The Beats Within: How Rocket’s Story in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 Leads to Transformation
Capping off the Guardians of the Galaxy trilogy was no easy feat, made even more difficult after the characters appeared in other films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Writer/director James Gunn took what could have easily been a special effects extravaganza and used the power of story to turn the film into something much more intimate.
Gunn has said that the story of the Guardians is, at its core, the story of Rocket, and the third film delivers on this idea, placing the emphasis on the genetically-modified raccoon. Even though the film is about Rocket and his journey, Rocket is actually not an active character in most of the present events of the film, having been mortally wounded by an enemy. So how can a story of transformation be told when the main subject is incapacitated throughout the first two acts of the film?
This is where Gunn’s creativity and power as a storyteller come in. As Rocket is injured and fighting for his life, his friends on the team search for the way to disable the kill switch that could end him. As the story unfolds, we witness Rocket’s story through flashbacks and learn of his origins; all the while, the team is growing and changing in the ways they need to as they help their friend. By trying to save Rocket’s life, they are ultimately saving themselves, having character arcs of their own.
Rocket’s story as a whole hits the story beats as his past transitions to his present. In the Opening Image of his backstory, we see baby Rocket, a raccoon huddled in a dark cage surrounded by others of his species. Immediately, this sets the tone and mood for what will be the journey of his life. It’s dark, scary, and isolating, even though there are others in the cage with him.
In the Set-Up, this scene briefly and effectively shows us what life is like in his thesis world. As a shadowy figure enters the room, the others cower in fear in the back of the cage, leaving Rocket alone. As he stands out, it’s a wordless Theme Stated moment: he’s unique, apart from the others, an individual… and alone.
The Catalyst happens as the hand reaches into the cage, one that looks giant and menacing from Rocket’s perspective. His Debate: what is happening, why is he being taken, and where is he going?
As the film bounces back and forth between Rocket’s past and the present, the beats unfold. We see the results of the experimental procedures done on him as he is placed in a new cage, surrounded by other animals in his Break into Two. These other animals will be his B Story relationships, shaping his future and turning him into the Rocket we have come to know and love.
He arrives in his upside-down world quivering with fear, saying only one word to the otter he meets: “Hurts.” The otter touches the scars and stitches on his cranium with a soft wet cloth, soothing the pain. In this new antithesis world, he’s not alone as he slowly gets to know the other creatures during the Fun and Games.
The person in charge of the experimenting, the High Evolutionary, continues to experiment on him, and eventually Rocket’s intelligence helps the scientist to solve the problem of evolving anthropomorphized animals that don’t resort to aggression.
There’s a false victory for Rocket when the High Evolutionary seems to celebrate Rocket’s abilities and problem-solving. By this time, Rocket has bonded with the other three modified creatures, and the four rest together at the Midpoint as they choose names for themselves.
The thematic premise of uniqueness and being alone comes to the forefront, with Rocket naming himself based on the idea of someday leaving with his friends and flying away, a time clock. Life is good.
But it doesn’t stay that way. As the Bad Guys Close In, the High Evolutionary becomes enraged that Rocket’s intelligence has exceeded his own despite he himself being the creator. After a final breakthrough, he’s ready to populate Counter-Earth with his new creations, and while Rocket is excited with the promise, the High Evolutionary turns on him, telling him that he is not important or special anymore. His brain will be extracted and his friends killed.
Back at the cages, Rocket assembles a keycard from parts he’s hidden. Just as he frees Lylla the otter, the High Evolutionary confronts them and kills Lylla. All Is Lost for Rocket now.
Now, we witness Rocket’s Dark Night of the Soul as he screams in sadness and anger, blaming himself, while the High Evolutionary mocks him, provoking Rocket to attack and claw his face. Guards kill his other friends and he escapes, now totally alone.
Interestingly, Rocket’s Dark Night of the Soul lasts quite a long time, stretching until the events of the third film. While he’s had some victories along the way, he’s never truly found acceptance in who he is and where he belongs. As the Guardians try to upload the code to stop the kill switch, it’s not fast enough, and Rocket dies. In the afterlife, he sees Lylla, wanting to join her. She tells him he can come with her, but not yet. He still has a purpose.
As he’s revived in the present day, he Breaks into Three, now with a sense of purpose. He and the other Guardians storm the castle in the Finale, stopping the High Evolutionary.
However, Rocket has a high tower surprise. Even though the ship is about to be destroyed, Rocket knows there are other animal test subjects inside that will die unless he intervenes.
Remembering his own experiences and how the kindness of others helped him, he goes back to rescue them, discovering a cage of raccoons much like the one he was in. The High Evolutionary confronts him, addressing him by his test subject number. Rocket digs, deep down, accepting who he is and declaring his name: Rocket Raccoon.
With the help of the other Guardians, he stops the villain and saves the other animals. In a Final Image, he and the others dance, celebrating life together. He has found his family and a purpose, no longer alone.
The above events focus mostly on Rocket, but it is through his backstory and what he had endured that other characters find their purpose and transformation as well. As the heroes strive to save Rocket, they face conflict among themselves. By helping Rocket, they also learn about who they are and see each other for who they are.
For example, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) desperately wants his relationship with Gamora. His Gamora was killed by Thanos in the events of Infinity War, but another version of her returned during Endgame. Quill tries to win Gamora over, but must come to realize that she’s a different person, and he accepts the fact that he already has others who care about him and wants what is best for her.
Drax has been out for revenge against Thanos since the Mad Titan murdered his wife and daughter, but as he and the others rescue children from the clutches of the High Evolutionary, Mantis tells him that he was not born to be a destroyer, but a father. At the end of the story, Drax even celebrates and dances with them, although he has always claimed to despise dancing.
Mantis is an empath who has always done what others told her to do, whether it was being forcibly controlled by Ego or going along with the Guardians. Through the events of the story, she learns to assert herself, and in the end decides to pursue her own way.
Nebula began as the hate-driven daughter of Thanos in the first film, determined to prove herself to her adoptive father. Even though he had modified her body in cruel ways, when she sees the video of Rocket being experimented on, she remarks with remorse that nothing Thanos had done to her was as bad as what he went through. In fact, when she learns that Rocket pulls through the current crisis and lives, she sheds tears of relief. At the end of the story, she takes over running the community on Nowhere, a far cry from the violent individual she once was—now, she’s a protector.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 delivers a satisfying and emotional story, and at the core of it all is a once-tiny raccoon who was taken from his litter and experimented on in cruel ways. By placing a focus on Rocket and hitting the important story beats, James Gunn has given audiences a film that not only moves them but also reveals how the life and experiences of one individual can help transform others.