Rocket the Raccoon (photo credit: Marvel/Disney).
In 'Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3,’ Rocket Raccoon’s Origin Story Takes Center Stage
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 brings a rare air of completion to the MCU, presenting a fully realized character arc around Rocket Raccoon.
In the middle of saving the day, Peter Quill, otherwise known as Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), makes time for a brief lecture. Nebula (Karen Gillan) just entered a giant spaceship in order to rescue him and Groot (Vin Diesel), but, just like always, the two have already managed to escape certain death, a point Star-Lord makes sure to reinforce as he chastises her for expecting anything different. Predictability and meta exchanges like that one are just part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), a Hollywood machine that often runs into monotony when producing films that feel like they exist for the sole purpose of milking IP for all its worth. So then, it’s refreshing that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 emits a genuine sense of finality.
With a mix of heart and hilarity, the conclusion of James Gunn’s trilogy brings a rare air of completion to the MCU, presenting fully realized character arcs for a movie that feels like a proper send-off for at least one iteration of the eclectic space crew. Released after a string of lackluster MCU flicks, it’s a reminder of what their creators are capable of when they put poignancy over profit.
Unfolding years after the blip — some time after Thor left them to begin his own adventure — the film finds the Guardians in a state of confusion. Quill’s still not over the loss of Gamora (Zoe Saldaña) and has largely succumbed to life as a drunk, while the rest of the crew adjusts to life on a rebuilt version of the planet Nowhere. Things only get more difficult when Rocket (Bradley Cooper) is suddenly attacked by a super-powered being who’s come to kidnap him on behalf of the Higher Evolutionary, a mad scientist who played a crucial role in the raccoon’s tragic past. Amid the chaos, Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) is left critically injured, and the Guardians will have to travel the far reaches of space in order to get him the help he needs.
The premise is the stuff of classical GotG, and a lot of familiar ingredients are here. As the writer and director for all three films in the franchise, Gunn’s wicked sense of humor is at work, with a continual stream of quippy banter permeating the latest adventure. It’d be easy for things to get formulaic, but bits of logistical comedy and winking nods at superhero tropes keep everything fresh. When presented with the notion that he’s headed into a trap, Quill presents a silly, but valid counter; if you willingly go into a trap, it’s not a trap — it’s a face-off. Bits like that one and a very well-placed F-bomb keep things fairly upbeat even amid tragedy, as the Guardians' back-and-forths bounce off each other with a rhythmic force that keeps the laughs coming.
The colorful worlds and stylized action scenes also imbue the film with some kineticism. At this point, it would be easy for Gunn to just pile on flashy explosions and colorful laser blasts, but there’s an art to the combat. In this one, Nebula turns a broken neck into an evasive maneuver, Groot’s roots become a hang glider, and Mantis’ psychic powers turn adversaries into weapons of mass destruction. Eccentrically colorful, the sequences are forged at the intersection of imagination and practicality, which feels like an apt description for Gunn’s brand of superhero fun.
On their own, those elements would make a decent MCU film, but Rocket’s blood-stained origin story adds the type of depth that lingers much longer than one of Star-Lord’s zingers. In this story, we learn of the circumstances that propelled him to escape a deadly fate. The tale unspools gradually, with flashes of the past being explored as the Guardians travel to get him the help he needs. The core of Rocket’s story is his first family, a bit of narrative symmetry that becomes more apparent when studying the ties that bind the Guardians.
If you hadn’t noticed, the Guardians are misfits, a collection of orphaned aliens, mutated animals, and homeless warriors. They’re a family now, but their quest for total happiness remains on just the other side of things they can’t change. For Quill’s part, that tragedy involves trying to win the love of an alternate timeline Gamora, who doesn’t share the same romantic feelings as her present timeline counterpart, who met her end at the hands of Thanos years prior. Through jagged interactions and forlorn stares, Pratt, Saldaña, and Gunn render the totality of that existential conflict with nuance and grace, and it only reinforces a theme of familial bonds, an idea that extends through the film’s conclusion.
The end result is a movie that offers layers of catharsis to nearly everyone involved, a difficult feat for a project built upon action and quippy exchanges. While it feels about 15 minutes too long, the third GotG manages to soar. Unlike Thor: Love and Thunder, this film isn’t afraid of sentimentality, a store of emotion that powers warriors to become father figures, former villains to become civic leaders, and little guys to become magnanimous.
Although there’s evidence that the Guardians will go on in some form or another, there’s a good chance it carries on without Gunn, who recently signed on to helm the new DC Cinematic Universe. With that, and the general storyline in mind, Vol. 3 feels like the type of farewell that’s rarely afforded to characters you’ve known so long. As with any old friend, there’s the hope that this isn’t really goodbye. But there’s beauty in the fact that it just might be.
Peter is a writer and editor who covers music, movies, and all things dope.