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Alien Redemption: The Fascinating Arc of Nebula in the MCU

In ‘Avengers: Endgame,’ a once-minor character gets a surprising, compelling spotlight

Nebula Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/Ringer illustration
Spoiler alert

When Thanos used the Infinity Stones to eradicate half of all life in the universe at the end of Avengers: Infinity War, he wasn’t just fulfilling highly questionable population control: He was doing the Marvel Cinematic Universe a solid. Juggling dozens of heroes in Infinity War, many of whom are played by A-list actors, was an enormous task, and one that wasn’t without its casualties. Captain America’s role was noticeably diminished, and I can’t recall a single memorable piece of dialogue from Bucky Barnes. For Avengers: Endgame, a reduced roster of heroes meant the ones who weren’t turned into a pile of dust were rewarded with even more time in the spotlight. Conveniently, Thanos’s randomized finger snap kept the core cast of original Avengers—Iron Man, Cap, Thor, Bruce Banner, Black Widow, Hawkeye—intact, allowing many characters approaching their MCU swan song a final blaze of glory.

So it’s not exactly surprising that someone like Captain America gets a lot more to do in Endgame. But the OG Avengers aren’t the only heroes with an elevated platform in the film. Watching Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014, you never would have thought that Nebula—a blue cyborg alien assassin and adopted daughter of Thanos with the personality of a slab of plywood—would become a foundational piece of the MCU. Heck, as actress Karen Gillan revealed, at one point Nebula wasn’t even supposed to survive the first Guardians movie. But Nebula’s role in the MCU has evolved with every surprisingly nuanced appearance. She might not carry the same emotional stakes in Endgame as Tony Stark or Steve Rogers—characters we’ve been with for the better part of a decade—but Nebula’s internal conflict is one of the most fascinating and compelling threads the MCU has spun over its 20-plus installments. And in Endgame, Nebula’s transformation from a villain into a complicated antihero reaches a satisfying conclusion.

Nebula’s purpose in Guardians was fairly one-note. Working for Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace, tragically hidden under a mess of blue skin), she was cybernetically enhanced and, evidently, quite good at killing people. She said charming things like, “The screams of my victims can be heard throughout the galaxy.” We also learned that future Guardians member Gamora was her adoptive sibling, and that they didn’t much care for one another. But it wasn’t until their reunion in Guardians 2, when Nebula became the Guardians’ prisoner, that the origin of their contemptuous relationship was revealed.

Thanos would force his daughters to fight one another growing up—and when Gamora beat her sister in combat, the Mad Titan would maim Nebula’s body and replace a piece of her flesh with robotic enhancements. Nebula’s resentment stemmed from the fact that Gamora would constantly win these tussles, though Gamora was doing this out of fear for her own safety. By the end of Guardians 2, the sisters had made amends—though not before nearly killing each other in a very violent form of family therapy—and Nebula had left the Guardians with the intent of killing her abusive father. The sequel was an important evolution for Nebula, and Gillan did a great job behind all the blue makeup imbuing the cyborg with pathos. And like Drax, Nebula’s robotically deadpan demeanor became charmingly strange, making her dynamic with the other characters legitimately funny.

While Nebula’s relentless pursuit to rid the universe of Thanos placed her on the side of the Avengers heading into Infinity War, she was still starkly different from virtually everybody in the MCU. Marvel has a vibrant, diverse set of heroes in its ensemble—from a rich tech mogul with a flair for the dramatic to a Bro Norse God and a sentient tree-man—but very few antiheroes. Only Bucky Barnes could reasonably be categorized as an antihero, and his darker side was effectively just the result of Hydra brain-washing. Nebula has had no such restrictions in a character arc mostly defined by killing, and subservience to the alien who repeatedly subjected her to body mutilation.

Which brings us to Endgame. With Gamora dead and every Guardians member aside from Rocket Raccoon successfully raptured, the movie throws Nebula in with a bunch of characters with whom she has no backstory or shared history. The result is wonderful and often bizarre. (I will refrain from dropping serious Endgame spoilers, but some plot points will have to be addressed, so don’t keep reading if you don’t want any details revealed before you see this thing.) For starters, she’s on the planet Titan when the finger snap happens at Infinity War’s climax, the only other survivor of the Thanos conflict in that location, along with Tony Stark. The Avengers movies are at their best when they manufacture odd pairings—ie. Thor and Rocket Raccoon in Infinity War—but Tony Stark and Nebula might be the most bizarrely enjoyable one they’ve come up with so far. In a broken ship meandering through the vast emptiness of space, Tony introduces Nebula to paper football. God bless Karen Gillan, who lets out primordial grunts with every flick and successful field goal. She seems content when she wins, and says, with barely any emotion: “I would like to play again.”

Nebula’s behavior is endearing, but also at its core, quite sad. She’s spent the entirety of her life as an agent of destruction, stripped—even in a literal sense—of her humanity. For most of the surviving Avengers, their quest in Endgame is about bringing back the people who’ve been lost. For Nebula, it’s also about learning what it’s like, for the first time, to be a person.

The hokey, time-travel-related premise of Endgame allows the heroes to confront themselves and reconcile with their past. For most of the characters on this journey, it’s an opportunity for the MCU to lean into self-referential humble-bragging, but Nebula’s time-traveling introspection is a testament to the character’s evolution, and a harsh reminder of how Thanos’ abusive behavior kept her in submission. While Cap and Tony have strong and tear-jerking emotional beats in Endgame, there’s something poignant and profoundly moving—a rarity in the MCU, which often just concerns itself with having character up each other with sassy one-liners—in Nebula taking a good hard look at her former self. Many Marvel characters are heroic by default, but like Bucky, she becomes emblematic of the capacity for change with even the franchise’s most traumatized individuals—something that, again, the MCU rarely offers within its black-and-white confrontations between good and evil.

Yes, it’s strange. The MCU (and Endgame in particular) spends a great deal of time commemorating the sentimental journeys of the original Avengers core, and yet it’s this weirdo cyborg I want to wrap in a blanket and show adorable cat videos on YouTube to. From unnecessarily aggressive paper football to holding Rocket’s little raccoon hand in a moment of solemnity, Nebula might not be the emotional center of Endgame, but her growth is certainly the most winning, surprising development. Good thing the MCU avoided giving her the proverbial finger snap in 2014, as initially intended.