Rockets and Revelations

From a plot perspective, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 was a bit of a hot mess.  It’s got planet fathers, strange beasts, gold plated elves, mutinies, murderous sisters, and a universe ending nefarious plan.  All while trying to be funny.

And yet!  It a lovable hot mess.  And not only that, it works.  It’s a solid movie.

The big reason that it works, and that it’s so lovable, is that under all the plot zaniness lies two interconnected things:  developed characters who have character arcs and a strong theme of family* that ties it together (while also driving the character arcs).  In addition, most of the humour felt seamless, arising from the characters’ actions as they moved along those arcs.

In the end, the Guardians franchise introduced the two characters who have the strongest character arcs in all of the MCU, that of Nebula and Rocket, with Rocket’s being especially strong in Vol 2, and one of my favourite scenes in all of the MCU involving the two of them.**

Spoilers for GotG3 ahead!

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3 is much less of a hot mess.  Rather than 6 things going on, it’s just one singular thing.  But it does suffer from a bit of things, including what amounts to some fetch quests, characters who (at first glance) seem to be suffering from Sequelitis Character Regression Syndrome (more on this below), and many of the humour bits feel disconnected from the narrative flow, in a “it is time for a joke scene, so here is one now” kind of way.

And yet…. YET!  It still works.  And it, in some ways, wrecked me.  Because this is a Rocket love movie all the way.  And Rocket’s (back)story is… harsh.  Finally, in the third movie, Rocket’s line from the first one (that ticked me off at the time because they didn’t do anything with it) about not having asked to be made, to be ripped apart and put together back again to become some sort of freak, comes to fruition and we get the anger and fear and guilt and just downright confusion that had him be both be such a strong survivor and so, so bite-y all the time.  And through this chapter he gets the chance to complete that past and come into his own as a person.

Which is the theme of this installment. Albeit in an interesting way, as it’s all a continuation and expansion of the theme of all the installments, which is another step along the path of family.  It’s about getting closer by, counterintuitively, going apart.  Because while you can find a family and find your tribe, as they did by the end of Volume 2, if you can’t be with yourself, then things are likely to get dysfunctional fast.  By discovering themselves as individuals they can then come together in support, rather than subsuming to the group or using the group as a ‘crutch.’  Expectations are discovered and let go, boxes people have crafted for themselves and others are dismantled, and things that have never been dealt with before (because many of these characters have never been given the chance deal with them, or perhaps to even encounter them) are worked through.

As with Volume 2 (albeit perhaps not quite as successfully here in Vol 3, but not terribly either), the through line between all the characters keeps their arcs alive and helps guide the movie to a successful landing.

