Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, the first Guardians movie since 2017, premieres this weekend, marking a continuation in Hollywood’s agenda to replace every actor with Chris Pratt. Certain fans who expect the movie to be just another continuation of the usual candy-colored Guardians fare may be in for a rude awakening, however. While there is no shortage of satisfying needle drops (this time from the 1990s), or “I am Groot”s, or jokes about Drax’s inability to understand figurative language, or scenes in which the guardians, well, guard the galaxy, many moviegoers will be shocked to discover that Vol. 3 is the darkest, grisliest, and most disturbing Marvel movie yet, to the extent that you might find yourself scratching your head at how it got that PG-13 rating. Most fans of the franchise will be fine, but if you’re the type of viewer who instantly turns against a movie the moment an innocent creature gets harmed—perhaps you’re a regular visitor to doesthedogdie.com?—you might want to sit this one out or, at the very least, know what you’re getting into.
Let me explain, and I’ll try to spoil only as much as I need to. Vol. 3 centers on the story of Rocket, the anthropomorphic, robotically enhanced raccoon engineer of the group, voiced by Bradley Cooper. Before this movie, Rocket’s backstory in the films was never revealed, as it appeared to be so painful that he hated talking about it. Well, as it turns out, Rocket had very good reason to avoid this subject! Some of Rocket’s backstory has been teased in the trailers—you may recall images of a little baby raccoon shackled to an operating table—but this portion of the film gets much more unsettling than expected. The movie also dwells on these scenes of animal experimentation for much longer than you might expect: Most of the movie’s two-hour, 30-minute run time is spent alternating between the present day and these flashbacks to Rocket’s origin story. For each delightful scene of the team planning an intergalactic heist, there’s another scene of deep emotional trauma and heartbreak involving the suffering of a furry friend. Or, as New York Times pop culture reporter Kyle Buchanan put it, “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY 3: What if A Little Life but raccoon.”
Not that Rocket is the only cuddly young mammal to be abused. Instead, it turns out that he spent his youth at a sort of Animal Auschwitz, imprisoned by a perennially ego-tripping mad scientist called the High Evolutionary (Peacemaker’s Chukwudi Iwuji). There, his cellmates include an otter named Lylla (Linda Cardellini), a rabbit named Floor (Mikaela Hoover), and a walrus named Teefs (Asim Chaudhry). Like Rocket, you might grow attached to these poor, unfortunate souls. The movie even goes so far as to posit one of them as a potential love interest for Rocket. However, you’d do well not to get too attached to them. In addition to the fact that they are made to endure a series of unnecessary surgeries as the High Evolutionary strives to “perfect” them, let’s just say that there’s a reason they haven’t shown up as Rocket’s old chums in Guardians of the Galaxy Vols. 1 and 2. One particularly horrific flashback even ends in what is perhaps the single saddest moment in Marvel history (yes, more than this one).
Unfortunately, the scenes of animal cruelty aren’t limited to the flashbacks. (During the end credits, the American Humane Association assures us that no animals were harmed in the making of the movie, but this doesn’t pertain to the film’s many doe-eyed fictional creatures.) In the present day, not only does the High Evolutionary continue to experiment on a Noah’s Ark’s worth of eagles, turtles, giraffes, and, of course, his favorite, raccoons, but he has also populated an entire planet with his genetically engineered humanoid animals. They, erm, don’t fare much better. (Imagine if Zootopia ended … very differently!)
Of course, many viewers will be able to stomach all of this! I made it out fairly OK myself. There’s not necessarily any rational reason that many of us have a much harder time watching a fictional dog in peril than watching half a cinematic universe’s population snuffed out with the snap of a finger. And, as is the Marvel way, some of the destruction is played for dark comedy.
Though, while we’re at it, if you’re the kind of person who isn’t fazed by watching the suffering of cute animals but does struggle with gory imagery (hello, fellow comrades!), you should know that the movie doesn’t short itself on gore either. In addition to the saddest Marvel moment, this movie also earns the badge for grossest Marvel moment. It’s not any of the many moments of typical action slapstick, such as when one bad guy gets cut in half, or one of the many scenes in which the cyborg Nebula has to assemble herself back together, but rather the moment when one character’s face gets ripped off. Don’t worry: You get to clearly see, in close-up, what’s left of their head without its skin! And if you’re the type of person who doesn’t break a sweat watching animals in cages or skin being severed from its body, but cannot handle children in peril, I suppose we should note that this is the second Marvel movie in two years to stage a final act involving a bunch of kids in cages.
None of this is to say that I didn’t enjoy the movie! In fact, for me, these scenes served to drastically raise the emotional stakes. I’ve never felt more invested in the bonds between the Guardians than I did during this film. And in addition to being the darkest, goriest, and most disturbing Marvel movie, it’s also a contender for the funniest. I’m not alone in this: The movie has gotten mostly positive reviews, if not quite the sort of universal acclaim that greeted the first Guardians. Given that one of the most common complaints about Marvel movies is that they’re all the same, I’d take slightly demented over cookie-cutter. But fans expecting another lighthearted romp of besties fighting bad guys in space should brace themselves for a Guardians movie that isn’t for the faint of heart, and they might want to think twice about going to see the movie in theaters. For every few fans emerging from the movie delighted, there’s likely to be one or two emerging shell-shocked and a little enraged, wondering why no one warned them. We did our best.