*Spoilers for Guardians of the Galaxy, volumes 1 & 2 and Avengers: Infinity War.*
When I was a kid my favorite superhero was Batman. I loved everything about the caped crusader from his badass fighting moves to his intensely memorable cast of villains and rogues. But as I got older and I started to look into what Bruce Wayne/Batman was as a character and what the many stories he starred in actually *said* about him, I came to realize something important: I don’t identify with Batman.
I mean, how could I? Bruce Wayne is a billionaire playboy who beats up a murderous clown while dressed up as a bat. Batman is not a hero that I could ever see myself in the shoes of. He is the hero I like to hear about. Batman is the hero whose stories form an intense tapestry of myth and legend not unlike how the ancients told stories about the Greek gods. It’s a crude analogy, sure, but it’s easy to (for instance) see Batman as the Hades to Superman’s Zeus and the Justice League as the ruling body atop their Watchtower of Mount Olympus. For the most part that’s kind of where I sit with the DC heroes: they are a pantheon of gods whose stories and relationships we mere mortals fret over. The idea of me being Batman is a wish fulfillment fantasy. I engage with the philosophy of Batman more than anything. I’d be even hard pressed to see myself in Robin’s shoes.
Like a lot of thoughts that take about 5 pages to really explain, it was a movie that got me thinking about this. You see, comparing the DCU to the Greek gods is not a unique perspective. It’s one shared by many critics of comic books and their vast mythos. By contrast, the heroes at Marvel are all grounded in reality; Superman is basically a god and it’s okay for his story to be utilized and analyzed that way. But heroes like Spider-man? Spider-man is just a kid like you or me. And the choices he makes, the decisions he is faced with, a young reader is meant to empathize with those situations. That’s what a lot of Marvel’s heroes are meant to do. Batman stalks the decayed art-deco, yet timeless streets of Gotham City, but Iron Man is based out of New York. It’s a subtle distinction, but important nonetheless.
So I asked myself. If the Marvel heroes are meant to be the ones you identify with and the ones who you can see yourself in the shoes of, which of the vast swath of heroes now existing in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the one I see myself in?
The answer surprised me. For instance, it’s easy to want to see yourself in Captain America. He is infallible, even when he sees himself on the other side of the law. That was the entire point of Civil War and his intention to protect Bucky from harm: Captain America does the right thing. That’s his super power. Yes, he’s a genetically modified super-soldier who runs around in a star-spangled outfit punching Nazis in the face; but at the end of the day that’s all just window dressing. Captain America does the right thing. Full stop, no argument: Cap is right all the time. He can strip the flag off his chest, wear a new outfit, and call himself a different name, but it won’t change the fact that he is Steve Rogers to his core, and Steve Rogers is right and you should be proud to stand beside him on the battlefield, even if your friends stand opposite you.
But no, I don’t think I have his resolve, even as much as I would like to. I don’t have his superpower, but of course that’s what makes me human and him a superhero. I’d stand beside him, but I don’t know if I could say I’d make the same decisions as him. Would the superhero I saw myself in be Iron Man? Spider-man? Thor maybe? No, it was during my rewatch of the MCU movies that I found the hero I saw myself in.
His name is Rocket.
Rocket is a raccoon and he is one of the Guardians of the Galaxy. Of course, you know that already. But you probably wouldn’t have known that a few years ago. Rocket was one of many various members of this ragtag team whose seeming only purpose is to be the POV characters through which to play around in the vast expanse of psychedelic cosmic nonsense that Jack Kirby dreamed up back in the 70s—at least the psychedelic nonsense that Doctor Strange didn’t concern himself with. No one was really paying attention to the Guardians. Even hardcore nerds couldn’t really tell you who they were. But in 2012 Disney hired Troma-alum James Gunn to script and direct a Guardians of the Galaxy movie and made a foul-mouthed CGI raccoon with the voice of Bradley Cooper and his friend, a giant talking tree voiced by Vin Diesel, an overnight sensation. Then a few years later they made a sequel that makes me cry every time I watch it.
