*The following contains spoilers for Avengers: Endgame.*
Avengers: Endgame is a movie about love. The cynic might say that it is about the love of money, which it has accumulated at a record pace. But while there is no shortage of vapid paint-by-numbers blockbusters available, it is hard to imagine that Endgame could have been so wildly successfully were it not also born out of a deep love for the Marvel community. By all accounts, Kevin Feige, the president of Marvel Studios, is an “über-fan” who loves the extended mythology of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and produces as a fan for the fans. Avengers: Endgame is the culmination of this love, a paradoxical Hollywood hit that is incomprehensible without the prior knowledge of its characters, plots, and rules that MCU fans bring with them.
. . . if love were a commodity to be earned, Nebula’s stock would worthless. From a utilitarian perspective, she is at best vestigial, at worst an active impediment.It should come as no surprise, then, that within the contexts of its storyline, Avengers: Endgame is also deeply invested in love on a thematic level. In directing the movie, the Russo brothers have presented viewers with any number of interpretive trajectories, but sooner or later, most will return to the subject of love. There are the loves of Tony Stark—for his father, for Pepper, for his daughter. There is the love of Steve Rogers, for the countless lives he couldn’t save and for Peggy, his own long-lost love. There is Thor, for Jane Porter and for all his absent Asgardian relations and friends. Memorably, there are Natasha Romanoff and Cliff Barton, who so memorably battle one another out of love.
Less obvious but no less significant—for Avengers: Endgame and the MCU as a whole—is the character of Nebula. First introduced in the original Guardians of the Galaxy film, Nebula begins as a bounty hunter alongside her equally vicious “sister” Gamora, both of whom are adoptive daughters of Thanos. Throughout her appearances in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Nebula always plays second fiddle to the characters around her. Unlike the A-list actors headlining these movies, Nebula is portrayed by the comparatively obscure Scottish actress Karen Gillan. She is never a protagonist, nor is she quite a villain either. Yet by having her survive the Decimation of Infinity War, the Russo brothers drew attention to her character arc. In Avengers: Endgame, we see in Nebula one of the most poignant depictions of the transformative power of self-sacrificial love.
Nebula’s story begins with little indication that she will become emblematic of love’s power. Her “father” Thanos holds her in little regard, preferring his other daughter, Gamora. The Soul Stone sequence of Infinity War demonstrates that, on a level we must take seriously, Thanos really does love Gamora, even if he loves his twisted mania for balance even more. But Nebula cannot claim to rise even to that level in her father’s affections. Guardians of the Galaxy—then revisited in Endgame—shows the two women essentially competing to earn Thanos’s love.
In that contest, Gamora will always come out on top. Nebula is an excellent fighter, but Gamora is better. Perhaps this comes because her love from her father appears more secure, or perhaps she is simply a more gifted (or more practiced) fighter. Either way, though, the cause is irrelevant. Nebula seems doomed to live in her sister’s shadow. Gillan herself admitted as much when she first played the role: “What I like to play around with is how jealous she is. She’s Gamora’s sister, and there’s a lot of sibling rivalry. That’s the most interesting aspect to me, because [jealousy] can consume you and turn you bitter, and ugly. . . . She just wants to be as strong as possible.” The pressure is too much, and the first Guardians film sees Nebula abandoning her futile quest to please Thanos.
In each of Nebula’s screen appearances, the filmmakers emphasize the futility of her quest by, in essence, rendering her useless. This may seem odd at first, since she is clearly an intense and superlative warrior who could win out in combat against many other figures in the Marvel pantheon. Yet time and time again, Nebula loses. She is defeated by Drax and Gamora in the first Guardians movie, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 begins with her in custody of the Sovereigns. In that movie, she (fortuitously) fails in her quest to kill Gamora, eventually choosing to hunt Thanos. She fails at this too, her torture leading to his acquisition of the Soul Stone in Infinity War, which sets up that movie’s climactic battle in which she, along with the other heroes on Titan, fail to stop Thanos. In Endgame, her participation in the time heist that makes up the second act alerts past Thanos to their presence, setting the stage for the final battle that might otherwise have been averted.
Significantly, the past Nebula, still trapped within her own stunted emotional deficiencies, fails yet again; it is the present Nebula, loved beyond her faults and shortcomings, who at last becomes “useful.”So if love were a commodity to be earned, Nebula’s stock would worthless. From a utilitarian perspective, she is at best vestigial, at worst an active impediment. But in the moral world of the Marvel Cinematic Universe—as in the Christian moral cosmos—the highest forms of love are not predicated on utility. This is evident in the first Guardians of the Galaxy, in which Gamora and the other Guardians must first come to terms with their status as “losers” (to use Quill’s terminology). Nebula remains alienated from the Guardians at that point, but she is among the greatest losers of the film, and by relinquishing her desire to earn Thanos’s love, she starts on her path toward experiencing a different, truer love.
