Like you (probably), I contributed to the insane box office totals Guardians of the Galaxy pulled in over the weekend. And weren’t they deserved? Sure, Guardians is very “Marvel,” but it’s also a winsome, hilarious movie in a way that precious few blockbusters even try for these days.
Even better, so much of it’s audience-pleasing muscle comes from the simple fact that the movie centers around an awesome group of main characters. Drax, Groot, Starlord, Gamora — fantastic. Still, my personal favorite had to be Rocket, the gun-toting space raccoon.
Depending on how you want to handle your business, a character like Rocket is either the easiest or hardest thing in the world to get right. Fortunately for Rocket, myself, and audiences worldwide, writer/director James Gunn took the hard road and just absolutely nailed it.
Spoilers ahead, by the way. But you already knew that.
So, how do you make a character like Rocket work?
On one level, the appeal of the character is blatantly obvious: He’s a sarcastic raccoon who packs major heat. That’s an inherently hilarious concept; one worth seeing all on its own. The easy road I mentioned previously would be — to put it simply — coasting on the concept. Space raccoons are bizarre and amusing enough to provide an easy two hours’ entertainment without doing squat in the way of actual work.
Now, laziness hardly ever turns out a good movie, let alone one worth writing articles about.
Gunn doesn’t trade in gimmicks. Rocket has a fully-fledged history and personality. The moments where we catch glimpses into his past — quick descriptions, or bizarre scars — are genuinely affecting. Someone has clearly experimented on this guy; they’ve tortured him and twisted him into, not to put too fine a point on it, a freak of nature. Rocket is one of those “me against the universe characters.” Notably, the fact that he’s a talking raccoon isn’t mentioned at all in his introduction. Instead, his first scene revolves around his occupation as a bounty hunter.
What I love about all this stuff is that it means Gunn immediately skips over the obvious “this is wacky!” side of the concept and just delivers a good character. Any jokes made to the tune of “hey, raccoon with a gun” are ones that are made to Rocket by other characters in the movie. Bradley Cooper’s voice work and Gunn’s script always aim to find the reality in this character.
This is actually the approach Gunn takes with almost every character in the movie. Take a “type,” add a weird contrasting element, and then play everything for the truth of the paradox instead of constantly “going for the gag.” Look at the berserker Drax, a scarred-up criminal who speaks only in arch, excruciatingly literal phrases.
Or just look at any freakin’ one of these guys.
So, with Rocket, you take a rough-edged mercenary, turn him into a test subject raccoon, and mine the weird bits of truth that stem from that combination of traits. Think of how Rocket is always looking for a big gun to compensate for his size, or the way he has trouble understanding how to actually connect with any of the other characters on the ship.
All this makes it way more touching when, at the end of the movie, he’s finally portrayed like the fragile animal he is. The bit where Drax reaches over and gently pets him is a real misty-eye moment, but it doesn’t work unless you haven’t already made that into a joke. Nor does it work if you haven’t genuinely bought into the friendship between him and Groot.*
That’s the genius of Gunn’s Rocket Raccoon put simply: He’s never a joke. Even when there’s an amusing portrayal of him as pure raccoon, it’s done with great care for the character and his place in the story.
It’s a difficult thing to do; that is, to portray a talking space raccoon without a single moment of apology. You run the risk of looking pretty stupid should the attempt fail, and even if it succeeds there’s probably a subset of the audience that won’t ever get past being amused at the weirdness. Gunn never blinks, though. He never feels a need to rise above the material; the movie commits 100% to portraying Rocket — heck, all these guys — as the weird, damaged, wonderful people that they are.
This is a freakin’ rarity these days. How many movies do you see that have to insert all these little sly gags to make sure that you know they know it’s “just a movie.” Too damn many, that’s how many. This one, on the other hand, is sincere.
And audiences love it and it’s making a bajillion dollars. Whaddaya know, y’know?
*Which means that the most affecting relationship in this entire movie is between a (barely) talking tree and an asshole raccoon.