In the first two Guardians of the Galaxy films, Peter Quill is the main character of the overarching story. A young version of Quill (played by Wyatt Oleff) is the first person to appear on-screen in the franchise debut, as we witness the day during his childhood when, in quick succession, his mother dies from cancer and he gets abducted by aliens. It’s the older Quill (Chris Pratt) who dances to Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love” in the Guardians of the Galaxy opening credits scene, setting the irreverent tone for the franchise at large, and who unites the titular cosmic group of unlikely heroes. And it’s Quill’s familial origins that are uncovered in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, as Star-Lord meets his absent father, Ego (Kurt Russell), and discovers he has the genes of the godlike Celestials.
But in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, the beloved, CGI-generated raccoon named Rocket stars and serves as the driving force to close out James Gunn’s trilogy.
Despite Quill’s leading status in the series, the Guardians franchise still features an ensemble cast, and the group is really the only true superteam in the MCU, outside of the Avengers. (For now, at least.) Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) plays more of a complementary role in Guardians of the Galaxy and Vol. 2, yet there are still moments that hint at the story behind how he evolved from an ordinary raccoon—an animal he consistently rejects being identified as—into a highly intelligent, gunslinging mercenary who nearly succeeds in capturing Quill in their first encounter. The clearest occurs during Rocket’s drunken outburst ahead of the team’s meeting with the Collector (Benicio del Toro) in Guardians of the Galaxy, when he gets into it with Drax (Dave Bautista) while gambling on Knowhere. “I didn’t ask to get made!” Rocket yells. “I didn’t ask to be torn apart and put back together over and over, and turned into some little monster!”
In Vol. 3, those tragic origins are shown in harrowing fashion. Gunn uses Rocket’s backstory to bring his trilogy full circle and supply it with emotional closure as the Guardians all grow in their own ways before heading into the unknown future of the franchise. (Even Groot grows, in a very literal sense.) Rocket is repositioned as the protagonist; a flashback at the beginning of the film shows him and other baby raccoons being abducted by the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji). In the present, the camera remains fixed on him during the opening credits sequence while he walks through the team’s new home on Knowhere to the tune of Radiohead’s “Creep.” And the movie’s plot soon starts to revolve around Rocket after he’s critically injured in a fight against Adam Warlock (Will Poulter) and the Guardians need to find a way to bypass the High Evolutionary’s tech, which is embedded inside Rocket and prevents his friends from healing him.
Although Rocket is effectively sidelined for the vast majority of Vol. 3 as the team scrambles to save the incapacitated raccoon, his experience in the past frames events in the present. Flashbacks of Rocket’s youth are dispersed throughout the film, so much so that they disrupt its flow at times. But they ultimately stitch together something of an origin movie for Rocket—who even proudly embraces his full comic book name, “Rocket Raccoon,” by the end of it. These memories of young Rocket feature some of the saddest, and most disturbing, moments in the history of the MCU, to the point that some fans and critics are questioning the movie’s PG-13 rating and asking whether it should receive a trigger warning for its (CGI) animal cruelty. The High Evolutionary and his minions do, indeed, tear Rocket and his friends apart and put them back together over and over, as their designated Batch 89 becomes a crucial step in the mad scientist’s schemes to install various animal species—evolved through his genetic and cybernetic experiments—on a planet that he names Counter-Earth.
Among Rocket’s friends is an otter named Lylla (voiced by Linda Cardellini, in her second MCU role), his soulmate in the comics, who’s positioned as something of a love interest for young Rocket in Vol. 3. But she—along with Floor (a rabbit voiced by Mikaela Hoover) and Teefs (a walrus voiced by Asim Chaudhry)—gets killed during an escape attempt from the High Evolutionary’s lab that Rocket leads the night before they’re all scheduled to be incinerated.
As difficult as these scenes may be for animal lovers to watch, they’re there for a reason. As The Ringer’s Miles Surrey put it in his review last week, “they exist to serve one of the underlying themes of Gunn’s trilogy: heroes reckoning with trauma inflicted by fathers (or father figures) by leaning on the support of their found family.” Every member of the Guardians crew overcomes their respective losses or traumatic experiences in the three films. (Again, that even applies, to a certain degree, to Groot, whose father—the original Groot—sacrificed himself to save the team in Vol. 1.) Until Vol. 3, Rocket had never even spoken about his past outside of his drunken ramblings in Vol. 1, but as he says in the latest film, “I’m done running.” And thanks in no small part to the dual performances of Cooper and Sean Gunn, the latter of whom provides the voice for young Rocket and has contributed the motion capture work for Rocket from the very beginning (in addition to portraying Kraglin), the resolution of Rocket’s emotional journey hits harder than any one of his human teammates’.
