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Last night was the Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 quarantine watch party. The best story arc in the MCU was Nebula’s, and it really came together in this movie thanks to both the writing and acting. No one can topple Thor as my favorite character, but she comes in as a close second. Sure, I’ve beaten this point into the ground but done so across several blog and social media posts that even I, the author, can’t track. Now I’m going to put it all together in one place so I can just point people to this post. Note well that the creators themselves may disagree with my analysis here and there, but art is in the eyes of the beholder. Great art speaks to people regardless of their own biases and perspectives, and I’ve learned recently that many people agree with my analysis of both the actor and the character. I truly hope I do everyone justice in expressing that analysis. To that end, while I’ve been trying to improve my writing by shortening my posts, this one can’t be done quickly. There’s a lot to unpack, so grab a drink and some snacks; you’ll be here for a while.
In GotG Volume 1, Nebula is a one-dimensional character. She’s an assassin crafted by a family with a far different dysfunction than any real human has experienced. Maybe you’ve experienced something as bad or worse, but unless your parent turned you into a cyborg because you didn’t murder well enough, you can’t truly relate. Every relationship Nebula has had is either severe familial dysfunction or predator-to-prey. She’s been trained to be nothing more than a killer; that’s all she is. She’s never laughed, never had a friend, and lacks the social context even to address her issues, let alone resolve them. The only emotions we’ve seen from her are anger and frustration (e.g., “Thanks, dad.”).
In GotG Volume 2, things slowly start to change. Gamora’s time as a Guardian has brought her along her own path of redemption, but she has no confidence in Nebula in that regard. Thus, the movie starts with Nebula feeling no love from her sister. However, when Peter, Drax, and Gamora are leaving with Ego and Mantis, there’s a moment where Nebula senses something inside herself. She gives a quick downward glance, accompanied by a brilliant musical choice making it clear that this scene was as much about Nebula as it was about any of the Guardians.
[C]obbled together by Buckingham at a time when certain people in the band weren’t even speaking to each other . . . “[t]he Chain” is a stark reminder that you’re forever tied to the people you love most, even while they’re betraying you. –Jillian Mapeshttps://pitchfork.com/features/lists-and-guides/stevie-nicks-in-33-songs/
My interpretation is that Nebula doesn’t understand these feelings because she’s never had them before now, but they’re clearly triggered by Gamora leaving her and the subconscious recognition that if Gamora can have an adoptive family, so can she. Peter and Gamora were further along this path than Nebula, but they were all on the same journey (as was Rocket, but in a different way). Later, Nebula saves Rocket from execution for what she claims to be selfish reasons, but there’s clearly a change going on inside her. The 2014 Nebula wouldn’t have stopped the execution.
Skipping ahead to the planet of Ego, Nebula attacks Gamora. She’s genuinely angry, but not having to look Gamora in the eye is key to her ability to kill her sister. When the battle brings them face to face, she can’t do it. She yells out in frustration because all she knows is killing, and she suddenly can’t. She feels like she’s lost control of herself. Even at this point, my interpretation is that she doesn’t understand why.
And then there’s that moment when at last she gets it. She yells, “You were the one that wanted to win, and I just wanted a sister!” At 3:44, you see for a brief instant a relaxing of her eyes. I wish they had held the shot on her face for another second. She’s as surprised as Gamora. It’s at that point Nebula finally has a basic understanding of what she’s been feeling. She’s still Nebula, and there’s still plenty of road to travel, but you can’t address an issue until you first acknowledge it. She’s finally done that, and that’s why it’s one of my favorite lines in all of cinema.
There are a few more moments that help her along. She can’t understand how the Guardians can be friends because they always fight. Drax explains it to her.
Nebula: “…. You’re not friends.”
Drax: “You’re right. We’re family.”
This helps her understand that right and wrong, love and hate, etc. aren’t always defined strictly by actions, but also by intent. Sometimes right and wrong look the same but nevertheless are not. Soon after, she becomes a Guardian by joining their fight to save the universe. She’s not just doing so to help herself; she’s also helping her sister. She’s not just working alongside someone in a morbid contest to kill more victims; she’s learning the notion of truly bonding with others for a common goal. Cooperation rather than competition.
Nebula’s part in the movie ends with an awkward hug, and then Gamora pensively watching Nebula ride away in search of Thanos. On the one hand, it’s a sad moment, but on the other, it’s a moment of hope that’s going to be desperately needed in the MCU within the next couple of movies.
Nebula’s journey to date is longer than the other MCU characters, but it takes on a familiar form. Like most of the MCU characters, as Nebula evolves into a better version of herself, her methods don’t change. For example, Tony Stark is a self-absorbed, playboy and arms dealer, and then becomes a family-oriented peace-lover out to save the world. Either way, his methods are the same: Develop weaponry. It’s all he really knows, so we judge him more by his intent than by his methods (though he often makes mistakes worthy of judgment). Thor is similarly self-absorbed and deemed unworthy, but eventually joins the fight to save half the universe. How? By recklessly plunging into battle, preferring brute force over tactics. He’s still Thor. And do I really have to mention Ant-Man? As discussed in the prior section, Nebula’s still figuring out that the same actions can be considered good or evil based in large part on intent. Sure, some acts are inherently good or evil, but in the movie universe, even that idea can be relaxed for the sake of drama. We can also allow ourselves to forgive a movie character despite an unforgivable past (see, e.g., Darth Vader saying, “My bad,” and then becoming a Force ghost), which would never fly in the real world (where I’m sure you agree that she deserves that maximum penalty you feel the law may morally impose no matter how much she loves her sister). This is because filmmakers have to use these extremes in order to properly convey the message to the audience. Still, there are rules of engagement, which Tony will later explain to her.
