An introduction to Guardians Of The Galaxy’s Adam Warlock, Marvel’s best comic book character

Will Poulter as Adam Warlock in Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 3
Will Poulter as Adam Warlock in Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 3
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James Gunn’s Guardians Of The Galaxy movies have been good at a lot of things, but one underrated aspect of the series—and of Gunn as a superhero filmmaker—has been their ability to introduce big, silly comic book concepts and characters in a way that doesn’t feel as silly as it otherwise would. Rocket and Groot are the premier examples of this, but the Guardians Of The Galaxy movies also gave us the first proper introduction to Josh Brolin’s giant purple villain Thanos, Michael Rooker’s Yondu (who has a glowing mohawk and can control an arrow by whistling), and Kurt Russell’s version of Ego The Living Planet. And all of that is just happening a few lightyears away from, say, Peter Parker going to Washington D.C. on a class trip.

For Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 3, Gunn is doing it again by bringing in one of Marvel Comics’ all-time great big and silly characters: Adam Warlock, a golden-skinned ready-made messiah whose superpowers include “doing literally anything that a story requires from him” and “arriving when it will make the most dramatic impact on a story.” It’s unclear if Gunn intends to use him in the same way, because he tends to put his own spin on these characters to suit the kind of movie he wants to make (see: Ego The Living Planet), but what matters is that Guardians 3 is doing the world a great service by introducing Adam Warlock to a larger audience. He is, perhaps, the best comic book character ever created.

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Who is Adam Warlock?

Adam Warlock, who will be played by Midsommar’s Will Poulter in the movie, was initially created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee in the ’60s as “Him”—a genetically engineered perfect being who butted heads with Thor. “Him” later met a complicated villain called the High Evolutionary (played by Chukwudi Iwuji in Vol. 3) who we’re not here to talk about because he is complicated, and he bestowed “Him” with the name “Warlock” and tasked him with helping defend a planet he made called Counter-Earth that was full of animal/human hybrids (again: he is complicated, but some version of that has been teased in the Vol. 3 trailers).

Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 | New Trailer

Over the course of the next few decades in comic books, particularly under the stewardship of writer/artist Jim Starlin (co-creator of Thanos), Warlock picked up the first name Adam, got one of the Infinity Gems embedded in his forehead (they’re “gems” in the comics and “stones” in the movies) and developed various generic superpowers like flight and super-strength and energy blasts. More importantly, though, Adam Warlock discovered exciting new details about himself: Whenever he dies, he is reborn in a cocoon somewhere in the galaxy, and if he lives long enough without “dying,” he is eternally doomed to eventually become an evil being called the Magus. Sometimes it happens naturally, sometimes he accidentally triggers it, but either he dies or he becomes evil.

That’s a phenomenal hook! One of the best parts of it is that it is cyclical, just like comic book continuity, and Marvel storylines—usually big events like Starlin’s Infinity Gauntlet and its sequels, but also other stand-out books like Annihilation: Conquest (which also gave us the modern version of the Guardians Of The Galaxy)—have deployed it over and over again since then. Adam Warlock is born in a space cocoon, Adam Warlock saves the day, Adam Warlock is worried about becoming evil and/or becomes evil, then Adam Warlock dies. It puts a ticking clock on a character who otherwise has undefinable and unlimited superpowers and leaves the door open so writers can still use him in the future without cheapening previous storylines. Imagine if The Death Of Superman happened five times and they all “counted.” Or if Neo died and came back in every Matrix movie. Or if the Bible … you get the idea.

Why Adam Warlock matters

The reason this makes Adam Warlock the best comic book character is that the entire gimmick embraces the ephemeral nature of comic book canon. His powers don’t matter and his stories don’t matter because they can be slotted into whatever situation requires them, which makes it so they only matter in whatever instance they are currently being used in.

It wasn’t a big deal when Superman died, because everyone knew he would come back eventually. When Adam Warlock dies, it’s explicitly not a big deal because it’s baked into the character that he will come back. It’s not lying to the audience or tricking anyone into getting invested in non-existent stakes. The character forces creators to be honest about the way comic books work, which is that the status quo always has to be re-established at some point so the comics can continue to exist. By design, Adam Warlock is there to allow that to happen without insulting anyone’s intelligence or wasting anyone’s time.

The other side of that coin is that Adam Warlock might be a character who also works best in a comic book. Even so many years into the comic book movie boom, we haven’t really encountered a character who doesn’t work at all in this other medium. Even Deadpool, whose whole shtick is knowing that he’s in a comic book and having text bubbles in a different color, worked just fine in live-action because he can break the fourth wall and acknowledge that he’s in a movie.

It seems unlikely that Gunn won’t be able to find a way to make some version of Adam Warlock work, since even the recent Guardians Of The Galaxy video game found room for one run through the classic Warlock cycle—he showed up to save the day, he turned evil, he died. But, if nothing else, one of the best and most comic book-y creations to ever come out of Marvel is finally getting what will hopefully be a big, weird spotlight.

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