CN spoilers for Guardians of the Galaxy, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and Avengers: Infinity War
“Families can be tough.”
In Avengers: Infinity War, Thor offers this wisdom to Gamora after learning that her adoptive father is the omnicidal titan Thanos. The horrors of familial strife are a recurring theme in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, being a fixture of the Thor, Black Panther, and Guardians of the Galaxy sub-franchises, but in Infinity War that theme reaches its darkest crescendo. Thanos is the compelling antagonist he is in no small part because of his children, and how his relationship with them is a pitch-perfect recreation of real-world narcissistic abuse.
Narcissistic abuse, for the uninitiated, is a pattern of emotional abuse in which the abuser sees their victims not as autonomous human beings, but as extensions of their own person, to be forced into compliance with the abuser’s vision of this composite entity. The abuser tries to erode and eventually erase their victims’ will, and usually reacts from a place of both entitlement and self-loathing when confronted. The abuser presents a very different persona when observed versus when alone with their victims, leading many victims to doubt their experiences, and narcissistic abusers’ warped self-image makes gaslighting a near-constant in these relationships. Narcissistic abusers are well acquainted with their victims’ insecurities and sore points, because they go out of their way to install and use them to keep their victims convinced that life away from the abuser is hopeless. Although the pattern was named in reference to narcissistic personality disorder, this dynamic can be recognized (especially from within) separately from diagnosing the abuser with anything, and recognizing that pattern is often critical to escaping it. This version of emotional abuse is particularly common with abusive parents, since many societies already encourage parents to see children as their property or as extensions of themselves, and it forms a natural outgrowth of authoritarian parenting styles.
The Marvel films make clear that Thanos has many “children,” but explore in detail only the relationships of Gamora and Nebula. Kidnapped after Thanos slaughtered their families and trained in combat partly by being goaded into constantly fighting each other, Nebula and Gamora first appear as bitter rivals. Gamora emerges as the stronger of the two and receives overwhelming favoritism from Thanos, and Nebula is routinely left unassisted in mortal peril and given painful cybernetic upgrades to “even the field.” This favoritism is a standard narcissist technique, used to keep the abused from forming a united front, because it makes the victims mistrust, fear, and even hate each other, and the children of Thanos are no exception. Even after they both recognize their captor as an evil force they need to escape, they remain antagonistic. Nebula sees Gamora as an extension and tool of the abuse Thanos heaped on her, and Gamora sees Nebula as erratic, impulsive, irresponsible, and too dangerous to trust. In narcissistic abuse terms, Gamora is the Golden Child, who in the abuser’s eyes can do no wrong, and Nebula is the Scapegoat, who can do no right and has false flaws and misdeeds attributed to her at every turn.
In many families ruined by narcissistic abuse, the Golden Child remains aligned with the abuser well into adulthood. The favoritism sticks, the Golden Child believes everything they are told, and they deny the abusive pattern while perpetuating it. This narrative has become so standard in abuse-survivor circles that Golden Child is sometimes synonymous with “abuser’s sidekick,” and survivors often assume that anyone who bore that role is still on the abuser’s side. In the Scapegoat’s experience, the Golden Child was an extension of the abuser, and that’s what makes this tactic so insidious. To break out requires the Golden Child to recognize the wrongness of their situation and to mend their relationship with the Scapegoat, all while the Scapegoat has little reason to trust them. Many of them—many of us—manage only the former, either because the Scapegoat’s mistrust is too deep or because we still believe too many lies about them, making a genuine relationship impossible. The cleverest abusers switch their children’s roles every so often, to keep stories inconsistent and narratives tangled.
For Nebula and Gamora, this tension flares first in their divergent responses to Ronan the Accuser in Guardians of the Galaxy. Thanos and Ronan have an agreement: Ronan retrieves the Power Stone for Thanos with Nebula and Gamora’s aid, and Thanos agrees to help Ronan attack the planet Xandar. Gamora had already decided to betray Thanos and Ronan when she tries to steal the Power Stone from Peter “Star-Lord” Quill, aiming to find another home for it and so thwart Thanos and Ronan’s destructive goals. Nebula remains in Thanos’s service, reveling in this opportunity to gain his favor by defeating his fallen favorite. Nebula’s strategy changes when she watches Ronan declare his intention to not only keep the Power Stone for himself but attack Thanos once he is finished with Xandar. This is her opening, and she decides to serve Ronan if it means Thanos will die. Unable to justify the same grim calculation, Gamora fights against Nebula, and her team defeats Ronan. Nebula and Gamora have both escaped Thanos’s service, but they remain at odds, the relationship still damaged by Thanos’s machinations.
When the pair meet again in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Gamora takes a defeated Nebula prisoner, seeing her as a dangerous loose cannon with a price on her head. In their interactions, one sees the cut-and-dry superficial situation of apprehending a supervillain substituting for the much more difficult and painful task of resolving the pair’s relationship. From Nebula’s perspective, not much has changed. If anything, that Gamora has been able to slide so smoothly from universally-reviled “Daughter of Thanos” to an increasingly renowned mercenary hero, while Nebula lurches from injury to subsistence to imprisonment, only cements her aggrieved resentment. Even outside of Thanos’s grip, Gamora remains golden, and she remains nothing. They were supposed to be family, but family is a curse word in this world, and it guarantees far more pain than support and understanding. It is little surprise that, when Nebula engineers her escape and acquires some new weapons, her first target is not the hated Thanos, but her sister. Gamora’s compassion denies her an easy, lethal win and sets Nebula up for victory, and it is here that they finally lay bare the pain between them:
“You were the one who wanted to win. And I just wanted a sister! You were all I had, but you were the one who needed to win. Thanos pulled my eye from my head, and my brain from my skull, and my arm from my body…because of you.”
