Archives in the Movies: Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3
Author's Note: Spoilers for the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, as well as Avengers: Infinity War and End Game.
Out of all the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) movies, the Guardians of the Galaxy trilogy has been the most consistent and entertaining with its premise while also delivering on the emotional gut punch of a group of broken people finding a family with each other.
And it all started with Rocket Raccoon.
According to previous interviews, when writer and director James Gunn was offered the Guardians by Kevin Feige at Marvel Studios he wasn't initially interested in the project. He changed his mind, though, when he did some research and found his in with Rocket, a genetically and cybernetically enhanced raccoon capable of engineering some of the sickest weapons this side of Xandar.
I'd also like to take this moment to say R.I.P. to artist and writer Keith Giffen who, along with Bill Mantlo, was inspired by the Beatles song "Rocky Raccoon" to create Rocket in the late 1970s. He was also responsible for shaping the comedic tone of DC Comics in books like Justice League International and in the creation of characters like Ambush Bug and the main man himself, Lobo. Giffen passed away on October 9, 2023.
I think it's fitting, then to talk about Rocket's journey as a character and how his backstory within the Guardians movies connects with the archives.
From the moment we meet him in the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie, Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper with Sean Gunn performing the motion capture on set) is a sarcastic little shit looking out for himself and his best pal, Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel). When he gets sucked into Peter Quill's (Chris Pratt) orbit and commits to saving the galaxy, we see that he's a brilliant engineer, tactician, and pilot with a ton of psychological trauma. The first movie only hints at Rocket's backstory, but even the brief glimpses of cybernetic implants on Rocket's back or his drunken breakdown as he threatens to shoot Drax (Dave Bautista) tells us there are demons he's running from. And while Quill is ostensibly the "protagonist" within the ensemble of the Guardians movies, it's clear that Rocket is on a parallel emotional journey.
Guardians Vol. 2 is just as much Rocket's story as it is Quill's. The two are constantly at each others' throats, competing and undermining whatever authority the other has within the group dynamic. It isn't until Rocket is confronted by Yondu (Michael Rooker) that we get to the core of his anger - fear. Fear of attachment, fear of rejection, fear of loss, it all pushes Rocket to act out under the grim logic that it's easier to drive others away and be alone then it is to accept love and companionship only to inevitably lose it and end up alone.
By the time we get to Guardians Vol. 3, Rocket's been through the ringer by way of surviving The Snap but living with the loss of his family for five years until they return by way of time travel shenanigans. Quite frankly, none of the Guardians are doing great, emotionally, but the opening continuous shot of Rocket walking through the rebuilding of Knowhere (the head of a Celestial turned into the Guardian's HQ) playing Radio Head's "Creep" sets the tone while centering Rocket as our "main" character. Yes, Rocket gets attacked and is essentially on Death's Door for the first two acts, but almost every character is motivated by saving Rocket throughout the film, which coincides with the flashbacks to young Rocket's years as an experiment under the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji). Rocket is the main focus, the primary motivator, and the story's emotional core...and he's a piece of intellectual property (IP).
Oddly enough, this works on two levels: Rocket is part of Marvel Comics' intellectual property on a meta-level, but he's literally the High Evolutionary's IP, constantly referred to as Subject 89P13, within Vol. 3's narrative. After being grievously injured by Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), the Guardians discover that Rocket's implants have security measures built in to reject medical assistance unless an access code can be successfully uploaded. That access code is located in the Records Department of OrgoCorp, which means it's time for an old fashioned heist!
But first, let's focus on the aesthetics of OrgoCorp, an intergalactic bioengineering company that finances the High Evolutionary's experiments and projects. And it looks like a fleshy gyroscope of nightmare fuel.
I love that James Gunn always finds a way to get back to his horror roots while working within Marvel's Silver Age concepts and characters. OrgoCorp was created for the movie, but it feels like something Jack Kirby would've come up with as part of a celestial background in Silver Surfer or any one of his cosmic books.
Anyway, OrgoCorp is an unsettling facility that the Guardians, along with the Gamora (Zoe Saldana) brought from the past after her future version was killed by Thanos during Infinity War, infiltrate to gain the access code. Quill, Gamora, and Nebula (Karen Gillen) head to the Records Department and attempt to gain access via the Records Manager, Ura (Daniela Melchior).
When Quill's attempts at sweet talking the young woman lack their supposed effectiveness, Gamora takes matters into her own hands and threatens Ura's life unless she helps them get Rocket's file. Ura, naturally, agrees to help and leads them to the records room, which is an immense wall of flesh blobs imprinted with digital files.
This ends the actual depiction of archives as far as the movie is concerned, but I find it interesting how the use of records helps move the emotional needle of the story, if only by a few degrees. The High Evolutionary's treatment of his experiments, Rocket in particular, aren't subtle. He's dramatic and outwardly villainous on purpose, and one of the most consistent means of emphasizing his villainy is when he continues to refer to Rocket as 89P13. It, for lack of a better term, dehumanizes Rocket, making him nothing more than parts to be dismantled for other projects. The High Evolutionary seeks perfection in his creations, but even when one surpasses him in intellect he can't fathom that something so imperfect could be the source. Therefore, he diminishes him through his patent code so he doesn't have to consider or respect Rocket's life as a sentient being. In contrast, by stealing Rocket's file the other Guardians finally learn about their friend's origins and it fuels their continued efforts to save him because of the love they have for him. If that isn't radical empathy, then I don't know what is!
Archivists and records managers deal with varying degrees of intellectual property depending on their institution. Universities, libraries, and museums will often have more collections where the copyright of creators (typically creators of published or reproducible works) need to be consulted before anything can be made publicly accessible, which becomes even more complicated when factoring in digitization initiatives. Corporations and businesses, however, have internal IP that pertains to anything created by employees as well as historical IP maintained in perpetuity or until it's no longer profitable. Then you have orphan records with no clear owners that are essentially part of the public domain, their access determined by whichever institution is in possession of them and how or if they're made available. When I was an intern at the Museum of Flight, I worked on a collection of early aviation patents from the United Kingdom for a few weeks. No owners to speak of, or at least no donor information that was available to me, just boxes of patents in need of descriptions and a finding aid.
I want to be clear that this is a very basic rundown of the very complicated copyright and intellectual property laws that change depending on where in the world you live, but it's an aspect of my profession not a lot of people outside of the community know about. Accessibility is a huge issue in the archival community, but donor requests, whether there's copyright involved or not, remain a priority over the wants of users or even the institution in which they operate. Unfortunately, this puts archivists in the precarious position of gatekeeping knowledge.
If you want a book recommendation, check out Privacy & Confidentiality Perspectives: Archivists & Archival Records, edited by Menzi L. Behrnd-Klodt and Peter J. Wosh.
When we look at the wall of flesh records - which is a thing I just wrote - Gunn and his team want you to react with disgust because it's the embodiment of the faceless, almost clinical stereotype of how corporations treat people. Each lump of flesh represents a sentient being, but all we see is the biological material with a code carved into it. It's detachment at its finest and Rocket's connection with the archives is reminiscent of how we can easily disregard the "human" element of archival subjects.