You see, Rocket is a raccoon who has been experimented on. At one point he may have been just a normal garden rodent, but now he can walk and talk and has a Philly accent and he loves tinkering on big guns that he can use to deal with everyone who annoys him. When we meet Rocket, he is working as a bounty hunter alongside Groot, a big kind talking tree who can only say his name. Of course, Rocket knows what he is saying. And the duo immediately seems opposite of one another. Rocket is belligerent, impulsive, and sarcastic. Groot is kind, fearing for instance that Peter Quill had hurt himself while they were abducting him and going out of his way at one point to give a flower to a young girl for no reason other than to see her smile. Why is this creature hanging around with Rocket?
Because Groot knows that Rocket needs a friend. Rocket would never admit it to himself of course. Groot is a good tactical opportunity. He’s a large perch from which Rocket can shoot, he is durable in combat, and he can act as an enforcer should employers think they can swindle Rocket. Even Xandar’s Nova Corp describes their relationship as Rocket treating Groot as a “house plant.” But that’s not his real purpose. Groot could leave Rocket whenever he wants to. He’s not stupid. He knows Rocket can be cruel and can even mistranslate the various meanings behind “I Am Groot” to people who don’t know better. But he stays with this obnoxious, angry little creature because, honestly, what would he do without Groot?
Later in the movie, Rocket and Groot throw in with Peter Quill, Gamora, and Drax the Destroyer. It isn’t necessarily to become the Guardians yet, but rather to make some quick dirty money. It isn’t until they realize the gravity of the item they’re trafficking that they decide “hey guys, seeing the universe get destroyed would be kind of bad for us so maybe we should do something about it.” Rocket is appalled that Gamora even went back for the Power Stone. Given the choice, he would run and never think about the Stone again. But these people, these new friends he has surrounded himself with, convince him to do the right thing. And you know what happens?
It gets his best friend killed.
There’s a moment at the end of the first Guardians movie where Rocket is cradling a twig that was once his friend Groot, who gave his life to save the Guardians. Rocket is despondent. He is even openly weeping, in full view of a pack of strangers on Xandar. The Guardians had saved the day, but Rocket lost the only person who showed him kindness and unconditional friendship. He sits there and weeps. Could Groot have survived had Rocket not crashed the Milano into Ronan’s ship in a desperate impulsive bid to kill Ronan, thus destroying their only escape from the crashing dreadnought? Was this Rocket’s fault? And then Drax sidles into frame. He doesn’t stop Rocket. He just sits there with him. And when he feels Rocket needs it, he puts a hand on his head and begins to gently stroke it.
Rocket bristles. He doesn’t know how to feel. There’s a flash of rage, a cooling, an understanding. He wants nothing more than to be left alone to his grief. He hates Drax for a moment, but then he understands. Drax is trying to give him, in his own way, the love that Groot had always shown him.
And Rocket has no idea how to feel about this.
A few months later, when that twig has grown into a new Groot, a child that the Guardians are raising together, Rocket is back to his impulsive ways. He ridicules his teammates. He challenges Quill’s leadership. He puts the team in danger out of personal greediness. He is doing everything in his power to push everyone around him away.
“What is your goal here?” Peter Quill asks him. “To get everyone to hate you? Because it’s working.” Rocket turns away. Quill is right, and he knows it.
This is one of the blunter themes of Guardians Vol. 2. And one that the movie picks up on later. Rocket is thrown into a cell with Yondu Udonta, Quill’s surrogate father and recently deposed leader of the Ravagers. They have to team up to get out, but Rocket vehemently argues that he doesn’t care what happens to the rest of the team. That he will only help Yondu save the Guardians from Ego the Living Planet because he wants to shove it in Quill’s face and prove how much better he is than him. But Yondu sees right through him; through his posturing, his sarcasm, and his anger. Yondu is the only one who sees through him because he’s just like him.
Yondu is not a good person. He knows this about himself and he has struggled with it. He makes his money doing bad things for bad people. The Ravagers are not a benevolent organization. They’re a crew of mercenaries and bounty hunters. So, Yondu took a job abducting kids for Ego, which is how he met Quill. It wasn’t until he realized what Ego was doing and saw how the rest of the Ravagers blacklisted him for his efforts that he realized what he had done. He’s gone out for himself, pushed everyone away and acted like he didn’t care. And when everyone was driven away into hating him…he realized it was the exact opposite of what he wanted. But he had assumed it’s what would happen anyway.
“You can fool yourself and everyone else, but you can’t fool me. I know who you are. I know everything about you. I know you play like you’re the meanest in the heart but actually you’re the most scared of all. I know you steal batteries you don’t need and you push away anyone who’s willing to put up with you because just a little bit of love reminds you of how big and empty that hole inside you actually is...I know who you are boy, because you’re ME.”
