Does anyone still working at Marvel Studios have any personal passion about Adam Warlock, the big golden guy played by Will Poulter in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3? There haven’t been a whole lot of signs yet that they do — and it’s going to be an important question for the character’s future.
While Guardians 3 finally brings Adam Warlock — the Savior, the Avatar of Life, the head of the Universal Church of Truth — to the screen after multiple teases (in the first and second Guardians movies), James Gunn is the only Marvel director who’s shown any interest in the character so far. With Gunn moving on to help run DC’s superhero-movie slate, leaving his Guardians series behind and wrapping up the story of the original team lineup, his entire slate of characters is now potentially up for grabs. That means someone else is going to have to decide who to highlight in any future Marvel Cinematic Universe story featuring the Guardians, and it may be up to them whether Adam Warlock makes the cut. That makes Vol. 3’s approach to the character seem like a smart, carefully calculated play on Marvel’s part.
From comedic to cosmic
The movie introduces Adam Warlock as young and hapless, mostly a comic-relief character. (Which doesn’t exactly make him stand out among the rest of the Guardians lineup.) He’s literally unfinished: We’re told that the movie’s villain, the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), popped Adam out of his creation cocoon “too early,” leaving him malleable and a bit child-like. Adam has nearly Superman-level power: He can fly, he doesn’t need any sort of special gear to survive comfortably in the vacuum of space, he’s incredibly strong and fast, and while he clearly isn’t invulnerable, he apparently heals very quickly. But in this first appearance, he’s a huffy, naive, easily led dope.
The movie’s events start to move Adam away from that direction, but with so many other better-established, more central characters getting story arcs and payoffs to previous arcs, Vol. 3 doesn’t have a lot of time for him. He gets the quickie shorthand equivalent of a standard traumatic superhero origin story, and then he’s done. Which leaves him in a place where Marvel Studios could continue to develop him into the kind of leading-man hero he became in the comics — or we could just never see him again. Gunn and Marvel seem to be keeping those options entirely open.
For fans of the gold-skinned cosmic wanderer, a Silver Age Marvel character created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1967, it’s been intriguing to see how the MCU has set up elements that could potentially lead to an Adam Warlock-starring story down the line, without actually committing to anything concrete. And that could be because there would be a lot of complicated decisions involved in translating any of the character’s comics adventures into a blockbuster film, the way Marvel Studios typically does with its long-running legacy characters.
Is Adam Warlock a villain?
Adam Warlock starts out on the villain team in Guardians 3, but he’s had a long Marvel history as a hero. Sometimes he’s teamed with the Guardians of the Galaxy, sometimes with other characters. (He had a long arc with Hulk in the 1970s, when Hulk went to space.) More often, he works with his own team of traveling cosmic misfits. He’s had a lot of minor adventures, like fighting space pirates or the High Evolutionary’s genetically modified wolf-creature Man-Beast. But many of his biggest arcs involved his arch-nemesis Thanos, and either trying to keep the Infinity Stones from him, or working alongside him to keep the Infinity Stones safe from other forces.
As Adam Warlock’s longtime frenemy and thematic opposite, Thanos was one of the villains who most gave the hero a purpose in the Marvel continuum. Comics legend Jim Starlin, who created Thanos, was also one of Adam Warlock’s biggest advocates and developers in his early years, along with Marvel writer and editor Roy Thomas. In their comics, Thanos was obsessed with (and romantically entangled with) Death, while Adam Warlock represented life, and the two frequently clashed — except in stories where they had to team up to save the universe.
It’s hard to imagine the MCU bringing back either Thanos or the Infinity Stones, even though it’d be easy enough in the franchise’s current time-hopping, multiverse-exploring environment to yank another Thanos into the storyline, and the Infinity Stones are by their nature eternal. But both were such a central part of the MCU’s most fan-beloved plot arc that returning to that well would risk undercutting the MCU’s most famous and successful storyline — and looking like Marvel was already out of ideas.
Adam Warlock’s other biggest adventures have involved tangling with the Universal Church of Truth, a galactic organization originally focused on worshiping his other defining arch-villain, the Magus — and eradicating planets who refused to follow suit. And tapping into those plotlines would come with their own major issues with jiving with the story of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Should Marvel get religion?
