As we revisit The Guardians of the Galaxy in the MCU, we look at their role in “Avengers: Endgame.” After coming together as a family, the Guardians find themselves broken and defeated, having suffered a devastating loss to Thanos on two planets. So while their roster and been reduced to Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper), the last film of “The Infinity Saga” lays out the groundwork for later crossovers, a brand-new dynamic for the family, and, of course, their final film.
Narratively, Rocket and Nebula work as the survivors because it speaks to what happens when they lose their found family. When we are first introduced to Nebula, she is a twisted assassin who desperately wants her adoptive father’s approval despite everything he did to her. Meanwhile, Rocket was a selfish bounty hunter who was a solo act and used Groot as a bodyguard. So to remind himself of his loneliness within a group, he would cause all sorts of trouble, like stealing batteries or pushing everyone away whenever they showed an ounce of love. Of course, that changed in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” when Nebula reconciled with her sister, and Rocket embraced his new family. So they share a common bond in losing that familial love that they had just found. And when they held hands, we saw a kind of vulnerability they rarely displayed in any of the films they’ve appeared in thus far.
With Nebula and Tony Stark adrift in space, we see a new side to the galactic assassin. One that is kind and gentle is more generous than she had been in previous appearances. Stark described her as someone Pepper Potts might love. “Very practical. Only a tiny bit sadistic,” he says about her. In those scenes, we see them work together to repair the damage to Benatair. And in another scene, she refuses food from Tony so that he can eat. It’s a gesture we’d never seen from her, but one that shows how far she has come.
So when Nebula is finally able to confront Thanos with the help of the Avengers, we see her restraint. Back then, her anger towards Thanos and her rage pushed her. We even saw some of that in “Infinity War,” where she traveled halfway across the galaxy and leaped out of a crashing spaceship to attack Thanos. Now, she helps the Avengers capture him and restrains herself from killing him. And after Thanos reveals he destroyed the Infinity Stones and the Avengers accuse him of lying, Nebula tells them that Thanos is many things, but a liar is not one of them. It’s a defense that speaks to her relationship with Thanos. As such, Thanos dares to call Nebula her daughter, and he may have treated her too harshly. Clearly gaslighting her into believing what he did may have been an act of tough love, Thanos’ end was near. And before he could draw another breath, he was decapitated by an angry Thor, who made sure to kill him properly this time. And as Thanos’ blood splatters all over Nebula’s face, the assassin doesn’t flinch.
Flash forward a few years later, Rocket and Nebula are a part of the new Avengers. The unlikely friendship adds another layer to their redemptive arc as both are instrumental figures in the time heist.
Like their role in Infinity War, the two remain the voice of logic and reason. They are very much the group’s outsiders but not in a way that belittles them. They know the science, which makes the humor in explaining how time travel works all the funnier. Nebula is visibly frustrated when Scott (Paul Rudd) and Rhodey (Don Cheadle) try to explain time travel with pop culture references. It’s a nod to how Quill would throw out a few uncalled-for pop culture quips. Then there’s Rocket letting others believe they are the smartest but only on Earth. It’s a gesture that could be perceived as an insult or a compliment that plays well to his sarcasm and newfound kindness.
Rocket and Nebula are also the ones providing emotional support. During the time heist, the former knocks some sense into Thor, who is reminded that they’ve traveled to the past on the day his mother died. There’s nothing they can do to prevent that, and Rocket has to slap him as a reminder that she is gone, really gone. And those who were blipped are only kind of gone. So it is their responsibility to do what they were sent in the last to do and bring everyone back. And at that moment, we see what his Guardians family means to him. Sure, he doesn’t remember some of their names, but it’s a sign that he’s come to accept them as their family. Something that he’s never appreciated up until now.
As for Nebula, we see a small exchange between herself and Rhodey as they are sent out to retrieve the power stone on Morag. The fact that Rhodey can see how much of an idiot Quill is for dancing while on a mission is good enough for a chuckle and a bonding moment. But they connect when Nebula has to sacrifice the artificial flesh covering her arm to steal the power stone. She looks at herself and what’s become of her. It’s a self-conscious moment that allows the audience to see what she has been through in all the years of cybernetic augmentation by her father. So Rhodey offers some comforting words, telling her: work with what we’ve got. It’s an affirmation that she is seen for who she is by someone who has a similar experience. Placing the two Nebulas together in one film shows how far the character has become the antihero she is now. The future Nebula sees that reflection of her former self and rejects any notion of her past calling her weak. She knows what her servitude to an ungrateful father means and how it has destroyed her relationship with Gamora and her self-worth. But since 2014 Nebula is so driven to gain her father’s approval. Even as her life hangs by a thread when Thanos runs diagnostics on her like a piece of machinery. She begs for her life as Ebony Maw urges Thanos to kill her for her treachery when the past and future get entangled. And when they do fight, future Nebula can finally confront herself and come to terms with her past sins.
“Avengers: Endgame” allows us to see the traumas of Nebula’s past and paints her more as a product of her father’s cruelty. So while it is easy to see her as a villain, deep down, she is a complicated person who endured years of abuse. As such, we have more empathy toward her and see that she isn’t such a bad guy. Which makes the meeting between past and future Nebulas all the more interesting. So when their characters eventually meet during the epic battle between the Avengers and Thanos’ army, we see a 2019 Nebula free her former self from any more pain by her abusive father by killing her.
The restoration of the Guardians meant that some of the relationships could be fixed. But time travel complicates things. Peter Quill didn’t even get to mourn the loss of Gamora during “Infinity War,” so when he found out that 2014 Gamora was alive in the current timeline, he was at ease knowing that he hadn’t lost her. But, of course, their reunion is a bit complicated, if not hysterically violent, considering she knees him twice after he had tried to embrace her without her permission. “Him, really?” 2014 Gamora asks? To which Nebula responds, “It was either him or a tree.”
“Avengers: Endgame” paves the way for a new adventure with a new “Guardians of the Galaxy.” They are without Gamora, who was a moral compass and the family den mother keeping everyone in the Guardians in line. One thing that changes is when the team adds an interloping Thor, who is searching for a new identity. His presence changes their dynamics, with the god of Thunder constantly undermining Quill’s leadership, to which the fellow members encourage the two to fight to the death with knives for that role. Joking aside, Thor sees joining the Guardians as a way to discover who he is after Thanos is defeated. Sure, the Guardians will continue to protect the galaxy. However, they are still incomplete. We see how Gamora’s absence affects them in “Thor: Love and Thunder” and “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3.” Quill isn’t emotionally equipped to move on without the love of his life. And his appearances make it seem like he is drifting without any destination. This makes their inevitable reunion all the more critical for completing their family and bringing that theme Gunn has been emphasizing full circle.