At the beginning of “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3,” the latest (and last) space opera from writer/director James Gunn, the familiar Marvel Studios logo plays over images from the previous films. But there should be another logo preceding the latest galactic as well — only this one should be for PETA, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals — as “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” is perhaps the most pro-animal rights movie in recent memory. And it stresses its point in potentially upsetting ways. It’s so militantly pro-animal rights that it makes “Avatar: The Way of Water” seem like a quaint afternoon special by comparison. To be clear, this is not a bad thing – the brutality of “Guardians of the Galaxy” is exactly the point.
Warning: This post contains major spoilers from “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3”
One of the most touching moments from the first “Guardians of the Galaxy,” released nearly a decade ago, is when Peter Quill aka Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) and the rest of the gang are getting dressed in a floating space prison. He looks over and spies Rocket (performed by Sean Gunn and voiced by Bradley Cooper), whose back is pockmarked and scarred with electronic equipment and the clear abuses of medical experimentation. It was a tender little moment, one amplified by the fact that, by the end of the movie, you grew to really care about the little critter and all that he’d been through.
But what had he been through?
While 2017’s “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” largely sidestepped this question (instead focusing on the character’s emotional insecurity), it looms large above almost everything else in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.” The movie, in fact, starts with a flashback of a young Rocket, back then just an ordinary kit (that’s a baby raccoon), being taken out of a cramped cage by an evil being called the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji). The High Evolutionary is hellbent on creating a perfect society of genetically modified citizens. To that end, he performs monstrous experiments, not only on Rocket but on a host of other animals, including a rabbit named Floor, an otter named Lylla and a walrus named Teefs.
These sequences are, as you can imagine, pretty hard to watch – especially if you are an animal lover and are constantly picturing your beloved pet as one of the animals getting experimented on. And this is only the beginning – there is a sequence where Rocket attempts to free the other animals, only to be met with an irate High Evolutionary, who tries to murder all of the creatures and successfully kills Floor, Lylla and Teefs. Rocket escapes, sees his felled family and claws at the High Evolutionary’s face (we don’t see the extent of the damage until later in the movie but it’s bad).
All of these flashbacks are happening while Rocket is fighting for his life, after getting mortally injured in a tussle with new baddie Adam Warlock (Will Poulter). The sight of the little raccoon on a hospital bed fighting for his life is bad enough, knowing what he already endured makes the entire situation even more upsetting.
Rocket, of course, eventually gets better, although the Marvel Studios marketing department has done a great job convincing the entire world that Rocket will, in fact, bite the dust. And during the big melee with the High Evolutionary and his goons (it’s a little involved to get into right now), Rocket makes the proclamation that they aren’t just saving the humans that have been experimented on by the High Evolutionary – they’re saving all of the creatures on the High Evolutionary’s ship/headquarters/testing lab, including the Abilisks, those giant, tentacled monsters from the beginning of “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” (they eat batteries).
It’s a beautiful ending, one that reinforces the movie’s deep humanity and its commitment to the thematic importance of animal rights. On Instagram, Gunn posted a selfie with this message about the movie: “At the end of the day, this is a movie about joy and compassion and learning to see beyond the rim of our own worlds and having empathy for all living things. Rocket’s journey is my own and I’m so happy to have had him help me to learn a better way of living over the past 11 years, as well as all of you.”
In order to get this message across, the movie has to go to some uncomfortably dark, if not outright bleak, places. But that’s okay. We have to feel what he felt in order to get to the light.
“I didn’t ask to get made! I didn’t ask to be torn apart and put back together over and over, and turned into some… some little monster!” Rocket screams in the first “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Now we know the real pain and hurt that is behind that exclamation. And it makes where he ends up even more powerful.