This article contains spoilers for Avengers: Endgame.
It’s been over a year since I’ve witnessed Gamora, one of the most strong-willed women of the Marvel universe, die by the hands of her own abuser.
I know that Avengers: Endgame is a three-hour film with an ungodly amount of baggage to sort through. I know that not only were directors Anthony and Joe Russo challenged with crafting a satisfying conclusion for our original six Avengers, but they were also tasked with forging a new direction for all other characters within the 22 movie franchise, post the aftermath of the cosmic-shattering events of Infinity War. Knowing all this to be true, and all that was at stake, I entered the theater aware that there was no possible way all of the Marvel fan community, with their own favorite characters and unique emotional investments, could realistically walk out of Endgame fully pleased with what they had watched; and yet, despite knowing all of this, even despite enjoying most of what I saw in Endgame, I’ve still had a festering, empty feeling in my heart over one character: Gamora.
I am aware that I will always carry a bias here. The Guardians of the Galaxy movies mean a lot to me. I love how over the top they are, from their nostalgic needle drops to their sometimes overbearing amounts of sentimentality. I love that they are two calculated, messy movies about scarred and lonely people full of regret, who realize that they are stronger together and that there is a greater meaning of life in the family connection they choose in each other. I’ll save you the specific details, but as someone with a messy relationship with my own blood family, and as someone who’s strongest emotional connections are amongst friends from all sorts of different places, these themes especially ring true. Gunn’s two Guardians films often pass boundaries (i.e. “green whore” line from Drax in Vol. 1, or the many jokes about severed limbs from Rocket) but despite all of that, they’re always being told from a place of sincerity and genuine growth that has struck a chord with me since seeing them on their opening weekends.
To me, Gamora and her character growth have always been a microcosm of Guardians’ essential thesis. Portrayed by the sci-fi franchise queen Zoe Saldana, Gamora was swept away from her parents after they were murdered by her adopted father, Thanos. Raised as an assassin to destroy all those in the way of Thanos’ search for the all-powerful infinity stones, Gamora eventually crosses paths with the underdogs who would soon become her very own family. Her rebellious spirit and her new-found empathy helped Gamora reject her violent past, and it helped her heal. But most importantly, it gave her a fascination with the galaxy and the life within it, and a burning love for her family that has made her stronger than ever. She can’t erase her history, but she can try to be better.
And better Gamora becomes. While she played second fiddle to Peter Quill in the first film, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is where the hints of what made Gamora great really stood out to define her as her own character. It’s where Gamora began being characterized as a mother to Baby Groot, it’s where Gamora shows an interest in helping Peter find his closure. Most of all, it’s the installment where Gamora and her sister, Nebula, are tested by the toughest battle they’ve ever fought: the last of their many fights against each other. Decades worth of built-up resentment boils to the surface as Nebula crashes into Gamora with her ship. But, despite the roar of her machine gun, representing a cycle of violence started by their “father”, Gamora never gives up on Nebula— their fight comes to a stalemate and quickly grows into mutual understanding as Nebula expresses that she never wanted any of this tension; all she ever wanted a sister.
Nebula and Gamora’s bond doesn’t magically heal with one moment, but they are on a more even ground to keep growing with time and presumably with future movies. And that’s all Guardians has ever been about, not about perfection, but about growth.
But Avengers: Infinity War, the first of the two concluding event films of the Avengers saga has really complicated the terms of where these characters, especially Gamora, have left off. It’s in many ways a step forward but four steps back. This is THE Marvel film to fully engage in what Thanos has done to these sisters, to have that front in center of this intergalactic conflict. One of my favorite Gamora character moments is from Infinity War, in the scene where Thanos uses the reality stone to make Gamora think that she has murdered him, and the way she roars in anguish— her conflicting thoughts about how delicious that closure should have felt, against the reality that Thanos’s traumatic impact on her psyche could not go away with a stab of his heart. It’s a beautiful, well-acted scene and it allowed for a truly memorable performance from Saldana. Here, Gamora is where she has belonged to be, at the center of this narrative.
And in a way, moments like these in Infinity War would be so admirable and refreshing… if it weren’t for the fact this is the same movie that decides to kill Gamora in service of Thanos’s own man-pain. I’ve written tweets on this subject before, and there are plenty of thinkpieces about it to choose from and read, but there’s a thoughtless attempt in Infinity War to humanize Thanos, to frame the murder of Gamora as a sacrifice he has to make to achieve his goal of genocide, a forced attempt to make him seem more nuanced via the death of his own daughter that feels fruitless. Gamora is not only turned into a device in her last moments of the film, but she is done so in service of what reads as abuse apologism.
