Here's Why You Need To Make Kid Cosmic Your Next Superhero Binge [Interview]

For the past decade and a half, superhero stories have dominated pop culture, but also created an idea of what a superhero movie is: either dark and violent, or filled with quips and one-liners. Sure, some of the recent Marvel and DC movies have made an effort to embrace the weirder parts of comic books, but the few projects that take that approach still feel like outliers. Meanwhile, a TV cartoon just finished telling one of the most endearing, funny, emotional, and pure comic book stories in years. "Kid Cosmic" may not feature known characters or even many adult characters, yet it told a more personal and adult story than many big-budget tentpole movies.

If you're looking for a superhero show with bonkers scenarios and powers, relatable characters, a winning and grounded story with stakes and emotions that still delivers plenty of silly fun as well as serious and dark moments, you need to make "Kid Cosmic" your next superhero binge. Thankfully, it is only 24 episodes, so it won't take too long.

This is not a power fantasy

"Kid Cosmic" takes place in a thinly populated stretch of highway in the middle of the desert, and we follow the titular Kid (yes, that's his actual name), a nine-year-old orphan boy who lives with his grandpa at a junkyard and spends his days fantasizing about being like the superheroes in his favorite comics. Everything changes one day when a spaceship crashes around Kid's home, carrying five cosmic stones of power which grant the user a variety of amazing powers. Of course, nothing is ever that easy: The stones also attract great danger.

From the very beginning, "Kid Cosmic" stands out from other superhero stories, especially those starring kids, by firmly refusing to be a power fantasy. This is not Billy Batson getting a great escape from his normal life by turning into Captain Marvel in "Shazam!," or Midoriya getting to join the school of his dreams when he gets his powers in "My Hero Academia." From the moment Kid gets his powers, he proves to not be very good at it. First, he struggles with gatekeeping, refusing to share the five stones because he considers his comic book knowledge a pre-requisite to using the stones. Even when the team gets assembled, they all kind of suck at using their powers to stop, well, anyone. Even the tagline for the show plays into this — "They're the good guys ... but they're really bad at it" — and that was an essential part of the story for its creators.

"It's about the people, not the powers," series creator Craig McCraken ("The Powerpuff Girls," "Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends") told /Film over Zoom. "We make sure to come up with emotional character stories first, then embellish them with cool powers." Indeed, this feels in many ways like a throwback to classic Marvel Comics, with a focus on placing regular people in extraordinary circumstances and allowing the reader to watch how the powers help the characters grow, rather than the other way around. Kid is not a happy kid with a big support system, but an orphan living in poverty with his grandpa. The rest of the super team struggles with grief, anxieties, lack of confidence, imposter syndrome, and more, even as they get involved in increasingly fantastical stories. As writer and producer Rob Renzetti ("My Life as a Teenage Robot") tells us, this is also an homage to the Marvel way of telling stories. "Marvel, back in the Silver Age, had a bunch of superheroes that were actually real characters with lives outside their costumes, and it was their connection to real life that made them relatable." As exciting it is to see Spider-Man fight a lizard man or an alien symbiote, his best stories involved Peter Parker. Likewise, Superman had all the coolest powers, but his best and most relatable stories involve him not being able to solve problems by putting on the costume and using his powers, but by being Clark Kent.

"A lot of superhero stuff focuses on the what is happening, and why it is happening," McCracken adds. "And with 'Kid Cosmic,' we wanted to focus on who it is happening to and how they are dealing with it." By placing the focus on characters first, the show allows the audience to see how the characters evolve season by season. And by nature of this being a serialized story in which every episode leans into the next one, "Kid Cosmic" offers something that 99% of comic book stories can't offer: an actual ending. With each season, rather than hit the reset button and have Kid learn to be a better hero again, the series changes perspectives to allow other members of the team to take the spotlight. While the first season is about Kid learning to share, season 2 is all about Jo learning to be a leader, while season 3 follows Papa G teaching Kid about the sacrifices heroes make. This is still a show for kids, but there is some dark stuff in the story.

A love letter to the weirder, campier, cheerfully fun parts of superhero stories

And yet, the show is very far removed from a dark and gritty story like "Young Justice," or a hyper-violent power fantasy like "Invincible." Sure, there are moments of human struggle and darkness, but "Kid Cosmic" can be quite goofy when it wants to be. For instance, the big bad of season 2 is a Thanos-like giant looking to steal the stones, but in reality is just a big fanboy dork who admires the real villain and wants to keep the stones as a collection in his bedroom. Likewise, the third season actually starts by giving us everything we would expect from a "proper" superhero show, including a fancy HQ building, campy villains, cool vehicles and suits, and even a giant mech. 

We even get a big reference to McCracken's most famous work, "The Powerpuff Girls," in the form of the Planet Protection Group, or PPG, with the original voice actors coming back to play three government agents that are literally just grown up versions of the original designs for Blossom, Bubbles, and Buttercup. But rather than relish in the fan service, "Kid Cosmic" quickly pulls the rug from under the audience, and enters one of the most classic tropes of superhero stories — the fantasy realm. Of course, the show does more than just reveal it was all fake, but uses those ideas to pull off a fantastic, very emotional take on Alan Moore's "For the Man Who Has Everything." As McCracken explains it, "We wanted the season to start with people thinking we had jumped the shark and sold out, without playing in that world for too long. This is still a grounded story."

This is best proven with the animation itself, which does have big fight scenes with lots of effects, powers, and explosions, but also looks homemade and at times even cheap, like classic Saturday morning cartoons. The same background citizens are seen running away in entirely different shows, while sometimes the action is animated in twos and even threes and fours (meaning only one in every two, three, or four frames is a new drawing) to slow down the fluidity of movement into something that looks more like what a kid would imagine or draw.

As superhero stories continue to dominate our pop culture landscape, the idea of what a superhero show or film should be is becoming more entrenched in the public perception, and the bad news is many of them emulate one of the worst parts about reading superhero comics: the stories never truly end. If you want the experience of reading a Silver Age superhero comic with all its ludicrous powers and over-the-top villains, but with a story grounded in a group of complex and relatable characters and a proper ending that brings the themes and characters' stories to a close, "Kid Cosmic" may just be the show for you. Craig McCracken has worked on cartoons and superhero shows for over two decades, but this might be his greatest contribution to the genre yet.

All three seasons of "Kid Cosmic" are currently streaming on Netflix.