The animated series The Powerpuff Girls was once so ubiquitous that Christian Bale, known Serious Actor, sung the show’s theme song during a TV interview. Blossom, Bubbles, and Buttercup may not be as prominent in pop culture now as they used to be, but their legacy remains: They were three young girls with distinct personalities and appearances (as far as three ovals can look distinct, anyway) who all kicked ass, and rare examples of female superheroes in a landscape that largely ignored (well, ignores) women or relegates them to either being sidekicks or being fridged. Powerpuff Girls creator Craig McCracken’s Netflix series Kid Cosmic attempts to pull off a similar feat, but with a slightly more focused aim. The show is about learning how to be a good hero, yes, but it’s also about the tendency to gatekeep in fandom, and the importance of learning how to share.
Kid Cosmic centers around Kid (voiced by Jack Fisher), a young boy obsessed with comic books who discovers five colorful stones that imbue the holder with supernatural powers. Each stone eventually finds an owner—teenager Jo (Amanda C. Miller) can open portals, old man Papa G (Keith Ferguson) can clone himself, toddler Rosa (Lily Rose Silver) can become a giant, and the cat Tuna Sandwich (Fred Tatasciore) can see the future—but the path to putting a team together is a rocky one. Kid is reluctant to part with any of the stones, and the entire second episode centers around him trying to get one of them back from Rosa, protesting all the while that she’s not who he wants on his team, and that she’s just a kid (even though he himself is not much older). He’s also adamant about being the leader of the team despite lacking any leadership skills, touting his knowledge of comic books as the reason he should be in charge.
It’s easy to imagine a version of Kid Cosmic in which Kid would be proven right, and all of the other characters would apologize for not listening to him. But McCracken isn’t interested in telling that story. Instead, Kid Cosmic revolves around growth, first in terms of Kid’s acceptance of his team members and second when it comes to sharing something that, until this point, he’s thought of as solely his. None of his teammates are particularly interested in comics (after all, one of them is a cat), but they’re still superheroes, and—in a major point of contention in the show—often better in a scrape than Kid is.
The idea of learning how to share isn’t new—it was a key component of the Lego Movie franchise, too, as the “real” boy playing with the Lego figurines eventually allows his younger sister to play with them with him—but this is one of the rare instances in which the idea of fandom, however abstract, factors into its portrayal. Gatekeeping is a common phenomenon—it’s why “Oh, You Love a Band? Name Three of Their Albums” has its own Know Your Meme page—and much of Kid’s struggle has to do with suddenly finding other people in what he perceives to be his sandbox, especially as his obsessive love of comics has branded him a bit of a local weirdo. He wants a team of heroes to play with, but doesn’t know how to give up complete control over his space, much less how to reconcile with the fact that the others may be better superheroes than he is.
The show is subtle enough that it never feels like it’s laboring to teach the viewer a lesson, and though Kid Cosmic isn’t as colorful as The Powerpuff Girls, it benefits from McCracken’s distinct visual style and knack for making simple, almost scribbly lines come to life—it’s miles away from Rick and Morty and its similarly smooth visual progeny, Lower Decks and Big Mouth. It may take a few episodes for the series to hit its stride, but their brevity (each episode is under half an hour) makes that a forgivable sin, especially when there’s so much eye candy on the screen.
Kid Cosmic’s first season ends by raising the question of whether or not the series has more to say about the state of superhero fandom, as the finale seems to wrap things up neatly when it comes to lessons learned and the team finally finding its groove. There are other messages to be learned—“Heroes help, not hurt” is a repeated motif—but it’s the more meta aspect of the show that’s the most interesting, especially as the role fandom plays becomes more and more pronounced in popular media (e.g. the future release of “the Snyder Cut” or the harassment that led Star Wars’ Kelly Marie Tran to quit social media). Kid Cosmic is all about opening the gates and letting people in. Hopefully real-life kids can follow suit.