It’s this speech, where Yondu breaks through Rocket’s walls and drives him nearly to tears that changes Rocket’s mind. He will help Yondu, not for personal gain, but because it will save Quill and it’s the right thing to do. Seeing Yondu be honest about how far he had fallen, showing him the hole he’d fallen into, is what convinces Rocket to step back from the brink and try to be better.
It was in this moment that Rocket’s entire character was clear to me. His anger, his sarcasm, and all his emotional walls are a defense mechanism. Because he doesn’t think he can have friends. He doesn’t think its possible. Rocket believes that one day everyone will leave him. It’s an inevitability that he has already accepted, and it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that his personality and his actions will create. Groot was a big, kind tree who relied on Rocket to be able to talk to people. He and Rocket had a symbiotic relationship, and Groot tried all the time to balance Rocket out and show him friendship. Of course, Roekct didn’t believe this friendship either. He took Groot for granted. He only joined the Guardians because Groot basically threatened to leave him. Even when Groot died and Drax gave Rocket a moment of selfless understanding in sharing his grief, Rocket was still hesitant to believe it. Surely, Drax was just taking pity on him. It wasn’t real. Rocket was crying, and Drax wanted him to stop. Yeah, that was it. So he stayed with the team not out of a sense of loyalty, but because it was what Groot wanted and he was determined to see it through…at least until they all left him too.
Rocket couldn’t admit to himself that he wanted friends. That he needed people. That he misses the friend he knows he failed. So he told himself they were just lying to him. Sure, they had good reasons, but it didn’t change the fact that Rocket believed it wasn’t going to last. So he started pushing everyone away, a defense mechanism against pain that only served to cause the thing he fears most.
So when Yondu sacrifices himself to save Quill, a selfless act of fatherly love from the adopted father who had similarly pushed Quill away, Rocket is near despondent. He is ashamed of what he did and shattered that even though his sacrifice was benevolent, Yondu wasn’t going to have the Ravager funeral he deserved. The Ravagers had branded Yondu a traitor and stripped him of the rights to a proper burial in space…until they changed their minds.
Watching the fireworks and lightshow of the Ravager funeral for Yondu, Rocket muses to himself: “He didn’t chase them away...Even though he yelled at them. And was always mean...And he stole batteries he didn’t need.” Quill hears him say this and realizes the depths of sorrow and grief that Rocket is feeling; how hard it was for Rocket to admit that to him. He smiles amidst the grief of losing his adopted father and responds to his hurting friend: “Well of course not.” And it was while re-watching that scene and through the emotional tears that the Cat Stevens song “Father and Son” will now always give me that I realized something important about myself:
I’ve been in this moment before.
I have stayed up late talking to friends and having those kinds of rambling philosophical conversations that only happen at three in the morning: the ones about love, hate, movies, psychology, geopolitics, and childish nonsense and young adult drama all at the same time. And at some point in those conversations, I skirt up around the idea that I too am unsure if I have friends. Logic dictates I am being stupid, because here I am talking with one of them. But in the back of my mind there is always the worry: “Are they just doing this out of pity? Out of obligation? Is it real? Do I actually have friends?” There are friends I have lost touch with that I feel like I’ve failed. There are moments where I realize all too clearly that I am my own worst enemy. Inevitably the friend retorts with an affirmation of their friendship; that they wouldn’t be talking to me like this if they didn’t care what I had to say. And in the moment I am happy for that affirmation. And yet, in the back of my mind: “Are they just telling me what I want to hear?” Depression is insidious that way.
I struggle every day staving off the insidious insistent voice of depression and anxiety in the back of my head that tells me that everything I think is wrong, that no one really loves me, that they’re just putting up with me, that I am actually alone. I know rationally that that voice is wrong, but it is a constant terrifying worry for me because that insistent fear is always there. So I react badly. I cover my sadness and fear with bad jokes and distancing myself from my problems. I try every day to be better and every day I see myself falter and fall back into habits that I dislike about myself. Some days are better than others, but when I have a bad day its the worst most all-encompassing awfulness I can think of. The idea that I am actually alone, that the things I care about don’t matter and the connections I have made aren’t real is a constant fear. And I desperately cling to the hope that I am wrong in those lowest of moments.
