It might joke around a lot and disrespect its characters, but the MCU’s Guardians of the Galaxy is renowned for its complex characters. Nebula is a prime example of a character who has undergone an extraordinary transformation throughout her appearances in the franchise. Nebula’s full tragic story, for that matter, is something that needs revisiting.
Introduced as a villain, Nebula’s journey is marked by tragedy, abuse, and ultimately redemption.
From Thanos’s Grasp to Galactic Assassin
Nebula, the adoptive daughter of the tyrannical Thanos, initially appeared as a ruthless assassin in the first Guardians of the Galaxy film.
Her backstory is nothing short of heartbreaking; even as early as the first film, it was revealed that she was forcibly taken from her home world and subjected to a life of relentless training and torment by Thanos in order to become an enforcer of his will and plans.
In the movies, Thanos notably found Nebula during his quest to retrieve all the Infinity Stones. She was from the planet Luphom, whose sentient inhabitants are a humanoid race with blue skin, not unlike the traces of Nebula’s organic form.
Thanos’s penchant for collecting orphans from planets he purged resulted in Nebula and her adopted sister, Gamora, being thrust into his sinister fold. However, their experiences within the ranks of Thanos’s adopted children were vastly different.
Gamora was always favored by the Mad Titan, while Nebula found herself perpetually in her sister’s shadow, creating a toxic rivalry.
Sisterly Strife and a Cycle of Torture
One of the most harrowing aspects of Nebula’s life under Thanos’s rule was the ceaseless combat he orchestrated between her and Gamora. These brutal clashes were part of their training, and the stakes were life and death. The loser not only faced physical pain but also further psychological torment at Thanos’ hands.
For Nebula, defeat was an all-too-familiar outcome, and the resentment she harbored toward Gamora and Thanos grew with each battle. Thanos aimed to mold both sisters into lethal weapons, but his methods were merciless, conditioning Nebula to perceive Gamora as a rival rather than a sibling.
Additionally, Thanos subjected Nebula to extensive cybernetic enhancements, replacing large portions of her body with machinery. Her limbs, face, and more were transformed, turning her into a half-cyborg. While these enhancements granted her advantages in combat, they served as a constant reminder of Thanos’s belief in her weakness.
That no matter how much she modified her body, Nebula would still be the lesser agent in Thanos’ eyes compared to Gamora.
Abandonment and Self-Mutilation
Nebula’s suffering extended beyond the battlefield and surgical tables. During a perilous mission on Praxius IX, she fell into a trap, ensnared within an impenetrable Laser Thorn Energy Net. In a chilling display of Thanos’s cruelty, he ordered Gamora to abandon her sister to her fate, a death sentence within the trap.
Desperation and survival instincts led Nebula to make a horrifying choice—she amputated her own arm to free herself and escape. This act of self-mutilation emphasized the depths of Nebula’s torment and the lengths she would go to in order to endure and survive.
This explains how Nebula also lost one of her organic arms.
The Redemption of Nebula
While Nebula’s early life was defined by brutality, her transformation from a villain to a hero somehow proves that she still had a glimmer of hope and independence.
Her path to redemption was secured during Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 when her chase with a disillusioned and defected Gamora eventually led to a heart-to-heart talk. Nebula would go on to defect and join the Guardians as well.
What ultimately convinced her was Gamora’s argument that there are plenty of little girls in other worlds who would be subjected to the same fate they suffered and that they could prevent that fate from befalling others. A hug also helped.
Nebula Kept Tony Stark Alive
On a grander scale, outside of the Guardians of the Galaxy, it’s also worth noting that Tony Stark wouldn’t have survived without Nebula’s help, for it was her who helped him arrive back to Earth after Thanos defeated them in Avengers: Infinity War.
After Thanos’s demise, she had the opportunity to sever ties with her past, but instead, she chose to maintain contact with a younger version of her sister, Gamora, and joined the Guardians of the Galaxy.
In the final installment of the franchise, Nebula’s character took a remarkable turn as she embraced her capacity for compassion and leadership (though it was still an ongoing process).
She took on the responsibility of caring for the High Evolutionary’s experimental children on Knowhere alongside Drax, demonstrating her evolution from a cold, cynical warrior to a protector of innocent lives.
The Guardians’ Found Family
As Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 unfolded, Nebula’s role within the team became increasingly significant. She stepped into the void left by Gamora and became a determined defender of her newfound family. Nebula’s upgraded cybernetic arm and unwavering commitment to saving Rocket’s life highlight her transformation into a leader and protector.
Besides, that dysfunctional family of idiots needed a voice of reason and logic, and like Gamora, Nebula was strict.
Nebula’s character arc is especially poignant when she interacts with Rocket, who, like her, has experienced unimaginable suffering at the hands of despots. Their shared experiences and the deep understanding they have for each other create a bond that transcends their tough exteriors.
The Guardians of the Galaxy have become the family Nebula never had during her time under Thanos’s control. Her journey from a follower seeking survival to a leader striving to do what is right made her the quintessential symbol of redemption in the MCU, even in the darkest of circumstances.
Nebula in the Future
Sadly, Nebula chose to retire from the Guardians in order to provide foster care for the children they rescued from the High Evolutionary. Her mission is now to lead children on the right path so they won’t suffer her cruel childhood.
She’s no longer a part of the current roster of the Guardians and thus might not appear in case a series spinoff gets greenlit. However, there’s still a chance she might come back; she’s part of the family, after all.