Monday, May 6, 2019

Nebula's Arc

by John Petrila

This essay contains spoilers for Avengers: Endgame

Marvel Studios/Walt Disney Pictures
I've seen Endgame twice now, and after letting it settle a bit I just had to write out a post talking about how phenomenal Karen Gillan is as Nebula in this film. I'm going to talk about the entire arc of her character in this movie, so if for some reason you missed the spoiler warning in the title, get thee hence and go watch this movie, then come back.

Cool? Cool.

One of the things I loved most about Endgame in general is the massive amount of long-term character payoffs we get in this film, and Nebula is one of the most significant examples of this. From the very first time we see her, she is playing a game with Tony and is clearly so warped (still) by Thanos' upbringing that she assumes the only way to win is through raw aggression. Once Tony explains the rules of the game, and then Nebula actually wins, the look of shock on her face speaks volumes. The point of the game was just to have fun, not to prove anything, and the handshake at the end of the scene was exactly the sort of gesture that she'd been so hellbent on walling herself off from earlier in her life, viewing it as a sign of needing support; of failure and weakness (we'll come back to that in a bit).

Then you have the heartbreaking montage of Nebula insisting Tony eat the last of the rations and fixing him up while he sleeps, a far cry from her "of all our sisters, I hated you the least" declaration to Gamora in Guardians 1. To add to this, in his message to Pepper, Tony describes Nebula as "only slightly sadistic". Which, even taking Tony's sense of humor into account, is a far cry from the Nebula of old.

When she gets back to earth, Nebula immediately comforts Rocket, and then in her scene where she explains where Thanos has gone, she is mirroring almost exactly Gamora's speech to the Guardians and Thor in Infinity War ("For as long as I knew Thanos, he only ever had one goal...", paraphrasing/"My father spent a long time trying to perfect me..."). These two moments are very elegant ways of showing just how far Nebula has come in terms of confidence and emotional vulnerability/openness.

Her reaction at Thanos' death is also poignant, but unlike Gamora's weeping in Infinity War when she kills the Reality Stone illusion version of Thanos (which I will forever hold up as one of the most perfect examples of the counter-intuitive mind-screw that is mourning an abusive relationship that I've ever seen in a film), Nebula merely solemnly closes Thanos' eyes and moves on. She has made her peace with what was done to her, gets her closure, and walks away.

Later in the film, we come to what is perhaps my favorite character moment: Nebula's conversation with Rhodey in the Temple of the Power Stone. I know most of the fandom is highlighting and underlining the all-female superhero moment in the finale as a powerful moment of representation, which it is. But as someone with a physical handicap, seeing two people who have been literally, physically bent out of shape or torn apart by circumstance bond over their shared trauma and resolve to continue kicking ass anyway (because damn it, that's just what needs to be done to save the universe) was incredibly powerful for me to see. In my particular minority, it's very uncommon to see representation in an action movie in a role that isn't relegated to something like tech support from a wheel-chair. So thank you for that one, Endgame.

Of course, on the heels of that we get the jewel in the crown of this performance: when Karen Gillan plays two versions of the same character at the same time, and you can clearly see just how different each of them is. 2023 Nebula knows exactly how to go for the throat of her 2014 self "You're weak/"I'm you", and leverages what she knows about Vormir to start winning over 2014 Gamora-- displaying a level of emotional openness and concern for her sister that 2014 Nebula would never show, as evidenced by the earlier moment where she slaps away an offered hand from Gamora. Later on, 2023 Nebula connects with Gamora and takes her hand, echoing her moment with Tony at the beginning of the film and directly counterpointing 2014 Nebula's prickly aggression.

Which leads, near the end of the film, to the most heartbreaking moment of her whole arc. When the two Nebulas face off, you can see 2014 Nebula hesitate, and try desperately to believe that she could, in fact, become the version of herself she sees before her eyes. But her trauma overcomes her, she breaks, and says "He won't let me [change]." The way she says it killed me each time I heard it, and the look on 2023 Nebula's face after she kills her is haunting. To say nothing, of course, of the pained look on 2014 Nebula's face and the tear that falls out of her eye as she slumps dead on the floor.

Basically, Gillan's performance is a master class in portraying the journey from abuse and pained isolation to self-acceptance, agency and emotional vulnerability and trust-- while also showing, via the 2014 version, just how far the 2023 version has come. Gillan plays two radically different versions of the same character equally convincingly, and manages to display a shockingly large range of emotions for being covered in facial make-up. I love everything about this performance, and I think that if it took place inside of a standard prestige drama movie, she'd get a nomination for an Oscar.

I'm so glad McFeely, Markus and the Russos let her take center stage for Endgame on the heels of her supporting role in Infinity War, because she brought the three-movie arc of this character to a resoundingly powerful conclusion.

I just hope Gunn isn't tied up too much longer by Suicide Squad 2, because Endgame made me so much more excited than I even thought possible for Guardians 3.

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