And Rocket gives me that hope.
By the time Infinity War rolls around, Rocket seems to have gotten past a lot of his issues. He is no longer the only one who can understand Groot. Even Thor doesn’t need him as a translator. He even seems to have grown into qualities of leadership in some ways. Rocket even muses at one point, after seeing how much Thor has had stolen from him, “I got a lot to lose, me personally I got a lot to lose.” I was so proud of him. He’s still a wise-cracking raccoon with a big gun, but he has changed for the better. He is more rational, less impulsive, and less willing to challenge the relationships of the people around him. When Thor joins the Guardians on their ship he treats him with respect where before I can only assume he would have viewed Thor as only a threat. Rocket follows Thor to Nidavellir and Earth and willingly joins in the fight with the Avengers with no real promise of glory or wealth outside of defeating Thanos to save his friends. The sacrifices of Groot and Yondu have changed him and the Guardians have made it clear that he is a part of their lives. Rocket has accepted that he isn’t being lied to. That he has friends. That he has a family.
Which made the ending all the more heart-shattering to me.
I loved Infinity War as a movie. I thought it was big, ballsy, and audacious. It did everything it needed to do to establish Thanos as a credible threat to a superhero team 18 movies and 10 years in the making and had a heart-pounding shock of an ending that I fully accept a lot of people hated. I want you to know that I genuinely loved Infinity War and the ending did not send me into a relapse of depression. That said, amidst all the questions and expectations I had after walking out of the theater from Infinity War like “Who is in charge of Wakanda now?” or “How will Captain Marvel save them?” there was the horrible pit in the bottom of my heart when I realized something very important, especially to me. After the snap, Rocket was the only surviving member of the Guardians of the Galaxy. The film doesn’t show us a moment where he discovers this, but he still gets to watch as his best friend Groot is once again taken from him. He doesn’t know Groot isn’t the only family he has lost that day yet, but he still had to watch his best friend die. Again. His greatest fear has been realized. His family has left him. Not of their own accord of course, this was Thanos’s doing. But the result is still the same. Rocket is alone. The outcome of his self-fulfilling prophecy has been realized. And my heart broke for him.
Because its my greatest fear too.
Superheroes are meant to be inspiring. Heroes like Captain America give us an ideal to strive for. Spider-man gives us a ground level answer to the question of what we would do with superpowers. Even Batman and Superman give us new myths to fawn over, to debate, and to string together into a vast and entertaining soap opera wherein the gods deal with all the same issues we as humans do. But Rocket Raccoon is different. He’s not a wish-fulfillment fantasy. He isn’t a standard to strive towards.
At the end of the first Guardians movie, just before he sacrifices his life to save the team, Groot assuages Rocket’s fear over what he is about to do. Rocket knows Groot will die because of this, because of his rash impulsive decision to crash The Milano into Ronan’s ship and deprive them of any other escape plan. Groot looks him dead in the eye and, filled with the kindness and unconditional love he had always shown Rocket, Groot says his last words.
“We. Are. Groot.”
In that moment Groot is talking to all of us. And because of how Groot speaks, the meaning is lost to those who don’t understand how to speak Flora Colossus. But in that moment, speaking to his best friend and knowing that he is about to die and leave him on his own with these new companions they only just met, I like to think Groot was saying this.
“It’s real. Don’t run from it. You will be okay.”
A lot of fans of Guardians of the Galaxy have adopted “I Am/We Are Groot” as a rallying cry, especially in the wake of James Gunn’s unfair firing from the third Guardians movie over a manufactured outrage from the alt-right. “We Are Groot” is a wonderful thing to embrace, a show of solidarity, of family and love amongst the fans of this dysfunctional family of misfits who chose each other because they had no one else. But to me, I don’t think I can ever live up to being like Groot. Groot was kind in a way I frequently fail to be. He loved strangers unconditionally because he knew they all deserved it. I don’t know if I can ever live up to that standard or the standard set by Captain America. Im too impulsive. Too clever for my own good. I am not Groot. I don’t think I can ever be. All I can try to be is a better person than I am. Then maybe one day I won’t have to listen to the voice that tells me to be sad, that everything I know is a lie and I will never get better. Because I’ve seen someone like me get better.
I Am Rocket.
Thanks for Reading <3