Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

The Darkest Origin Stories In The MCU

The Marvel Cinematic Universe balances its audience well. On one hand, the Disney franchise attracts younger viewers with its funny, family-friendly content. On the other hand, the MCU also presents an impactful world for adult fans to lose themselves in, a world that's pretty dark when you look past the dazzling CGI showdowns, bright costumes and non-stop quips.

Take the characters, for example. MCU fans are familiar with Avengers like Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). All of these heroes have dark histories that usually wind up catching up to them. In fact, when you look at all of the origin stories in the MCU, some of them almost sound like something straight out of Zack Snyder's DC Extended Universe.

So far, the MCU has included the rise and fall of a Mad Titan, heroic sacrifices, a five-year Blip that saw half the population erased from existence, and an emotional crisis that turned a town into a real-life television show. Phase 4 looks set to get even darker, with 2022's "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness" likened to a horror show by actress Elizabeth Olsen (Scarlet Witch). With that in mind, will it surpass these darkest origin stories from Marvel's earlier phases?

Nebula was born in body horror

Fans first meet Nebula in James Gunn's "Guardians of the Galaxy" (2014), initially as a foil for her sister, Gamora. But Gamora (Zoe Saldana) wants to break free from their adopted father Thanos (Josh Brolin) and finds a new family with the Guardians. Nebula appears to be loyal to Thanos — more than Gamora, at least — even when the Mad Titan refers to Gamora as his "favorite" daughter. 

In "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2," Nebula reveals what Thanos did to her — and it's horrifying. Earlier in the film, Nebula tells Kraglin (Sean Gunn) that Thanos would force Nebula and Gamora to fight, and every time Nebula lost, Thanos would replace one of her body parts with machinery. Nebula goes into more detail when confronting Gamora on Ego's planet: "You were the one who wanted to win and I just wanted a sister! ... Thanos pulled my eye from my head, and my brain from my skull, and my arm from my body... because of you."

Nebula's story sounds like something straight from the pages of a body horror novel. The body dysmorphia sounds terrifying enough, but Thanos implicating Gamora in his actions almost destroys the sisters' relationship for good. Thankfully, Nebula undergoes a redemption arc that sees her become an Avenger during "Avengers: Endgame." In an interview with Collider, actress Karen Gillan has teased her character's appearance in 2022's "Thor: Love And Thunder," revealing that director Taika Waititi has "brought out [Nebula's] bonkers side." After everything she's suffered, some "bonkers" fun sounds well deserved.

Bucky Barnes had his life erased by Hydra

Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) had his entire identity taken away from him by Hydra. In "Captain America: The First Avenger," he is introduced as Steve Rogers' best friend, a dashing sergeant who sticks by Steve no matter what. When Bucky's squadron is kidnapped by Hydra, Steve defies orders to rescue them. Bucky remains Steve's right-hand man during their time with the Howling Commandos — until he seemingly falls to his death whilst ambushing Hydra agents on board a train.

That's where things get darker for the decorated war hero. Bucky survives the fall (minus his left arm) but is re-captured by Hydra. The fascist organization wastes no time re-shaping Bucky into the Winter Soldier, or as Dr. Zola (Toby Jones) dubs him: "The new fist of Hydra." His missing arm is replaced with a metal prosthetic, and Bucky is brainwashed, stashed in cryostasis and forced to murder countless people on Hydra's orders.

"The Falcon and the Winter Soldier" delves into Bucky's recovery. Thanks to Ayo (Florence Kasumba) and the Wakandans, Bucky is freed from Hydra's conditioning. But his road to redemption doesn't end there. Bucky has to come to terms with the terrible things Hydra forced him to do as the Winter Soldier. Thankfully, the newly-dubbed White Wolf has Anthony Mackie's Sam Wilson (aka the new Captain America) to support him throughout the journey.

Rocket Raccoon sees himself as a monster

It feels appropriate to see Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) fighting alongside Bucky Barnes during the battle of Wakanda in 2018's "Avengers: Infinity War." The two share similarly dark origin stories: Rocket was captured and experimented on, given cybernetic enhancements and subjected to abuse that left him chaotic and cynical. "Guardians of the Galaxy" introduces him as "the result of illegal genetic and cybernetic experiments on a lower life form," whilst revealing Rocket comes from a planet called Halfworld.

