After everything Nebula has survived — from being kidnapped to being forced to hunt down her sister to having parts of her body replaced with cybernetic enhancements every time she displeased her father as a child — she deserves her shot at her abuser, Thanos, in the upcoming Avengers: Endgame film.
Of all the Avengers who are still alive, she is the one who has the most personal stake in this battle. Not only has Thanos abused her and her sister Gamora since kidnapping them as children, but he’s taken Gamora’s life. For all she’s been through, for all she’s done in his name, for the love of her sister, Nebula should be the one to hand Thanos’ snappy ass to him. And, though the actor who portrays Nebula, Karen Gillan, probably didn’t mean to spill this tea, it sounds like Nebula is going to get her glorious retribution.
“But it’s personal for everyone!” you protest.
And you’re right. Every single character in Avengers: Endgame lost someone important to them in the snap, but Nebula’s pain is different. She didn’t lose her sister in a genocide. Her sister was murdered by her abuser, by their abuser. Her vengeance wrought onscreen will be healing not just for Nebula, but for survivors of child abuse like me, particularly given how painful it was to watch Gamora die at the hands of her abuser.
Content warning: Please note this essay contains descriptions of child abuse, both mental and physical.
We are eye to eye because I am an adult now. It’s a completely foreign scene. Yes, I have survived beatings and being called names before, but then I’d been a child, then she’d shown restraint. And now? Now she wants me to suffer, knowing I am powerless to stop her.
I claw at her hands as she clamps down on my throat. Tears fall from my eyes as I mouth “No” over and over. This is it. This is the time she will kill me. I thought I’d gotten out, thought I’d escaped the abuse and hatred and unpredictability of my childhood. How foolish I had been.
I reach for her, reach to scratch or punch or something, and her face scrambles. Where the familiar visage of my abuser had been, a black and gray hole of nothing now appears.
I sit up in my bed, crying, holding my head. I need a few moments to remember who I am, where I am. It’s the first time I’ve had this nightmare in years, the first time I’ve ever woken the person I’m sleeping next to. I mumble something about a bad dream and my partner rolls over, easily returning to more pleasant dreams. I sit in bed, reminding myself that I am safe, that I haven’t seen my mother in years, that she can’t reach me, can’t hurt me any longer. But I can’t shake the look in her eye, the seething rage present there, and how certain I was that she was going to finally kill me.
Survivors of child abuse may find this nightmare familiar. Many of us report suffering from “bad dreams,” reminders of what we’ve been through, among myriad physical and mental health concerns. We learn to live with the constant nagging feeling of our worthlessness, and, if we’re lucky, we find ways to heal, whether through therapy, healthy relationships, or personal triumph. The reality is that many survivors of child abuse have never disclosed their experience to another person, or after not being believed the first time, they never tell a second person. It’s devastatingly isolating—and it makes it so much harder to have faith in the world, in others, and in yourself.
A major component of Avengers: Infinity War is the relationship between the adult children and their abuser, with a particular focus on Gamora. (There’s also some important backstory in both Guardians of the Galaxy films that shows how Gamora and Nebula’s relationship has evolved.) Viewers learn that at some point while still under Thanos’ control, Gamora discovered the location of the sixth Infinity Stone: the Soul Stone. Though she has hidden that fact from Thanos, he knows how to get her to reveal the truth. He tortures her sister, Nebula, exacting excruciating pain until Gamora submits.
It’s a harrowing scene for lots of reasons, but perhaps what is most terrible about it is how true it is to the abused child’s experience, or, well, at least to mine.
When my mom would lose control — and when I say lose control, please keep in mind that abuse was a norm in my household, so we’re talking next level — I would sometimes threaten to call child protective services or tell a family friend. My mother would always remind me that if someone intervened, I would be separated from my sister. My tiny child brain couldn’t understand that maybe that was better than hidden bruises and unexplained limps and a deep, deep fear of my mother. For all that I hated her, I loved my sister 10 times as much — and I would do anything to stay near her, to protect her. So, we stayed, we kept our secrets, and we hoped one day to escape.
It’s the same trap Gamora falls into, the one that allows her abuser to get his way. Gamora leads Thanos to the location of the Soul Stone, only to find he has to sacrifice, or fridge, that which he loves to attain it. Her face falls as she realizes what’s about to transpire, as it dawns on her that he will finally get to take her life. She backs away slowly, whispering, “No. This isn’t love.” She even tries to stab herself, to take away his chance at the stone, but he turns her knife into bubbles, a whimsical reminder of how powerless she is.
With oh-so-sincere tears rolling down his cheeks (YAWN), Thanos drags Gamora to the edge of the cliff and tosses her off like so much unwanted trash, fulfilling the promise of every abuser: I will use you and I will end you, as I deem fit.
In the meantime, Nebula escapes Thanos’ ship and joins the Avengers to try to defeat Thanos elsewhere. They lose and the rest, as they say, is dust in the wind. Except, Nebula survives the snap and may very well get her sweet, sweet revenge.
I frequently think about how lucky I am to be alive. You might think that I’m being hyperbolic, but I mean that quite seriously. Nearly five children are murdered every day by one or both parents or another adult relative (about half of those children are under the age of 1). And, that’s only the deaths we know are caused by abuse or neglect — think of how many cases of abuse, like my own, child protective services never hears about.
The nightmare I describe above is a manifestation of my deep-seated fear that despite everything I have done to heal and save myself, my abuser will still kill me. It’s not something I think about every day. It’s not something I even believe will happen. But it could, just as it did when Thanos killed Gamora.
I don’t know if there are words to describe how terrible it is that Gamora’s abuser — the monster who stole her and forced her to beat and wound her own sister, the man who tortured her sister every time Gamora bested her in battle — gets to kill her. It’s horrific and a reminder of all the survivors of abuse who are ultimately murdered, often because they dare to escape and disrupt the abusive status quo. It’s even more painful because Gamora and Nebula have only just reconciled after healing the rift created between them by Thanos.
I mourn Gamora and I mourn for Nebula. I know that if my sister were to be killed by our abuser, especially after all the work we’ve done to mend our relationship, I might never recover. I might never be me again. I feel so deeply for both Gamora and Nebula because I have spent a lifetime imagining being the one murdered or the one left behind.
And that’s why I can’t wait to see Nebula beat Thanos’ ass in Avengers: Endgame. While violence isn’t a healthy way to deal with our issues IRL, it’s healing to process pain vicariously through a badass hero like Nebula — and when she brings Thanos to his knees, I’ll be the person in the seventh row cheering her on. No one deserves retribution as much as she.