Rocket takes the wheel in more ways than one in Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3. Courtesy of Marvel Studios

The first Guardians of the Galaxy movie had that one scene where a drunken Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) starts a bar brawl while wailing about the medical experiments that created him as a mechanical freak, and you could sense a dark backstory lurking behind the talking rodent’s ever-present bad mood. Well, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3 draws out that backstory, and it’s so much worse than you could imagine.

The opening scene has a baby version of Rocket being plucked from a cage of other animal babies, and it’s deliberately filmed like the opening scene of the first movie to illustrate how he’s been uprooted from his home even more violently than Star-Lord (Chris Pratt). It’s strange — I’ve seen documentaries where actual animals were tortured and killed, and they didn’t hit me in the heart like this uniquely harrowing Marvel movie, where the tortured animals often belong to species that don’t exist. The most brutal stuff is kept offscreen for the sake of the PG-13 rating, but the other Guardians see video footage of what was done to Rocket, and their horror-struck reactions say everything.

Behind all that horror is The High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), a eugenicist with a slaveowner’s mentality who aims to create the perfect society by super-evolving animals. He places his creations on a planet that’s an Earth replica, where they live in inhumanly clean suburban neighborhoods straight out of a Tim Burton movie. When Star-Lord points out that some of his humanoid organisms are behaving like bastards the way humans do, the Evolutionary destroys his planet and everyone in it without blinking. Our villain is just as cruel in a one-to-one setting, as a flashback shows him killing one of Rocket’s imprisoned friends and then parodying Rocket’s screams of grief and rage by screaming back at him. I’m not a fan of Iwuji’s occasionally cack-handed performance, but this Marvel villain and his fascistic god complex scare me far more than Thanos.

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The plot is catalyzed by a gold-skinned super-alien (Will Poulter) whom none of the Guardians have encountered before. He attacks and maims several of them, Rocket worst of all. Minus the decapitated Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) — don’t worry, the tree is OK — the crew sets out to save Rocket’s life by stealing his medical records from the Evolutionary, who has planted a self-destruct mechanism inside the unfortunate rodent that will kill him if anyone tries to operate on him.

I’m afraid there’s rather less humor in this entry than we’re used to from director/co-writer James Gunn. Star-Lord does drop the first f-word in the entire Marvel series, which is less momentous than it might seem. Gunn executes a spectacular one-take shot in which the Guardians tear through the half-animal, half-robot creatures who guard the High Evolutionary, and if the shot is stolen from Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch — with the camera sliding from one hero to another as they use their own methods to dispatch the enemies around them — it’s no less resonant for that. (Snyder’s movie also had a character named Rocket. I think that’s just a coincidence, though I also think Gunn is aware of it.)

I wish the script had made more of the Sovereign, the gold-skinned aliens who are attacking the Guardians only because the Evolutionary has blackmailed them into it. Elizabeth Debicki is rather wasted as their queen, though Sylvester Stallone snags a cameo as the leader of the Ravagers who used to employ Star-Lord and now employs Gamora (Zoe Saldaña). It seems only appropriate that Drax (Dave Bautista) is the guy who connects with the children who are the Evolutionary’s next lab subjects.

For all that, everything piercing in the story belongs to the raccoon — I know, I know, he keeps saying he’s not one — as another flashback shows him in the Evolutionary’s prison promising to free himself and his animal-hybrid cellmates (voiced by Linda Cardellini, Asim Chaudhry, and Mikela Hoover), and we know he’s going to fail them. As Peter learns about the past that Rocket always refused to talk about, it forces him to reckon with his own past on Earth in a subtly moving way. Even that can’t match the climactic scene when Rocket finally faces the sadistic Evolutionary. Recognizing that your creator is evil would reduce most people to a puddle, but our diminutive hero not only stands tall, he delivers maybe the most inspirational line in any Marvel film. One of the supporting characters is right: The whole Guardians of the Galaxy saga was always Rocket’s story rather than Star-Lord’s. Turning the series into that turns out to be a stroke of genius.


Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3
Starring Chris Pratt. Voice by Bradley Cooper. Directed by James Gunn. Written by James Gunn, Dan Abnett, and Andy Lanning. Rated PG-13.