Rocket’s significance was clear from the moment we first saw him. In the trailer for Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, released eons ago in February 2014, a raccoon with a ‘tude stood in a line-up between a giant tree and a ripped Andy Dwyer. Five years later, that raccoon would morph into one of the most important characters in the entire Marvel saga.
Fathers, and their failure to be good ones, loom over the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Tony Stark, heart of the Avengers, inherited all of his father Howard’s traits (including borderline alcoholism and hedonism) while resenting him for it. Until Ant-Man and The Wasp, Hank Pym was haunted by his part in the fate-worse-than-death that met Hope’s mother. And Thanos is just, like, the worst dad of all time.
But Rocket stands as someone who’s experienced real, genuine growth. Over three movies — Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017), and Avengers: Infinity War (2018) — you can find a pattern in Rocket’s growth from outlaw to surrogate father figure.
While every one of his film appearances begin with Rocket as a selfish rogue, each movie ends with a moment of Rocket reflecting on himself in different ways. And his total failure in Infinity War is the bookend to a journey before we meet a new Rocket in Avengers: Endgame.
In the final days before Avengers: Endgame, Inverse is celebrating some of our favorite heroes who never got their own stand-alone adventures. By tracing their evolution over the course of Marvel’s 22-movie tapestry, we hope to reveal something new about these underrepresented characters and the Marvel Cinematic Universe at large. Plus, it’s a fun new way to rewatch the 11-year saga one more time. Along with this story, you can read Corey Plante on Hawkeye and Jake Kleinman on Black Widow
Guardians of the Galaxy, or, “That’s for if things get really hardcore.”
The original Guardians of the Galaxy may yet be one of the most important in the Marvel franchise to date.
Superhero movies were already big in 2014. It was a post-The Avengers ecosystem that had just seen Ben Affleck sign on as Batman, but there were still even greater heights to reach, as we soon saw with Deadpool and Logan (which dispelled the myth that superheroes could only be PG-13), Wonder Woman (the first major female superhero blockbuster), and Black Panther (the first to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar).
But Guardians of the Galaxy, written and directed by James Gunn, was a shock to a system that was fast becoming formulaic. Although Captain America: The Winter Soldier released months prior was a hit, it was still just a Marvel movie with stylish, spy thriller dressing.
Guardians, meanwhile, was unlike everything else super: It starred a D&D party of anti-heroic “a-holes” whose biggest story beats were scored to supermarket hits. If it wasn’t Chris Pratt or a giant tree voiced by Vin Diesel that weirded you out (or sucked you in), it was Rocket, a brash raccoon with a taste for explosives and guns bigger than he.
“Rocket,” says John C. Reilly as an alien police officer with the raccoon standing there, one of the first moments we’re introduced to the character. “The result of illegal genetic and cybernetic experiments on a lower life form.” Cue Rocket spitting like a Red Sox hitter in the dugout.
With Bradley Cooper voicing Rocket like “Gilbert Gottfried meets Joe Pesci,” as he said on Ellen), Rocket was the very archetype of a Guardian of the Galaxy: Weird, violent, and selfish. His eventual adopted son, Groot, was just his “hired muscle” at this point.
And that was Rocket for most of Guardians, until the end. As the Guardians crash into Nova Prime, Groot shields the team in a selfless, sacrificial act. (“We are Groot,” he says.) When Groot is reborn as a tiny twig in a tiny pot, he’s in the literal hands of Rocket. Despite being a complex series of ones and zeroes, you can still sense humanity in Rocket as Groot is born again. It is the moment Rocket becomes a father, and the moment the Guardians become a family.
There’s a bit of James Gunn in Rocket. Like Rocket, Gunn was abrasive and provocative. Yes, he tweeted bad stuff. But he also made great stuff. He was an ex-Troma filmmaker whose IMDb before Marvel includes works like Tromeo and Juliet, and a web series actually titled James Gunn’s PG Porn. Against all odds, Gunn’s wacky artistic voice snuck its way into a multi-million dollar adventure produced by Disney.
Gunn is not a father to any children, at least to any public knowledge, but he has expressed a deep love for Rocket. This connection to Rocket and his evolution — that of an outspoken individual before accepting greater responsibility — would be even more clear when later events transpired in real life.