With the MCU heading in a bigger, messier, more cosmic direction with Phases Five and Six, it’s an open question whether Marvel Studios wants to veer away from the kind of at-least-slightly socially relevant plotlines that came up in the Captain America movies, around current political debates over drone warfare, government surveillance of civilians, and overseas adventurism. Given America’s current political divide over faith-based politics, there’s certainly a lot of potential for relevance in Adam Warlock’s storylines, which often revolved around belief and religion, both overtly and metaphorically. (In one of his first big arcs, the High Evolutionary sent Adam to Counter-Earth to try to move the populace back to a moral and ethical life — and he got crucified, then resurrected.) But Marvel also has every reason to avoid religious commentary or themes as much as possible, and to focus Adam Warlock away from battling oppressive churches and fanatical believers.
That isn’t necessarily a problem. Like any MCU version of a Marvel character, Adam Warlock has already been significantly updated and changed for the screen — in Guardians 3, his origins and creator have changed as much as his personality.
Also, that stone on his forehead appears to be purely decorative in the MCU. In the comics, it’s one of the Infinity Stones — the Soul Gem, which gives him the power to suck the souls out of adversaries, permanently making them part of him. It’s possible that entire idea has been scrapped in a post-Infinity Saga MCU — if nothing else, it might make him feel too much like the Vision, who also had an Infinity Stone in his forehead.
And while an Adam Warlock future in the MCU might seem unlikely, the way Marvel has been freeing up or introducing some of his longtime teammates suggests that someone at the company would like him to have a future in the MCU. The end of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 in particular frees up some of the character’s traditional partners, while giving him his first connections with them — but again, without any of the usual Marvel teasing that anything’s actually been planned or scheduled.
[Ed. note: Some very broad end spoilers for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 ahead.]
How the MCU is setting up an Adam Warlock movie
Like so many long-running Marvel heroes, the comics version of Adam Warlock has had different teammates over the years, but his core circle includes a couple of MCU original-flavor Guardians: Drax the Destroyer and Gamora. Both of them wind up at loose ends by the finale of Vol. 3, with Drax looking like he needs some direction and a new set of buds, and Gamora at peace with her Ravager friends, but clearly free to roam the galaxy and get up to any nonsense she wants. Another longtime Adam Warlock companion, Pip the Troll, was recently introduced to the MCU in an Eternals post-credits scene. Even ending Gamora’s relationship with Peter Quill could be part of that setup, since she eventually became Adam Warlock’s love interest.
Another longtime ally for the character, Moondragon, has never showed up in the MCU — but canonically, she has romantic ties to Mantis, who ends Guardians Vol. 3 by heading off into space to find herself and decide what she wants as a person. (Which would sound like an open invitation to a romantic arc if Disney wasn’t so queasy about queer relationships of any kind.) Moondragon is also Drax’s daughter in comics chronology, though that comes through a lot of plot twists and turns that aren’t part of the MCU — at least not yet.
We can assume any return to the screen for Adam Warlock would change him pretty radically from the Christ-figure who repeatedly died to save entire planets in Marvel Comics continuity, then was repeatedly resurrected. No matter what his MCU future is, it’ll require a creator like Gunn, one willing to advocate for more Adam Warlock out of an interest in the character’s Marvel history, and who has a meaningful vision for his place in the MCU. Or it’ll require a notable sense of fan enthusiasm for Adam, which seems unlikely, given how minimalist his character and subplot are in this initial outing. In a series as colorful and complicated as the Guardians movies, one more angsty super-dude who’s trying to figure out who he wants to be and who he wants to be with doesn’t exactly tip the scales in a major way.
For the moment, it seems like Marvel is being careful with Adam Warlock — smartly not investing significant resources in a character tied to the kind of cosmic space adventures that have mostly been a sidebar in the MCU’s Earth-centric adventures, but also not writing him off entirely. His Vol. 3 arc, going from a childish, easily led, approval-seeking servant of the High Evolutionary to a Guardian of the Galaxy, mirrors Rocket Raccoon’s story, without any of the same level of detail or emotional commitment. But it’s a full arc that leaves him with a completed story — or leaves him ready to take center stage in a future Marvel Phase. Almost all the pieces for an Adam Warlock story are on the board. It just remains to be seen whether anyone’s invested enough to pick them up.