When Gunn first met with Marvel Studios in 2012 about directing Guardians of the Galaxy, Rocket was the character who drew his interest in the project and whom he envisioned as its center—and he pitched the film that way to studio president Kevin Feige, according to The Hollywood Reporter. After being temporarily fired by Marvel in 2018, Gunn returned to helm Vol. 3 in order to see his original plans realized. “The most important thing for me was Rocket’s story, and then, following that, everybody else,” he told Total Film. “Rocket is the secret protagonist of the Guardians of the Galaxy, and has always been the center of it for me; and this is really fulfilling that. The reason I came back, and decided to do this movie, was because I really felt like Rocket’s story needed to be told—and it was left hanging after Vol. 2.”
As Rocket approaches death late in the lengthy Vol. 3, he has a vision of speaking with Lylla, surrounded by the blinding white lights of the afterlife. And it’s Lylla who verbalizes Gunn’s rationale behind Rocket’s “secret protagonist” status, as she tells him: “The story was always yours. You just didn’t know it.”
At the end of the film, after the Guardians have defeated the High Evolutionary and saved everyone aboard his burning ship (including all the animals held in captivity, thanks to Rocket’s rescue efforts), Gunn sets up the potential future(s) of the franchise as he leaves it behind to help lead DC Films into a new era. The new Gamora (Zoe Saldaña) returns to her Ravager crew, fully separated from the version of the character who died in Avengers: Infinity War and considered herself to be a member of the Guardians family. Mantis (Pom Klementieff) sets out on her own, save for her new trio of pet Abilisks, after realizing that she’s spent her entire life either in servitude to her father, Ego, or being dependent on the other Guardians. Nebula (Karen Gillan) embraces a leadership position on Knowhere, helping to oversee the community and all of its new refugees from the High Evolutionary’s spacecraft, as she completes the most pronounced character transformation of any Guardians character after being a villain in the first two volumes. She also recruits Drax to work alongside her and be a father figure to all the children they saved, as his story of loss and fatherhood pays off as well. And most fitting of all, Quill, who returns to Earth to reunite with his grandfather in Missouri, relinquishes his Guardians leadership position to Rocket.
The mid- and post-credits scenes highlight what are the two most likely continuations of the franchise. One stinger is just a gag that shows Peter enjoying a bowl of cereal with his grandfather, but it’s accompanied by confirmation of the character’s future in the MCU: “The Legendary Star-Lord Will Return.” The other, meanwhile, shows a glimpse of the all-new Guardians team led by Rocket. (There is some precedent for this in the comics: A 2015 Guardians of the Galaxy series written by Brian Michael Bendis sees Rocket become the leader of a strange configuration of the team that also features the Fantastic Four’s Ben Grimm, the X-Men’s Kitty Pryde, and Venom, along with Drax and Groot.)
As Rocket’s crew chats about their favorite Earth musicians (in honor of their former captain Quill) while on a mission, the roster is revealed: Groot, looking bigger than he—or his father—has ever been; Kraglin, as he continues to carry on Yondu’s (Michael Rooker) whistling legacy; Cosmo the Spacedog (voiced by Maria Bakalova), who put her telekinetic abilities on full display in Vol. 3; Adam Warlock, the Sovereign Superman in search of redemption; and Phyla-Vell (Kai Zen), a child who was one of the High Evolutionary’s prisoners and test subjects, and whose comic-book counterpart happens to become an extremely powerful cosmic hero who claims the title of Captain Marvel for a time.
Although Saldaña and Bautista have expressed that they’re done playing their respective characters in the MCU, Vol. 3 promises that there will be a future for at least some of the Guardians crew. After all, Marvel Studios was never going to just let one of its most popular franchises die after Gunn left for its longtime rival. But more importantly, the film stands as one of the rare critical successes of the post–Infinity Saga era thanks to how much it focuses on completing the story being told across its trilogy, rather than serving the agenda of its larger cinematic universe. (Its box office success remains to be determined after a $118 million domestic opening weekend, which was still well below Vol. 2’s $146 million debut in 2017. The film fared better internationally, bringing its global total to an estimated $289 million.) With Rocket’s origins providing the heart and soul of the conclusion to the most complete trilogy that the MCU has ever seen, Gunn leaves Marvel with a reminder that story and character should always come first.