Rocket himself laments his creation during an explosive moment on Knowhere, where he angrily tells the Guardians: "I didn't ask to get made! I didn't ask to be torn apart and put back together over and over and turned into some ... some little monster!" Poor Rocket. Given his dark history, it's little wonder he's had lots of trouble.

Rocket's history also shares strong similarities with Nebula's. This makes their newfound bond in 2019's "Avengers: Endgame" even more meaningful, as the two remaining Guardians come together in the absence of Quill (Chris Pratt), Drax (Dave Bautista), Gamora, Groot (Vin Diesel) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff). Rocket and Nebula will both appear in 2022's "Thor: Love And Thunder," the fourth film in Thor's saga and the second directed by Taika Waititi. How will their relationship fare now that the Guardians are back? We'll see.

Black Widow has had red in her ledger a long time

From the MCU's beginning, Black Widow's past was shrouded in mystery. Unlike Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and the Hulk, Black Widow doesn't have a solo origin story going into 2012's "The Avengers." She has a minor role in "Iron Man 2" (2010) as Tony Stark's assistant/undercover SHIELD agent, before assimilating into the Avengers with Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) in the 2012 blockbuster. Nevertheless, Natasha Romanoff makes it clear she had "red in her ledger," and a dark history that haunts her.

Nat's origins are briefly shown in 2015's "Avengers: Age Of Ultron." The Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) uses her powers to mess with the Avengers' minds, dredging up bad memories and creating powerful illusions that shake the team to their core. Natasha relives some of her past from the Red Room, where she was recruited by the KGB at a young age and molded into the perfect spy. Nat later recounts to Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) how the Red Room sterilized her as part of their "graduation" process, all in the name of keeping her mind solely on her missions.

2021's "Black Widow" will explore Natasha's history properly for the first time since her MCU debut. With what we know of her story so far, "Black Widow" looks set to feature some dark moments for the founding Avenger. Nat will be forced to confront her inner demons and face her past, while passing the torch to her successor, Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh) — all before her heroic sacrifice in "Avengers: Endgame."

Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver's tragic childhood

The Maximoff twins are introduced properly during "Avengers: Age Of Ultron," following a cameo during the mid-credits scene in 2014's "Captain America: The Winter Soldier." Wanda and Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) are initially presented as Hydra's weapons. When the Avengers storm the final Hydra compound in Sokovia, the twins wind up working with Ultron (James Spader), who promises to help them end the team of superheroes.

Pietro explains some of their origin story at Ultron's urging: The twins were 10 years old, having dinner with their family, when a bomb blew up their house and killed their parents. A second bomb — a Stark Industries bomb — fell, but didn't go off. Wanda and Pietro were trapped for two days, waiting "for Tony Stark to kill [them]." "WandaVision" gives fans a front-row peek into this moment as Wanda and Agatha Harkness explore Wanda's origins. Wanda, unaware of her magic, used a probability spell to stop the shell detonating. Years later, the Maximoffs volunteered for Hydra experiments and were exposed to the Mind Stone, gaining their distinct superpowers.

The Maximoffs' dark stories don't end there. Pietro is killed by Ultron in "Age Of Ultron." A grief-stricken Wanda, who has lost her parents, her brother, and her country, joins the Avengers and falls in love with Vision (Paul Bettany). Then Thanos sends his followers to retrieve the Mind Stone from Vision's head. Despite every effort to save him, Wanda is forced to destroy Vision and the Mind Stone to keep it from Thanos — only for Thanos to rewind time and claim the stone, killing Vision again. Ouch.

Ghost's origin was sad on a molecular level

Ava Starr (Hannah John-Kamen) appears in 2018's "Ant-Man And The Wasp" as an antagonist for the title characters. Unlike your average Marvel villain — think Malekith, Ronan, and Kaecilius — Ava, aka Ghost, is easy to sympathize with. Her father, Elihas, was a disgraced former partner of Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), whose work with the Quantum Tunnel caused an accident that killed him and left his daughter with new abilities.

Ava's abilities were dubbed "molecular disequilibrium." As she describes it: "Every cell in my body is torn apart and stitched back together, over and over every day." Ava was adopted by Dr. Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne), who promised to find a cure for her condition. His mission was compromised by SHIELD, however, when they recognized Ava's ability to phase in and out of solid matter as an opportunity for espionage. Instead of finding a cure, SHIELD exploited her powers — even though they were killing her.

