When she was introduced as a Marvel villain in Guardians of the Galaxy, I didn’t think much of Nebula. The trope of the ‘evil sister’ filled to the brim with resentment had been done countless times before, and even when she had a little redemption arc in the end, I rolled my eyes. For me, it felt all too predictable and shallow.
Even if you put the inherent misogyny of the ‘ugly sister’ trope and pitting two female characters against each other to one side, it just felt like a gender-swapped, rehashed version of what we’d already seen with Thor and Loki. But then, she continued to stick around.
Usually, when a former movie villain changes their mind and decides to join the hero’s team, there’s always some kind of excuse as to why they are never seen again. Or, they end up having a horrible death that exists only to serve the protagonist’s character development. Or, in the case of Loki, they just change their mind every single movie until they eventually die and front their own TV series.
Across genres, sibling rivalry dynamics in film are often rooted in a troubled upbringing where the protagonist is favoured, while the antagonist experiences abuse. This kind of villain origin story is usually used as a shortcut to give your ‘bad guy’ some depth, as we’re encouraged to side with the golden child who oftentimes barely acknowledges the suffering that their sibling might have gone through.
Even when the villain has a short-lived or underdeveloped redemption arc, positing them as the ‘bad guy’ in the first place ends up sending a pretty uncomfortable message. Namely, that people raised in abusive homes are irrevocably broken. They’re portrayed as either incapable of redemption as a whole, or have a redemption arc so underdeveloped or cut short that they might as well have never had one at all.
Instead of leaving Nebula in Guardians 2, we had the chance to see her heal and process her trauma in Infinity War and Endgame. She and Gamora had resolved their differences by the end of Guardians 2, but Nebula was still widely distrusted and treated with caution by the Guardians and other MCU characters. But in this two-parter epic especially, we learned to understand and empathise with Nebula more. She never once wavered in her determination to stop Thanos, and threw every part of herself into helping the Avengers achieve their goals.
Prior to her redemption, we saw Nebula similarly dedicate herself to serving and impressing Thanos — and to see her throw herself into ensuring the Avengers’ mission is accomplished helped me see the character in a different light. It reminded me that the character wasn’t necessarily born evil when she was working for Thanos, but was just desperately trying to be loved and accepted — with acts of service being the only way she knew how.
So, Nebula ended up being a running constant in the two Marvel movies: always working in the background to ensure that the Avengers’ mission is accomplished. And we also saw her slowly healing from her trauma, too. When Tony Stark let Nebula win at paper football, the character realised her days of repeatedly losing and being punished were over. It was a short scene, but was unexpectedly profound in showing that it’s possible for abusive survivors to break the life-long patterns that define them.
And nothing cemented this turning point better than Nebula quite literally killing the version of herself who was still trapped in that cycle of abuse and trauma. She was freed from Thanos physically by Guardians 2, but wasn’t free of him mentally until after Infinity War and Endgame.
This character arc means we find Nebula in a comfortable place by Guardians 3. She’ll never be one of those characters who make ill-timed jokes or corny quips, because that’s just not who she is. But she’s as much a member of the Guardians than any other person on the team — and is wholly embraced and treated as such.
By the end of the James Gunn movie, which may be the character’s last appearance, we see her smile for the first time ever. In determining to leave the Guardians and help raise the displaced children, it’s clear that she hasn’t just broken the cycle for herself, but is now using what she experienced to help others break that cycle, too.
For more thoughts on the new movie, check out our Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 review. Or, if you want to know more about who plays Nebula, check out our guide to the Guardians of the Galaxy cast. In the event you’re all MCU’d out, take a break from it all and check out our list of the best movies of all time.