This is the moment that Gamora can see that Nebula isn’t a deranged monster, but her desperate, hurt comrade in abuse, who turned to anger when Gamora had only fear and resolve. This is when Nebula can finally see, not the Golden Child who had perfection handed to her, but her sister, doing what she had to do to survive, numbly horrified by everything about their circumstances. In this realization, they can truly begin to heal. For a while, they fight together, but their paths remain unmerged. The forefront of Nebula’s mind is still rage, and Gamora still lives in fear of her eventual reckoning with Thanos. More poignantly, Nebula long ago shed any hidden hope that Thanos could ever be the father she deserved, but…Gamora didn’t.
Being abused leaves a hole. It takes a great deal of rebuff and failure and punishment to give up on things ever being what they always should have been. The abuser developing a conscience and being better from then on always sounds easier than breaking free and living in the vast, gaping world without them. Even after countless demonstrations of raw evil, that hope persists, a sad bandage over a wound that many never truly heal. Before we go “no-contact” with our abusive parents, we give them countless opportunities to be better, and learn that one more won’t change anything. It hurts, and it takes everything we have to remain guarded against them thereafter.
We see this aspect of Gamora’s healing during Avengers: Infinity War. Gamora and her teammates try to head off Thanos’s advance at Knowhere, and Gamora attacks Thanos. As she defeats him, he exhales in apparent death, “Why? Why you, Daughter?” Gamora breaks down crying, only to learn that the whole scene was an illusion. The real Thanos emerges, inquiring, “Is that sadness I sense in you, Daughter? In my heart, I knew you still cared. But one never knows for sure.”
It is not the Mad Titan she mourns. The monstrosity of Thanos and the hate she feels toward him make that impossible. Her tears are for the Father Who Could Have Been, Who Might Yet Have Been, who now will definitely never be. By killing him, she decided how that story would end, and it wasn’t the ending she desperately wanted, even after watching Quill defeat his own evil parent. A dead Thanos means no better context will ever emerge for the glimmers of light in her childhood, and every memory turns gray. For a brief moment, she saved the universe, but it was not a victory. It was giving up, and it hurt. And then Thanos stole even that from her, with the exact goad that she and everyone like her has heard a thousand times before, every time they showed their abuser any backbone: the accusation of not caring about them anymore. The conflict in her, in every abuse survivor, is his way into her psyche, and it saps her will to fight faster than any fist.
What follows is such textbook emotional abuse that it’s hard to imagine it came naively. Thanos kidnaps Gamora once again, daring her teammates to try to stop him, and takes her to his throne room. They share a long conversation, and Gamora minces no words about her feelings toward her captor. He never apologizes, or even acknowledges her pain. Instead, he offers his version of things with stern, paternal certainty. In his mind, she is not an adult, nor a renowned interplanetary mercenary, nor even an enemy who helped thwart his plans. Here, she is his wayward favorite, and he is going to bring her back into his fold, one way or another. His commanding lecture turns seamlessly into forcing Gamora to watch him torture a bound Nebula, until she gives him the information he knows she has. For him, there is no contradiction here. Gamora’s compassion is one more button he can press, and being the kind of father who would torture one daughter to gain concessions from another only bolsters his sense that she owes him admiration and loyalty. Out of options, she relents, saving Nebula even as she dooms the universe.
On Vormir, Gamora rejoices when she hears the stone-keeper’s story. To acquire the Soul Stone she had tried and failed to hide from Thanos, he would have to give up something he truly loved. “You love nothing. No one.” she proclaims. But he weeps anyway. He brought nothing with him to Vormir but Gamora, and she soon recognizes in horror what he will try. His sacrifice will kill her, but it is not her that he mourns. What he is sacrificing is an idea: the idealized, perfect slave he never stopped wanting her to be. His sacrifice is the certainty that she will now, without any doubt, never be who and what he wanted—but that was never more important to him than his omnicidal ambitions. She was never a person in his mind, only a tool and an extension of himself, and she had run her course. He gave up, he moved on, and he got the Soul Stone.
Compare this to when Nebula confronts him on his return. She shouts at him, “You should have killed me!” He bellows back, “It would have been a waste of parts!”
One hears the more familiar language that narcissistic abuse victims endure thrumming through the subtext: Ungrateful. Desgraciado. Disrespectful. Sinvergüenza. I brought you into this would and I’ll take you back out of it. What would the neighbors think?
Shortly before the film ends, Thanos kills Vision to acquire the Mind Stone. He offers dishonest comfort to Wanda Maximoff, still in shock that her heart-wrenching effort to keep it from him was so horrifically thwarted. “I understand, my child. Better than anyone.”
Her answer, dripping with the contempt of someone who knows the difference between love and possession, is the film’s most salient truth: “You could never.”