There’s a lot that’s upsetting about this, a strong woman becoming a plot device, the last-minute-before-death female character writing (something that seems to be becoming a habit with Marvel, see Endgame’s treatment of Natasha), but most of all; I’ve been disturbed with how Infinity War tries to define love. The stark contrast of how Vol. 2 explores how one’s ego inhibits one’s capacity for love battling how Infinity War tries to make Thanos’s murderous advance towards his grand act of ego, his idea that he’s the hero bringing balance to the universe, out to be a sacrifice of his own love.
It’s cold thought to ruminate on for over a year.
I tried denying it was a problem. I hyped up Infinity War just as much as everyone else when it came out because I was afraid about being disappointed, but soon I realized how I really felt as I sat around thinking about the soul stone scene. I was scared. Because after a particularly difficult year of my life that Vol. 2 got me through, the last thing I wanted to see was Nebula being tortured by her father in an achingly long sequence, or Gamora being thrown off a cliff by her own abusive father. What about the children who grew up like me? How is this movie going to affect their perceptions of their own abuse in this next year without Gamora? What could possibly happen in Endgame that would make this sensationalist depiction of violence, and it’s year-long aftermath worth it?
I tried to hold onto hope as much as I could. Getting through mental rollercoasters of wondering if the next movie would try to prove Infinity War, Thanos’s movie, wrong. Or if it would bring back Gamora, a death that seemed permanent, compared to every other death in the film. But, walking out of Endgame, I’m still left with many concerns.
Before I get into Gamora, I want to point out that Nebula truly does get mostly everything she deserves in this movie, and that’s beautiful on its own. She gets to literally kill her past self, she gets a group of people to depend on, she gets to win on her very own terms via a game of finger football, she gets to finally bury her resentment and join the Guardians of the Galaxy as a survivor. I just wish the same thought put into Nebula’s story also included Gamora. The Gamora who was murdered by Thanos is still dead. Any question of Thanos’s intent is just a passing thought instead of a question the film seeks to interrogate. The moments where present Nebula and 2014 Gamora reconnect and choose to fight together are poetic, as it was the other way around before, but they are skimmed over as if they weren’t of any importance to the final emotional climax of the film, to the death of Thanos, the source of their cycle of abuse. Gamora and Nebula never get to be an integral part of defeating Thanos, leaving me unsatisfied as they are perhaps the characters that lost the most to him.
The biggest oversight has to be that Endgame seems to want us to think that this new Gamora from 2014 is a replacement for the Gamora we knew. 2014 Gamora’s existence is not a consolation to watching the unnecessarily cruel killing of the Gamora who attempted to stab herself so that Thanos could not obtain the stone, who was punished for having a fighting spirit. Life is not interchangeable like that. Gamora from the main timeline suffered and her death remains a validation for Thanos’s own twisted love. 2014 Gamora has a whole life to live in her own timeline, with her own Guardians of the Galaxy that she should grow with, but Endgame insists that’s not the case with it’s “she’s still out there” ending. It’s morally dubious to me, and I hope Gunn can engage with these ideas in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 because it is far from impossible to write a satisfying conclusion from where we are now. Just wish we weren’t here in the first place.
At the end of the day, Endgame is more focused on the original six Avengers more than the Guardians, and that’s its biggest strength and biggest flaw. For we get to have epic conclusions with Tony Stark, with Steve Rogers, but the most direct victims of Thanos; the Guardians, specifically Gamora and Nebula are robbed of their own ending battles. It makes a compelling film and a great end for most fans, but people like me with an interest in these specific characters are left with a sense that our stories never mattered. And this is perhaps what really solidifies the comic-bookiness of the MCU and its multiple writers, with their own character biases and personal “what ifs?”— maybe it’s impossible, at this point, to make an MCU movie that does every character justice.
But a failure is a failure. And if Marvel movies, if superheroes, for most kids, are supposed to be escapist fantasies of rising above trial and tribulation; Gamora’s story in Infinity War and Endgame serves as a cruel reminder to kids who grew up like me, that our stories often don’t have the same closure.