I’m in the front row of the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Brooklyn, halfway through my peanut M&Ms and a matinee screening of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, and I’m crying over a genetically engineered, cybernetic raccoon with the voice of Bradley Cooper.
I am not generally someone who sheds tears over movies, or animals, or animals in movies. Old Yeller being put down? Nope — pass the popcorn. Reading the end of Charlotte’s Web to my son for the ninth time? Big deal — spiders only live so long, and honestly, they give me the creeps. But the sight of Rocket Raccoon — a fictional character in an extremely fictional universe who is composed entirely of computer-generated pixels — being experimented on and abused by a heartless scientist? That, apparently, unlocks something in me.
Some backstory: The Guardians of the Galaxy was a Z-list Marvel group that, in 2014, filmmaker James Gunn somehow turned into box office magic. There’s the smarmy guy who used to be in Parks and Recreation; the blue one; the green lady who has a sword; the other blue one; the tree; the bug girl (?); and Rocket Raccoon. Through the first two Guardians movies, Cooper’s Rocket was mostly comic relief for a team that was already 100 percent Grade A comic relief. He was a raccoon — though don’t call him that — but he could talk. He liked to shoot — both guns and deflating insults usually aimed at Chris Pratt’s insufferable Star-Lord. He was pretty mean. And that was about it.
How little thought was initially put into Rocket’s character? His comics creators apparently named him after the Beatles’ song “Rocky Raccoon,” i.e., one of those forgettable tracks on the White Album that you skip to get to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
In Guardians Vol. 3, however, Gunn makes the unexpected decision to center the film around Rocket and his unexpectedly tragic origin. (Spoilers follow, though honestly if you haven’t seen these movies not one word I’m about to write is going to make sense.) He was, in fact, a raccoon, taken along with countless other animals by an alien scientist with the Darwinian name the High Evolutionary. Rocket was experimented on; he became hyper-intelligent; he escaped from the High Evolutionary once it became clear he and all the other animal test subjects were going to be culled and discarded. At the start of Guardians Vol. 3, Rocket is mortally wounded, and his friends need to track down the High Evolutionary to save him, even as the scientist himself desperately wants Rocket — his prize experiment — back.
Does any of this make sense? Not really — remember, this is a franchise that involves a talking raccoon and a sentient tree with a three-word vocabulary, one where the last villain was a Living Planet played by Kurt Russell. But somehow this ridiculous comic-book film is also one of the most affecting explorations of animal welfare that I’ve ever watched, a work the NGO People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has called “an animal rights masterpiece.”
Numbers not names
It’s safe to say that Guardians’ High Evolutionary, played with sadistic glee by Chukwudi Iwuji, does not have an Institutional Review Board. In flashbacks, we see the products of his relentless experimentation and splicing, and learn the names they give themselves: a walrus sutured to a huge wheelchair (Teefs); an otter grafted to robotic arms (Lylla); a rabbit with mechanical spider arms (Floor). He refers to them not by names but by numbers. Rocket is 89P13.
Unlike past Marvel supervillains, the High Evolutionary isn’t trying to take over the world (as Ultron was), the multiverse (Kang the Conqueror), or enact a particularly bloody sequel to The Population Bomb (that would be Thanos). As he says at one point: “My sacred mission is to create a perfect society.” How precisely he intends to create a perfect society through ruthlessly cyborging the population of the San Diego Zoo isn’t really explained.
But it doesn’t matter. The point is, whatever pain the High Evolutionary is inflicting — and there’s a lot, so much so that the film should come with an ASPCA warning — whatever body count he racks up along the way, it’s all worth it. His cause is that great, and his utterly powerless victims mean so little, that it doesn’t matter. As the High Evolutionary spits at Rocket in the film’s climax: “You think you have some worth in and of yourself without me? No! You’re an abomination! Nothing more than a step on my path!”
It’s comic book stuff, even if Iwuji makes it terrifying in the moment. But do we human beings really take so much better care of the feeling, suffering beings we share the planet with? The estimated 80 billion land animals we annually raise and slaughter in often horrifying conditions, for food? The hundreds of known species we have forced into extinction over the past century, as we hunt them, trade them, or simply take their space? The millions of animals subject to product testing and scientific experimentation every year?
We’re not supervillains. Vanishingly few of us, thankfully, would take the evident pleasure Iwuji’s character does in torturing another living being. We have laws to protect endangered species, animal welfare regulations, ethics boards to govern scientific studies involving animals. We are enlightened — a little bit, at least.
But most of us still view animals not as beings separate from ourselves, with true value on their own, but as instruments of ourselves. We may rely on them for companionship as pets (fraught enough on its own), enjoy them as ornaments to be appreciated in zoos or the wild, and yes, use them as test subjects or food to consume. Their worth, or lack of it, is largely defined in terms of their relationship to human beings. They are steps on our path.
