This Guardian of the Galaxy Has Had the Best Arc in the MCU

May 11, 2023

Editor’s Note: The following contains Guardians of the Galaxy 3 spoilers.

We are Groot! Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 marks the end of this iteration of the team under the tutelage of James Gunn. This is the last time audiences will see Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldaña, Dave Bautista, Pom Klementieff, and Sean Gunn together in the same place. This bunch of a–holes have evolved into their own intergalactic family from when we met them in the first Guardians movie in 2014 to now. While the narrative of the Guardians trilogy has been centered on Rocket Raccoon, voiced by Bradley Cooper, the Guardians character who has had the best evolution from beginning to end is someone who wasn’t initially on the roster– Nebula (Karen Gillan). Across her seven appearances in the MCU, Nebula has gone from a villain to a sister to a Guardian in the most dynamic transformation we’ve seen in the MCU thus far.

At First, Nebula Was a One-Woman Army

Image via Marvel Studios

When we first meet Nebula in the first Guardians movie, she is many things– angry, violent, and most of all, lonely. She was taken from her home world when she was a child, forced into competition against other children taken by Thanos (Josh Brolin), and tortured into becoming a perfect fighter for Thanos. When she wanted a sister to rely on, Nebula was left alone to defend herself. She has fierce envy and anger towards Gamora, and by the time we meet her, Nebula is more machine physically and emotionally.

In Guardians of the Galaxy, she and Gamora are loaned out to Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) after making an alliance with Thanos. Nebula isn’t close to anyone, only looking to fulfill this job in order to win favor with Thanos over Gamora. Though she’s been abused by the Mad Titan, Nebula desperately wants his approval, and she wants to earn it without anyone’s help. When Gamora betrays Ronan, and by association Thanos, Nebula sees this as her opportunity to take out her sister for the abandonment she felt from her. When Ronan and Nebula confront the Guardians at Knowhere, Nebula blows up Gamora’s ship, leaving her sister to die in the cold void of space. Later when the two sisters fight above Xandar and Gamora offers to save her life, Nebula would rather fall to her death than let her sister help her.

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Nebula Begins to Let Her Sister In

Image via Marvel Studios

Nebula stays on this trajectory throughout most of her time in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. After Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) exchanges Nebula for the anulax batteries, Gamora and the Guardians plan to take her to the Nova Corps to face judgment for her participation in the battle on Xandar. She takes every opportunity to mock Gamora while looking for a way to escape so she can kill Gamora once and for all. However, things between the sisters start to take a turn towards the end of Guardians 2. As they fight once more, Nebula finally has Gamora choking in her hands, and yet, she can’t go through with killing Gamora. Nebula pushes Gamora to yield and admit she’s been beaten. Nebula exclaims that Gamora just wanted to win when all she ever wanted was a sister. Gamora was all Nebula had after Thanos took her from her home. As much pain as Nebula endured, deep down she cared for her sister and wanted to be cared for in return. When she later leaves Gamora and the Guardians to hunt down her father, Gamora hugs her and tells her that she’ll always be her sister. Nebula awkwardly accepts her hug but pushes away before she can get emotional from it. Nebula begins as a villain out for blood and transforms into a hurt woman starting to reconcile with her sister.

When Gamora sees Nebula again, she’s been captured by Thanos. In order to get the location of the Soul Stone from Gamora, he begins to torture Nebula in front of her. When Gamora reveals its location, it may be a big moment for the plot but it’s a bigger moment for Nebula. This is the first time she’s seen someone try to protect her because they love her. For years, Nebula believed she was alone, and now in Avengers: Infinity War there is someone willing to risk the galaxy’s safety to save her. Nebula knows what Gamora risks, which is why when she sees Thanos on Titan she knows exactly her sister’s fate. She lashes out against Thanos, going for blood for what he did to Gamora, yet as the dust settles (literally) she doesn’t cry for her sister. She only takes Rocket’s hand and sits with him after she lands on Earth with Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Carol Danvers (Brie Larson).