“I don’t think I’ve ever felt closer to a character than I do to Rocket,” said Gunn in a 2014 interview with Birth.Movies.Death, “I really do feel attached to him, and I think I’m beginning to understand some of Walt Disney’s madness around Mickey Mouse.”
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, or “He didn’t chase them away.”
Most of 2017’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 has Rocket retracing his steps from the first film, with the added element of caring for Baby Groot.
At the start of the film, Rocket steals some batteries from the Sovereigns. That’s a bad thing to do in front of Groot, yet Rocket still cares for the lil’ sequoia (in the film’s show-stopping title sequence, Rocket forces Groot to spit out an animal like he’s a child who just swallowed LEGO).
Rocket’s arc throughout Vol. 2 is accepting the black hole where his heart’s supposed to be, and that it’s never too late to fill it in. When the Ravagers show up to bid a deceased Yondu farewell, Rocket reflects upon the scenery in a profound way. The film, in fact, ends on a shot of Rocket’s face, a curious decision that only makes sense from Gunn’s point of view.
“By the time I got to the storyboarding phase, I knew it was gonna end on that shot,” Gunn told Vulture in 2017, “I thought about stopping on the shot before it, which was the shot of Yondu’s ashes and the arrow, but at the end of the day, so much of this movie is about Rocket to me. It’s about his inability to connect and believe that he has any meaning or significance whatsoever.”
Gunn further mused on why he loves Rocket:
“He is a character who has probably experienced the greatest amount of cruelty … He had absolutely no love and no connection to any sort of parental unit, and when he is actually given affection by other characters, he does not know how to handle it. What we see in the movie is him rejecting that affection from other characters, in a way that no one else is quite so intense with.”
The Ravagers’ tribute to Yondu, in whom Rocket (reluctantly) saw himself, moves Rocket. Recall the emotional, raw exchange that Yondu and Rocket shared shortly after jumping 700 planets.
“You can fool yourself and everyone else, but you can’t fool me,” he says to Rocket. “I know who you are. I know everything about you. I know you play like you’re the meanest and the hardest but actually you’re the most scared of all.”
Then, Yondu twists the knife even further:
“You push away anyone who’s willing to put up with you because just a little bit of love reminds you how big and empty that hole inside you actually is … I know who you are boy, because you’re me.”
But if Yondu can still be loved and remembered, Rocket feels there’s still hope for him somewhere. And that hope can be in the Guardians, most of all Groot.
“He feels a lot of guilt for everything that he’s done throughout the entire movie,” Gunn told Vulture. “That little moment there [in the end], I think, is a sign for him that there’s some sort of higher purpose out there, some sort of meaning to life that I think is just hinted at. That’s when he realizes that life is something better and more grand and beautiful than what he thinks it is.”
While the story of Vol. 2 was concerned with Star-Lord and his father Ego, Gunn asserts the film in general is about fathers, be it Drax finding a surrogate daughter in Mantis or Rocket accepting he is one to Groot.
“I grew up in a dysfunctional family, and I’m not betraying anything by saying: My dad has been sober for a long time, but he was not sober when I was young,” Gunn told The Washington Post. “And that created a lot of turmoil in the family.”
Avengers: Infinity War, or, “Keep it up and I’m gonna smash that thing to pieces!”
Infinity War is not Rocket’s movie. It belongs to Thanos, whom the Russo Brothers consider to be the “protagonist.” So Rocket has no real arc to speak of, except for his most important and telling moment: When Groot is dusted away after Thanos activates his Infinity Gauntlet.
As Rocket reaches for Groot’s hands, they never meet. This is the moment Rocket loses his son, a devastating feeling for any parent to experience.
As VFX supervisor Dan DeLeeuw told Inverse last year, “With Groot [dying], his hands reaching out to Rocket, the ash is moving up Groot’s arm so Rocket can never hold his hand. He’s losing a son in a way.”
Thus begins Rocket’s new life in Endgame. As he teams with the Avengers, Rocket will be out for blood. For the loss of his son, Rocket will aim his furry fury at Thanos. You can expect a different kind of Rocket, one fully grown and determined than ever, in the final Avengers adventure.
Avengers: Endgame will be released in theaters on April 26.