It’s not quite fair to compare Elon Musk to the High Evolutionary. The tech CEO has not, to my knowledge, been secretly creating his own island of Doctor Moreau-style bestiary in some Tesla backroom. But one of the several companies he founded — the brain-computer interface startup Neuralink — has been accused of basic ethical failures in biological research that underscores how little we often consider the fate and value of the animals used in science.
In December, Reuters broke the news that Neuralink, which has been working to develop brain implants that can connect the human mind to computers, was under investigation by the US Department of Agriculture’s inspector general for potential violations of the Animal Welfare Act. Whistleblowers told Reuters that Neuralink had killed about 1,500 animals after experiments since 2018, including more than 280 sheep, pigs, and monkeys. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), a group that campaigns for alternatives to animal testing, obtained records of earlier Neuralink experiments on animals, and found that one rhesus monkey’s nausea was “so severe that the animal vomited and had open sores in her esophagus before she was finally killed,” as Ryan Merkley, PCRM’s director of research advocacy, told my Vox colleague Kenny Torrella.
The sheer number of animal deaths didn’t necessarily stand out for a company like Neuralink — the Humane Society estimates that 50 million animals are used in testing and experiments each year. But current and former employees told Reuters that the “number of animal deaths is higher than it needs to be for reasons related to Musk’s demands to speed research.” (In emails Reuters obtained, Musk pushed his employees to accelerate their work, writing to employees in messages that “We could enable [paralyzed] people to use their hands and walk again in daily life” and that “In general, we are simply not moving fast enough. It is driving me nuts!”) The rushed schedule, one employee wrote in a message to coworkers, was resulting in “hack jobs” that raised the risks to animal test subjects, requiring some work to be repeated, resulting in unnecessary deaths.
Musk, of course, is known neither for his patience nor his lack of ambition. At Tesla, Musk routinely pushed factory workers to the brink in an effort to speed up production of his electric cars, while at Twitter, he’s told employees to work “long hours at high intensity” or leave. Neuralink, reportedly, seems much the same. The difference is that Neuralink’s aims are higher — Musk has spoken about its brain interfaces eventually curing blindness, paralysis, and more, though the hype has well exceeded the reality so far and the company has so far failed to gain approval for human trials. And its methods, at least for the many animals that had no choice over being sacrificed to Neuralink’s research, seem to be lower. In the pursuit of a greater good, they don’t really count. And while Neuralink’s alleged sins may get headlines because of who its owner is, they’re hardly alone.
A Bambi’s mom for modern times
The scenes of Rocket being experimented upon in Guardians Vol. 3 are shockingly graphic. But initially, those scenes seem to have a purpose. Rocket, who becomes more intelligent with every round, thinks he’s helping the High Evolutionary in his goal to create a peaceful, perfect society. Rocket believes that he and his friends will get to join their creator in that better world, to fly away from their cells into what Rocket calls “the forever and beautiful sky.”
In one final, violent flashback, however, he is disabused of that notion. To the High Evolutionary, Rocket, Teefs, Floor, and Lylla are not living beings but corporate property, experiments on the steps to perfection to be disposed of when the experiment is over. And so they are, each of them gunned down brutally before a horrified Rocket, who is the only one to escape. Guardians Vol. 3 is a movie — like most other Marvel films — where violence is taken lightly, where countless, nameless extras are blown away without notice and where superpowered protagonists bounce back from trauma with a quip. But in this scene, one that could mean for young viewers today what Bambi’s mother being shot meant for their grandparents, lingers in the mind. The bodies may be computer generated, but their pain and horror feel real, precisely because they are so utterly helpless, at the mercy of a merciless intelligence that cares nothing for them beyond their utility, which is at an end.
Writing in the Ringer, Daniel Chin had a smart observation: After three films, it turns out that it’s Rocket, not Pratt’s bro-hero Peter Quill, who is the true protagonist of the Guardians series. Rocket, Gunn told USA Today, was “created by somebody who didn’t care for him at all, didn’t have any of his own interests in mind.” His is the story of a being who began as someone’s tool, only to reclaim his personhood, in the fullest sense, with the help of a surrogate family who saw him for what he was. The film ends not merely with Rocket’s rescue, but with the emancipation of all the High Evolutionary’s test subjects: lots of cute blond children, some very large slug things, and a cageful of baby raccoons, set free by Rocket himself. It’s a final, joyful act of animal liberation, in the last place you might expect.
Correction, May 16, 9:50 am ET: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. It advocates for alternatives to animal testing.