Nebula Takes Control Of Her Past and Her Future

Image via Marvel Studios

Nebula’s evolution really comes into perspective during the events of Avengers: Endgame. She leads the remaining Avengers to Thanos’ garden. Nebula and Rocket keep in contact with the Avengers on Earth throughout the five years between the Snap and Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) returning from the Quantum Realm. Perhaps the most indicative of Nebula’s evolution is when her present self has a literal run-in with her 2014 self, who at the time is unflinchingly loyal to Thanos in order to win his favor. Nebula confronts herself, trying to appeal to the person beyond the machine in order to wake her up to reality. However, as hard as she tries, with the help of 2014 Gamora, she can’t get through to her; so when past Nebula is about to shoot Gamora, present Nebula doesn’t hesitate to kill her past self. This moment conveys that she’s no longer that version of herself. The old her has died, and the new Nebula is here to fight for the universe’s survival instead of just her own.

Nebula Embraces Her Found Family in ‘The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special’

Image via Marvel Studios

After Thanos has been defeated for good, she remains with the Guardians as they travel across the galaxy together. Though she doesn’t lose contact with 2014 Gamora, Nebula begins to let the others in more and more. One of the Guardians she grows close to during Gamora’s absence is Rocket. After spending five years together as the only survivors from Thanos’ snap, they became each other’s family despite their tough, sardonic demeanor. In The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special, Nebula gives Bucky’s (Sebastian Stan) mechanical arm from Infinity War to Rocket as a gift. She knew how much he wanted to get that arm; it’s rare for her to go out of her way to be thoughtful like this.

Guardians 3 continues to highlight their friendship post-Endgame. When she and the other Guardians watch Rocket’s file of being experimented on by the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), she remarks that his torture was worse than hers. It’s an experience they both share that’s hard for them to talk about, let alone others to truly understand. Up until this point, it’s been rare for Nebula to show anyone empathy. However, it’s still hard for her to express emotion beyond anger. When she, Mantis, and Drax are trapped, Mantis calls out Nebula’s outbursts of frustration for what they are– Nebula’s coping mechanism for shielding real emotion. It’s only when Nebula hears Rocket’s voice after he wakes up that she starts to cry. Nebula has never cried over anyone, not even Gamora. This moment goes to show how much this group of misfits has come to mean to her. The Guardians have become the family she never had when she lived under Thanos’ control.

In ‘Guardians of the Galaxy 3,’ Nebula Finds Her Somewhere in Knowhere

Over the course of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, Nebula has stepped up and filled in the role that the former Gamora used to serve. She’s as determined to save Rocket’s life as Peter. She takes care of her own, like when she carries a passed-out Peter back to his bed. With her upgraded arm, Nebula helps defend Knowhere when Adam Warlock (Will Poulter) attempts to take Rocket back to the Sovereign. When she discovers the children on the High Evolutionary’s ship, Nebula is intent on saving them, too. She’s no longer fighting for herself but actively seeking to do what’s right. Nebula has become a leader in her own right, and when the Guardians disband, she chooses to stay behind on Knowhere and lead the citizens who want to call the former mining colony home.

The magnitude is not lost on us that Nebula, who was responsible for bringing destruction to Knowhere with Ronan, is now finding her place by rebuilding and leading the inhabitants of Knowhere. Nebula was once a follower looking to survive; now she’s a leader finally starting to live. She was once deemed more machine, unwilling to let loose and dance. Now she embraces her humanity and dances with Cosmo, voiced by Maria Bakalova, and Drax at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. To be fair, she was seen swaying stiffly to Kevin Bacon while he sang in The Holiday Special; but, here set to “Dog Days Are Over” by Florence + The Machine, it’s unrestrained and joyful.

Like many characters in the MCU, Nebula has a tragic backstory. In fact, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 makes it a point to spend time exploring Rocket’s origin story. What sets Nebula’s arc apart from most in the MCU is the continued complexity to her character that gets explored in every appearance she makes, minus Thor: Love and Thunder. Her transformation from a loyal servant of Thanos to a sacrificial sister has saved the universe multiple times. Thanos had no idea that his once-orphaned weapon against the universe would become the very leader who would bring it back from his ashes. Her connection to the Guardians has given her the confidence to plant roots and be a force for good whether she’s with her family or apart. Whether we see her again is unknown, but we know that no matter what, Nebula has found the two things she was looking for– a family and a place to call home.

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