Nebula’s first scene in Infinity War has Thanos torturing her. After freeing herself, we next see her on Titan joining the fight to stop Thanos. While wanting to do the right thing but still not appreciating the importance of intent, she must be very confused by her current mission, which is to assassinate her adoptive father. She experiencing the same two defining characteristics of the life she’s trying to leave behind: Family dysfunction and predator killing prey. But this battle helps break those bonds of confusion just a little bit more. She’s doing the right thing despite the nature of her actions.
When it becomes apparent that Thanos has executed the Snap, she appears to show a bit of remorse for the loss of life Thanos just caused. With Gamora already dead, one might not expect her to have anything more to lose, yet she still exhibits renewed sadness — not frustration or anger — about what had occurred. Is this genuine?
This is where we see it all come together, with Guardians music playing. Ms. Gillan acts out the entirety of this journey in the following scene with two lines consisting of nine words in total, as well as three grunts. She uses body language and facial expressions buried in makeup. It’s not Klingon-like make up, but it still represents a barrier to conveying the message. However, even more difficult are the constraints placed upon her by the script. If Ms. Gillan — who I’ve read is a talented piano player — had suggested adding a moment to this scene in which she and Tony were singing and laughing while she was playing the piano, she would have been laughed off the set. Nebula doesn’t play the piano. She doesn’t laugh, and she doesn’t sing. She’s a stoic, distant, guarded cyborg who’s just learning emotions that we all take for granted. Ms. Gillan isn’t permitted to express those emotions fully but must somehow still convey them as they slowly rise to the surface.
And she does a masterful job of it. Here’s the scene:
The first thing we see is a paper football game. Nebula’s instinct is to cheat by blocking Tony’s attempt. To her, this is a competition, and that’s always meant win at all costs. Win for the sake of winning. Tony explains that, while they’re adversaries, she has to follow the rules of engagement. Again, this must be confusing for her, but she’s trying. In fact, she says, “I would like to try again,” which is 2/3 of the words she’s given in the scene. Consciously, she wants to continue to play, but subconsciously she wants to continue to learn.
When Nebula wins, Tony extends his hand as a showing of sportsmanship. He congratulated Nebula for beating him. Nebula understandably pauses. I imagine her thinking, “What’s going on here? Why is he congratulating me? No one’s ever done that before.” Well, of course not; everyone she’s ever beaten is dead. He still wants to be her friend despite just competing against her. “Wait. What’s a friend?” She’s clearly never had one. Then Tony asks whether she had fun. Again, she has to pause to process the question. “What’s ‘fun’? I’ve never had fun.” But she realizes she has had fun and answers in the affirmative. Remember, all of this is being done with little dialogue, obscuring makeup, and severe constraints on the character’s presentation.
But what happens next leaves little doubt that her transformation is genuine. Putting morality aside, the smart thing to do would be to kill Tony as quickly as possible (or at least as soon as he’s finished with his modifications to the ship). He’s in a weakened state due to his injuries, and as a fully biological person, he probably can’t last as long as Nebula without food, water, and perhaps oxygen. The sooner he dies, the less resources he burns in a futile effort to survive before seeing a rescue currently nowhere in sight. Not only does Nebula never consider killing him, but she actually takes steps to maximize his chances of survival, placing herself at greater risk. She provides medical treatment to his wounds and gives him the last bit of food. Even more profound, after Tony drifts off to sleep, Nebula picks him up off the floor and places him in a chair. If he’s destined to die, she wants him to die with dignity. Even if he’s going to die in his sleep, she wants him to be “comfortable.” And she shows genuine sorrow for what seems to be inevitable. All of this is for a guy she just met. Does this seem like something 2014 Nebula would do?
I’d like to write a lot more, but I’m sure you get the point. So, in the interests of finishing up this post, I’ll summarize the next 2 hours and 45 minutes of Endgame by saying it becomes even more obvious that Nebula’s transformation is genuine. During the rest of the film, she continues to display emotional development, seeming more and more “human” as she goes, and she’s legitimately trying to save everyone, not just herself. Her interactions with her 2014 version enforce that position. “You don’t have to do this . . . . You’ve seen what we become. . . . You can change.” Unfortunately, 2014 Nebula isn’t there yet. “He won’t let me.”
But you do see a tear running down 2014 Nebula’s cheek as she dies (blacked out of this clip). Seeing her future self could have been her start if there were only more time.
Sure, the writers had to do their part in setting this course for the character, and I applaud their work, but someone had to actually act it out despite a number of handicaps placed upon her. Ms. Gillan acted circles around Robert Downey Jr. in their shared scene, and I don’t think anyone noticed. The movies were more Mr. Downey’s than anyone else’s, so everyone was focused on him. Nebula’s importance in Endgame proves that the Russo brothers had faith in Ms. Gillan’s talent.
I agree. I feel that Ms. Gillan has the talent to win an Oscar one day. I have a modest track record for predicting such things (e.g., predicting Reese Witherspoon’s eventual Oscar based on her performances in two forgettable movies from the mid- to late-nineties). This comes not from personal talent, but rather from attending the theater since I was in elementary school. I can’t tell you how many now-famous actors I’ve seen perform at Arena Stage at a time when they were first cutting their teeth in the arts. I learned to look for that talent even when a bad script hides it. Whether Ms. Gillan ultimately wins an Oscar will rely on two factors beyond her acting: Being given the right part and script and being willing to go through the expensive campaign to essentially buy the award from the Academy. I cannot predict either of those, but she’s got one out of three already. That’s more than most of us (and dare I say, much of Hollywood) have.
No MCU character had a more significant, personal story arc than Nebula, and at times she was exceptionally well-acted.