Ghost proves a formidable foe for Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) and Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly). Her mission to steal the mobile laboratory almost succeeds, but in the end Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) pulls her back from the brink of darkness by transferring some of her quantum energy to ease Ava's agony. Scott Lang ventures back inside the Quantum Realm to retrieve healing particles, only to become stranded for five years during the Blip in "Endgame." What happened to Ghost? According to Marvel, "That's a story for another time."

Gamora was adopted by the Mad Titan

Neither Nebula or Gamora had a great childhood with Thanos. "Avengers: Infinity War" features a flashback of the Mad Titan invading Gamora's planet, leading a mass slaughter that devastates her home. Thanos, instead of killing the young Gamora, takes a shine to her instead, and thereafter adopts her as his daughter.

Thanos doesn't just make Gamora his daughter, however. Like Nebula, he crafts her into the perfect weapon. Gamora is trained vigorously in combat, and her body is given cybernetic enhancements by Thanos to further solidify her status as "the deadliest woman in the galaxy." In addition to her training, Gamora serves Thanos for many years before betraying him, working with Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) and helping her father slaughter populations.

2014's "Guardians Of The Galaxy” sees Gamora escape from Thanos at last. Unfortunately — for that version of Gamora at least — Thanos catches up with her once more during "Avengers: Infinity War," when the Guardians travel to Knowhere to retrieve the Aether. Thanos takes the Reality Stone and Gamora; the two share an intense, emotional encounter that includes Gamora telling the Mad Titan, "I'm not your daughter. Everything I hate about myself, you taught me." Thanos later sacrifices Gamora on Vormir to retrieve the Soul Stone, although she returns for future MCU films thanks to 2014 Gamora time-hopping in "Endgame." Looks like Thanos won't be winning any awards for Best Father in the Universe anytime soon.

Valkyrie drank her bad memories away

In 2017's "Thor: Ragnarok," fans meet Brunnhilde, aka Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), an Asgardian warrior with a dark past that causes her to drink excessively. (Think Jessica Jones, but with a spaceship.) Valkyrie picks up Thor on Sakaar, a junkyard planet on the universe's outskirts. She seems to have forgotten about her Asgardian roots, or at least she doesn't care, and delivers Thor to the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), who forces the God of Thunder to fight the Hulk. Eventually, Thor, Hulk and Valkyrie come together as "the Revengers," after Loki (Tom Hiddleston) forces Valkyrie to remember what brought her to Sakaar in the first place.

Valkyrie and her fellow female warriors were sent to quell Hela's (Cate Blanchett) rebellion by Odin thousands of years ago. The Goddess of Death was beaten back to her prison, but not before slaughtering all the Valkyries and leaving only Brunnhilde alive. Wracked with grief and guilt, Brunnhilde exiled herself to Sakaar, where she vowed to "drink, and to forget, and to die."

Like other MCU characters, Valkyrie rises triumphantly from her dark past; she helps Thor defeat Hela, saves Asgardians from Thanos' attack, then leads the remaining people for five years during "Endgame" as they settle in Norway. "Endgame" concludes with Thor naming Valkyrie the queen of New Asgard, before departing Earth for some space adventures with the Guardians. 2022's "Thor: Love And Thunder" will see Valkyrie return to the big screen, where Kevin Feige has confirmed her character's bisexuality will be explored.

Mantis was a literal insect to Ego

Another Guardian with a dark past is Mantis, an empath who makes her MCU debut in "Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol 2." The Guardians meet Mantis when Ego (Kurt Russell) saves them from the Sovereign. The Celestial explains how, years prior, he sent Yondu (Michael Rooker) to Earth to retrieve his son, Peter Quill. As Quill bonds with his father, Mantis gets to know Drax — and soon lets slip the truth about Ego's intentions.

Mantis explains how Ego found her in her larva state, before bringing her to his planet to utilize her empathic abilities. Mantis' powers allow Ego to sleep, when the Celestial isn't scouring the galaxy for his prodigy to complete his expansion plans. Despite his disdain for other life, Ego allowed Mantis to live on his planet as "a flea with a purpose," aware that his ultimate plan included consuming the universe.