She journeys farther on that path in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Her failure to kill Gamora leads to a rapprochement between the two, and while she remains a bit aloof, she too starts to become (in a way) part of this “family” of losers. The love each Guardian shares for the others is unlikely because they seem to have so little in common—Nebula notes that “all you do is yell at each other. You’re not friends.” And in a way, this is correct, since friendship (as she is thinking) would be based on mutual interest. But “family,” even in the looser sense employed here, connotes individuals whose love transcends difference or advantage (a love Nebula can never receive from her “father” but is finally able to recognize in her sister).
That love leads Gamora to remain loyal to Nebula even when doing so jeopardizes the Guardians’ mission in Infinity War. Once again, Nebula would appear to be a liability on purely pragmatic terms—indeed, a liability that threatens the entire universe. One can argue whether or not Gamora’s move to save her sister represents a sentimental failure on her part, but the Russo brothers will pay it off in the end, when the climax of Endgame arrives.
Avengers: Endgame presents one final failure for Nebula but also leads to her greatest success and dramatically visualizes her progress in character development. By joining the other survivors of the Decimation on the time heist, Nebula displays the extent to which she has grown. She bonds with Tony Stark and, when they assume they are doomed, gives him the last of their rations. She participates in this long-shot mission for the sake of restoring the people who have been lost—the galaxy’s vanished population, to be sure, but most obviously the Guardians of the Galaxy she has come to care for. Ironically, however, her presence endangers the entire project, as the syncing of her cybernetic components between her past and present selves alerts 2014 Thanos to the Avengers’ plan. While she is legitimately helpful in obtaining the Power Stone during the heist, on a larger scale, she appears to be responsible, once more, for the most epic of fails.
During the time heist, several characters encounter earlier versions of themselves, but Nebula is the only one who substantially interacts with her past incarnation. These interactions are quite informative because they reveal the extent of the change she has undergone. The present Nebula, who now sees Thanos’s love for the false promise it truly is, who has risked her life to defeat him, stands in direct opposition to the old Nebula, who jumps at the chance to earn his favor by delivering the gauntlet to him.
In one of the most fascinating little plot turns, present Nebula successfully recruits past Gamora to her cause, while past Nebula remains steadfast in her intention to please Thanos. This may seem odd, yet it makes perfect sense. Despite Thanos’s greater love for Gamora, she had always been uneasy about him, so (as in the original Guardians of the Galaxy) she requires relatively little persuading to join the heroes. Past Nebula’s feelings of pain and insufficiency run deeper, as does, therefore, her wish to please Thanos to earn his affection. Of course 2014 Nebula would help Thanos—she hasn’t any of the experiences of unconditional and self-sacrificial love to show her there is a better way. Gillan noted that her changed character’s Endgame confrontation with her father would be a key aspect to the film: “It’s maybe safe to say she suffers from some daddy issues because her dad is Thanos, so who wouldn’t? . . . I’m excited for her to face the source of this abuse.”
The change wrought within her is starkly revealed when she shoots her past self in order to reclaim the gauntlet. This action is important on multiple levels. As far as the plot goes, it conveniently rids the Avengers and their allies of an enemy. But it also shows Nebula finally truly contributing to their success, getting something right. Significantly, the past Nebula, still trapped within her own stunted emotional deficiencies, fails yet again; it is the present Nebula, loved beyond her faults and shortcomings, who at last becomes “useful.” In doing so, she symbolically as well as literally kills the old Nebula, demonstrating the full emergence of a more beloved and more heroic identity.
At this point in the movie, the Russos may be riffing on the original comic. In Jim Starlin’s Infinity Gauntlet, Thanos tortures Nebula (much as he does in Infinity War), but in a twist near the end, Nebula wrests control of the glove from Thanos and takes on the godlike power herself. She is the one who restores the populations Thanos obliterated—yet in doing so, she still seeks to retain the power of the stones for herself. “Never again will I be victimized or surprised,” she maintains; yet at the same time, she acknowledges, “I begin to understand Thanos’s hunger for this infinite might.”
Endgame’s Nebula, like Starlin’s, acquires the gauntlet. Yet she never even attempts to use it. Her MCU development has proceeded in a radically different direction. Shaped by the love of Gamora (which she can now reciprocate) and the other heroes she has encountered, Nebula surrenders the gauntlet with no reluctance, content to see the dead restored, while Tony Stark is given the opportunity to complete Thanos’s demise. The movie ends with Nebula apparently serving as a fully integrated member of the Guardians of the Galaxy.
As I have elsewhere noted, Thanos functions like a twisted nightmare of a god, a vision of how terrible the cosmos would be if placed in the hands of a deity who was not good. The “love” he shows Nebula may be all too familiar to too many people who have grown up in abusive environments, but it is not true parental love, let alone the love of a Heavenly Father. As Jesus pointed out to the misguided generation of his day, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” In her evolution from ruthless bounty hunter to compassionate hero, Nebula lives out a pattern that is familiar to any Christian. “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” declares Jesus in John 15:13 (NIV). Endgame is by no means an overtly Christian film and thus naturally doesn’t locate the true God as the source of love. But the love it dramatizes—non-utilitarian, selfless, transformative—is a love any Christian can recognize. And while the big Avengers may get all the tears and cheers, perhaps no character in the end more fully embodies the value of this love than Nebula.