Guardians of the Galaxy is a fun blockbuster that knows how to engage its audience. It gives us a funny lead, hysterical side kicks, lots of action, a bad guy that we can’t stand and enough loose ends to make us want to come back for round two. Interesting enough, it gives us aliens and/or modified life forms that make us care just as much about them as our (half) human lead, Peter. More specifically, it gives us Rocket, whose displays of human emotion make him one of the more complex characters I’ve seen in a long time.
When we first meet Rocket, he’s a greedy bounty hunter busy criticizing humans. He calls out their lack of purpose by declaring, “All in a big hurry to get from something stupid to nothing at all.” He takes joy in zapping Peter and shows contempt for his captors, and with good reason: the authorities refer to him as Subject 89P13, only pausing once to state, “It calls itself Rocket.” Rocket is directly called a “lower life form” and does not even get a masculine pronoun, despite that he’s clearly male. Reducing Rocket to the status “it” and assigning him a number instead of a name is extremely dehumanizing for a sentient being. It’s worth noting that even Groot is referred to by name rather than an assigned number. Even a plant ranks higher than Rocket.
|A very degrading mugshot.
Rocket is rather defensive of his special species status. When Peter refers to him as a racoon, Rocket shoots the notion down, telling him, “Ain’t no thing like me ‘cept me.” He also strives to make sure that others that aren’t understood easily (like him) are explained. For instance, when Peter expresses annoyance with Groot’s limited vocabulary, Rocket replies, “He no talking good like me and you.” Rocket’s willing to trade barbs with Peter in order to defend his friend. He’s also willing to call Gamora out on her haughtiness when she won’t speak to Peter. This shows that, despite his rough tendencies, he is capable of standing up for his friend and citing hypocrisy. We get to see the beginning of Rocket functioning as a sassy type of chorus: not directly part of the group, willing to state the facts, and not always sweet about it.
That doesn’t mean that Rocket is incapable of demonstrating care. Upon arrival at the Kyln, Peter is threatened with implied rape. After Groot attacks the fellow prisoner, Rocket functions as the mouth piece to tell the other prisoners to stay away from Peter: “This one here is our booty. You want to get to him, you go through us. Or more accurately, we go through you.” In this instant, Peter becomes the property of Rocket: he’s Rocket’s to defend, Rocket’s to decide if you get a chance at him, under Rocket’s protection. Peter accepts this, and is able to function in prison. Between the defense and Rocket’s boasting of being able to escape prison easily, Peter quickly realizes that in order to survive, he must align himself with the life form.
So begins a bond. While not entirely reformed, Rocket does begin to display concern for Peter at this point of the film. He gets up and follows Peter to rescue Gamora from being killed at night. He offers more useful information in terms of dealing with Drax, whom Peter does not realize has an entirely literal understanding of language. He plays a practical joke when he asks for the prisoner’s prosthetic leg. Through these acts, Rocket behaves like a human that is bonding with a new buddy.
That does not mean that Rocket is not sensitive to the differences in his treatment from the other characters who happen to have a more humanoid appearance. When escaping from prison, Rocket notes that Peter’s pants were folded, but his were crumpled into a ball. On Knowhere, he directly confronts the racism he has so far experienced by declaring, “You just want to laugh at me like everyone else!… [Drax] thinks I’m some stupid thing. I didn’t ask to get made. I didn’t ask to be torn apart and put together over and over and turned into some… some monster!… He called me vermin! She called me rodent!” This is where Rocket goes from a smart ass talking animal with a gun to a real being: he breaks down and lets those around him know how much their words and actions hurt him. This establishes Rocket as a feeling creature that wants the respect and rights that others have. If you notice, after this outburst, no one refers to Rocket in a derogatory manner for the rest of the film. He’s accepted as one of them once he airs his grievances. Peter may tell him, “Suck it up for one more lousy night and you’re rich,” but Rocket doesn’t have to suck it up. He gets respect and consideration from this point forward.
While still self-serving and sarcastic, Rocket does embrace the new facet of being a member of the group. He agrees to help his new friends. He crashes his ship into the Dark Aster to aid them during the huge battle. He takes a stand and shares the burden of the infinity stone with the group. Interestingly, while Peter, Gamora and Drax can’t stabilize it on their own, Rocket’s joining of them works to strengthen their bond in order to defeat Ronan. They needed him in order to function effectively. Like that, he becomes an equal despite the separation of species. They need Rocket, despite that he is vastly different. His loyalty to them winds up saving an entire world, as well as the group.
To further solidify his emotional complexity, Rocket displays honest, unbridled emotion when he is finally able to mourn the loss of Groot. While teary-eyed in the moment of sacrifice, Rocket allows himself to fully break down and openly sob once the imminent danger has passed. He’s able to compartmentalize long enough to help save the day. Curiously, he also has the distinction of sobbing in the open, which, sadly, is still something that you don’t see a lot of male characters doing in the movies. We don’t often get the audible heartbreak; if male characters are allowed to cry, it’s either the over-the-top, shoot-the-air type of mourning and/or rage, or it’s quiet weeping. Rocket is allowed to cry loudly and really mourn the way that a real person would. Drax tries to comfort him by petting his head, which seems to be the only way that he can think to help him. What’s nice is that Rocket does not wag his tail, proving that he’s not just a racoon: Rocket is a sentient being that not only mourns, but is capable of accepting solace from a friend.
|This will give you all the feels.
At the end of the film, we’ve watched Peter go from womanizing outlaw to defender of the universe, a man that has reconciled the death of his mother to his larger role in the world around him; however, this is not the most profound transformation. This distinction goes to the way that Rocket allows himself to be part of the group, and how the group accepts him. The fellow Guardians, like the audience, sees him as one-of-a-kind. We don’t see a racoon. We see Rocket.