Mantis' life with Ego would no doubt have been lonely and fearful. Ego shows himself to be a maniacal, self-centered being with no regard for life outside his own. He reveals how he caused Peter's mother Meredith's cancer, and attempts to use Peter as "living battery." Having Ego as her only companion for years must have sucked. Thankfully, Mantis has the Guardians for company now.

Drax the Destroyer lost everything

Mantis' best friend, Drax the Destroyer, hails from a tragic past that started with Thanos. In "Guardians Of The Galaxy," fans learn that Drax's wife and daughter were killed by Ronan the Accuser on the Mad Titan's orders, as part of Thanos' quest to slaughter half of every planet's population. Drax recounts his darkest moment during a confrontation in the Kyln: "Ronan murdered my wife, Ovette, and my daughter, Kamaria. He slaughtered them where they stood. And he laughed!"

The loss of his family fuels Drax's dark path after that. The Destroyer hunts Ronan throughout the galaxy, earning a formidable reputation, before he is imprisoned in the Kyln by the Nova Corps. There Drax meets the other Guardians: Quill, Gamora, Rocket and Groot. Despite a rocky start, the group come together to defeat Ronan, forming a misfit, space-exploring family.

Drax will return for "Thor: Love And Thunder" with the rest of the Guardians. His return in 2023's "Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol 3" is also confirmed, but it may be his last appearance in the MCU. Actor Dave Bautista has confirmed that "Guardians 3" will be his last film before he and Drax retire from Marvel.

Killmonger was a lost prince

Another MCU antagonist with a dark past is Erik "Killmonger" Stevens aka N'Jadaka (Michael B. Jordan), the lost prince of Wakanda. "Black Panther" (2018) brings Killmonger into the MCU. At first, fans think Killmonger is an accomplice to Klaue (Andy Serkis). Things take a different turn, however, when Killmonger reveals his Wakandan heritage, shoots Klaue and enacts a plan of his own.

T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) learns that Killmonger is his cousin, the son of Prince N'Jobu (Sterling K. Brown). N'Jobu was sent to America by his brother — and T'Challa's father — King T'Chaka; while there, N'Jobu was disgusted by the racial injustice he witnessed, and vowed to help by stealing vibranium weapons from Wakanda. T'Chaka discovers the truth, confronts N'Jobu and kills him. But instead of taking young Erik back to Wakanda, T'Chaka leaves him in Oakland to be raised as an orphan.

Killmonger's childhood sets him on a dark path. He becomes a Navy SEAL, earning the nickname "Killmonger" due to his ruthless brutality. Killmonger's murderous journey eventually leads him to T'Challa, who manages to overpower his cousin despite suffering a heavy beatdown during ritual combat. Killmonger seemingly dies at the end of "Black Panther," but this is Marvel after all. The character could return for the 2022 sequel, "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever," although Jordan recently hinted that it's not likely.

Sylvie is a Loki with a twist

The Disney+ series "Loki" has proved popular amongst fans for developing the God of Mischief, expanding the Marvel universe and introducing new characters and concepts to the MCU. In Episode 2, "The Variant," fans meet Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino), an alternate version of Loki (Tom Hiddleston) from a different timeline. From her first appearance, Sylvie makes her ultimate goal clear; to kill the Time-Keepers and destroy the Time Variance Authority (TVA).

Episode 4, "The Nexus Event," explores Sylvie's history and what happened to her that shaped her future motivations. As a child, while innocently playing with toys on Asgard, Sylvie is captured by Renslayer (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and her Minute Men, who forcibly take Sylvie to the TVA before "resetting" Sylvie's timeline. The scared child is given no special allowances for her young age: The TVA subject her to the same treatment as Loki in Episode 1, forcing her to stand trial for her "crimes" against the Sacred Timeline. Sylvie manages to steal a TemPad and escape, but she is forced to spend the rest of her life running from the TVA and hiding in apocalypses.

Fans can only hope that Sylvie is successful in her quest to defeat the TVA. Like other MCU characters, her history sets her apart as someone who has been forced down a dark path by circumstances outside her control, subjected to abuse and trauma. But that doesn't necessarily define who Sylvie is. Like Nebula, Bucky, Rocket and the rest of these characters, Sylvie's story is far from over. The future is — quite literally — in her hands.