.
'Vindicators 3' feels very much like an adventure that is the result of a Subway Club Card promotion Rick and his grandson set up off screen somewhere. The heavy emphasis on Morty's infatuation with the Vindicators plays into their inevitable, bloody demise, as the threat of the titular Worldender quickly gives way to the group having to make it through a series of Saw-like deathtraps that are drunk Rick's way of working through his feelings. That's an emotional minefield no one in their right mind would want to walk through, and so it's no surprise that drunk Rick would orchestrate a situation that forced the participation of the Vindicators, his grandson and even himself.
The otherwise straightforward escape-the-death-traps nature of the episode makes 'Vindicators 3' rely on misdirection more than the usual Rick and Morty episode. This is underlined by the lack of any subplot with the other characters in Rick's family at all. Beth makes an entirely extemporaneous appearance at the end of the episode, and Rick drags a naked Jerry from his bed in a coda that sets up next week's installment, but otherwise 'Vindicators 3' is wholly reliant on the plight of its heroes against an adversary they're completely unequipped to handle. That adversary is, of course, Rick Sanchez.
Repositioning Rick as the villain isn't really anything new. The April Fools' Day season premiere underlined the increasingly adversarial nature of Morty's relationship with his grandfather, and here that conflict demonstrates the degree to which Morty has grown – or been forced to grow as a way of dealing with Rick's erratic and often dangerous behavior. Like the joke of there having been previous Vindicators adventures that happened entirely off screen, Morty solving Rick's admittedly not well thought out traps (although forcing superheroes to shoot three pointers makes him the Doctor Doom of disrespect) stresses how much the character has learned and changed since the series began.
In another bit of hilarious misdirection, 'Vindicators 3' hints that Rick's affection for his grandson is the final piece of the puzzle that will save the day, despite the majority of the Vindicators crew being gruesomely killed off one by one. But just as the episode is primed for an emotional pay off to the series' central relationship, it turns out that it's just another clever bait and switch, as Rick's emotional appeal is really directed toward Noob-Noob, and not his grandson.
While 'Vindicators 3: The Return of Worldender' seems like a lesser effort on the surface, the episode demonstrates its commitment to the season's through-line of exploring just how messed up the family dynamic really is, and how the characters are learning to navigate their emotions within that dynamic because of rather in spite of Rick's behavior and influence. It's not nearly as strange or viscerally exciting as 'Pickle Rick' but 'Vindicators 3' feels like the kind of episode that will resonate more as the season moves on – especially once Rick and Jerry's adventure comes to a close.
Rick and Morty continues next Sunday with 'The Whirly Dirly Conspiracy' @11:30pm on Adult Swim.