  • To be clear I’m also biased, as I love Rocket, and the Rocket bits really punched me in the feels. There’s a lot of suffering and mistreatment on display – his first word was “Hurts.”    And to see the caring and eager spirited heart that Rocket has/had and that he felt he had to hide away twenty lockboxes deep, a heart that we’ve always seen hinted beneath the surface, is also painful.  Which makes for a cathartic moment when he lets it free again by the end.
  • The High Evolutionary is perhaps the first over the top villain in the MCU, and it works. He’s hammy and chews through some scenery, but in a restrained enough way that it doesn’t cross the line, and his arrogance and confidence in his purpose doesn’t let it devolve into lame villain plot territory.  Quite the contrary here – he doesn’t want to destroy, he wants to create perfection… but then is willing to casually destroy whatever doesn’t meet his perfection gene.  “There is no god!  Which is why I stepped in!”  He’s a complete a-hole.
  • I mean, think of it – he could’ve left group 89 live, and it would have cost him nothing. He could’ve left Counter Earth to continue and go off to create something elsewhere, and it would have cost him nothing.  But he dispassionately and pathologically burns them all down instead.
  • It could be played off as misguided genius, but there’s another interesting layer there – we never see the H.E. actually develop anything. He’s the CEO with delusions of grandeur who takes credit for everything while it’s his employees who do all the actual creating and work.  He’s no genius; he’s a petty little boy who “just hates things the way they are.”
  • Which could well tie into the theme a bit too – this may be a bit of a stretch, but many of the Guardians learn to see others as they are (including themselves) and both embrace and come to appreciate and see the beauty in how they are. The H.E. is incapable of that, reaching for the unreachable and being miserable.
  • Regarding the Sequelitis Character Regression Syndrome… that’s where characters regress from when we saw them last, losing their insights or understandings or growth just so that the writers have room to grow again in the next movie, even if it retreads the same growth ground. Or, as happened in Infinity Wars and other MCU movies, where they’ve regressed so they can be used for retread laughs.
  • And many of the characters to me, at first blush, seemed to be suffering this here. There’s a lot of friction that feels somewhat out of place…?  Though after some thought, I can draw a line on what would bring them there, but I think you have to read between the lines a bit and infer stuff that’s happened to the crew through the other movies and especially through timespans not shown anywhere.  Which is an interesting choice made.
  • For example, Quill’s absolute pining for Gamora seemed a bit overblown or cliché, since the arc we saw between them was nicely done where it’s only by the end of the second movie that he’s matured enough that warrants a look and later interest by Gamora. (The fact the second movie ends with only a small side hug to indicate the potential start of something is great, vs a more overblown swoon trope.)  So that he’s so devastated seems a bit out of nowhere, both because we didn’t see any great development there before she dies in IW, and because he seemed to realize that his overbearing nature wasn’t working.  We need to take it a bit on imagination or faith that they had something deep, which the loss is harsh.
  • Or, perhaps, in reflection… it’s an indication that he was using her as a coping mechanism of other things, like how he screwed up and essentially helped Thanos to snap the universe. Or the hurt he still feels from the rejection he perceived during his mother’s death.  Or perhaps even the fallout from the reveal of his father and father figure from the previous movie.  There’s a lot of hiding, and a lot of coping lily pads he’s trying to cling to.
  • I did very much like that Peter and Gamora do not end up in a relationship again at the end of the movie. One, because it’s refreshing to veer away from that cliché and etc, two, because it gives Gamora agency, and three, because it gets back to the theme of being available to family through finding one’s own self.
  • Gamora herself spends the movie antagonistic as heck because a) she hasn’t had the Guardian’s influence that softened other version of her and, more importantly, b) because everyone’s telling her who she’s supposed to be (which is how Thanos treated her as well). It’s this other version of herself that she doesn’t recognize, so she fights back against it.  And when Peter (and others) let go and let her choose who she is, she’s free to not only really choose a family (in this case, with the Ravagers), but also, in her own way but like the ‘previous’ Gamora, understand family and care by seeing how the Guardian’s care for Rocket.
  • It’s also nice how there’s hints that this Gamora and Nebula still had developed a sisterly relationship and been in contact with each other, building on their moments together in Endgame.
  • Nebula seems angry all the time… but she’s never had to deal with the emotions of caring for someone. And with Rocket under the gun, she has no great  method of dealing with it, so she does it the only way she knows how, which is by lashing out, even though it blinds her.  (And then her reaction when she hears that Rocket is alright…)
  • And while the Drax and Mantis bits are the least compelling to me, with Mantis too we have someone who never was allowed to have agency. She let others dictate her path for her because that’s all she knew and it became the easiest.
  • Which all, in many ways, relates to Rocket’s journey as well. He’d defined himself by what the H.E. told him he was.  He created a persona to deflect the freak he feared everyone saw him to be.  And now, both through his journey and as the rest of the Guardian’s come to realize and recognize themselves, take agency, he gets the opportunity to choose who he will be going forward, and allow himself to recapture more of his authentic self.  (A bit like Nick Wilde…)
  • Again, that all these characters are on these different journeys yet are all coalescing around the same realizations/theme is what makes this work, much like it did in vol 2. To stop clinging, to stop allowing others to define you (and to stop defining others in return, and to stop using the family as a crutch.  By growing as individuals, they can now form a stronger, ‘truer’, family.
  • On the whole, the storytelling quality in this one is rough. But then, it’s been rough in all of them, so par for the course… (though it is unfortunate about the humour, as that was one of the series’ strong suits)
  • There are some parts of GotG vol 1 that don’t make sense with the new context provided in this volume – like when someone openly calls Rocket by his number (and how would they know that number?) and he doesn’t freak out. But that’s to be expected and not a knock, just interesting to guess how much of this was known/planned from the beginning, and how much evolved over time.
  • And the shot near the beginning where Rocket and the camera lingers on the keycard was a bit of a frying pan foreshadow.
  • Is this a movie that could stand on its own? Probably not… but I wouldn’t expect it too.  It’s leaning into being another installment in a long serial, using both narrative shortcuts (if perhaps, as noted above, too short sometimes) and by playing on our connections with the characters.
  • I enjoyed the ‘slow walking towards the camera’ motif that happens several times in the movie – each time being a touchstone to show/demonstrate where the characters are in that moment in their journey.
  • The needle drops were mostly fine, and I do love how they flip (sometimes mid-song) between being diegetic and non-diegetic.
  • Opening the movie with Rocket singing along to the acoustic version of Creep was brilliant and set the stage well.
  • And I didn’t know until this movie how much in my life I needed Rocket dancing and being happy…
  • Or seeing him in mundane clothes at the start…
  • And seeing Rocket hugging and being hugged by so many is a lovely end to his arc from someone who once considered no one saw him as anything but a freak and unlovable.
  • That Rocket made the anti-gravity boots just for fun… ‘cuz he can. And, in the end, that’s what allows him to defeat the H.E., despite the H.E. trying to control everything.
  • “The name’s Rocket, Rocket Raccoon.” Heck yeah. 
  • Also Rocket (almost) gets the last word during the mid-credits stinger… and it’s literally “Word.”
  • But on the other hand… “Rocket, Teef, Floor, go now. Rocket, Teef, Floor, go now.”
  • And in the scene with the light, when Rocket asks “Can I come?” For one, the guilt he feels still is brutal, but two, the voice acting by Bradley Cooper there is exquisite.  So much emotion delivered there, so much break.  Very well done.  (And reminds me of Ginnifer Goodwin’s voice acting during Judy Hopp’s breakdown as well…)
  • I’m so happy Rocket lived though… because now they can rectify the other true error of the MCU, which is that ROCKET DOESN’T YET HAVE POWER ARMOUR. You’re telling me he rode on the back of War Machine and didn’t think “Damn, I gotta make me one of these?”  And it’s not like he couldn’t!  I joked that in Wakanda Forever nearly half the characters by the end are in power armour, so Rocket ought to be next.
  • Also, think of how bad ass Rocket must be that this movie was the first time he needed serious enough medical attention to trigger his failsafe (or fail-death, in this case, like a cortex bomb). He’s been through a lot of fights and flights and stuff… he’s just that good that it took a surprise attack from a super-being to take him out.
  • Cheers for Cosmo!
  • While Groot’s line at the end doesn’t exactly work due to it’s Vin Dieselness, that bit about how those who get close to Groot begin to understand him (such as Gamora just did) lets us know we’re part of the family now too, a nice touch.

My experience with GotG3 was an uncommon one, where my in-theatre experience was fine but a bit fraught, but my appreciation for it grew and grew in the days afterwards as the character layers and thematic intertwinings became more apparent.  That said, I loved the Rocket and Nebula stuff right from the get go, and even as I appreciate the other arcs more now it is their story that still remains the strongest of them all for me (mostly I’d guess because James Gunn was most interested in them all along).

Given I rated GotG2 as a Solid, and this one was a bit rougher, that kind of implies that this should be a Solid Minus.  Going beyond the rating though, when the movie worked, it really worked on a high Solid level, and I am itching to see it again.

* And it’s not just “family” as a lip-service concept that is used to evoke some feelings because look love and babies and stuff!  Here it is an actual meditation on ‘found family,’ about each character finding peace and or a home for each other.  It’s not something necessarily new, but it’s well handled and well explored.

** It’s in Endgame, when Captain Marvel brings Nebula and Stark back to Earth.  Nebula sits down on the ramp of the ship and Rocket joins her, placing his paw in her hand, all completely silent.  It’s such a wonderful moment, a sharing of sorrow and understanding between them that they now realize they’ve lost everyone in their newly found family, that they’re the only two left.  It’s sorrow and loss and they share it together with that simple gesture.

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