This post contains spoilers for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.
Who is Adam Warlock? Questions like that are common among MCU fans who haven’t read any comics featuring him! Since the universe launched in 2008 with Iron Man, the MCU has been bringing oddballs like Volstagg the Voluminous and MODOK to the big screen, giving long-time comic book readers ample opportunity to dump out their years of accumulated knowledge, and no series has indulged in the oddities of the Marvel Universe like Guardians of the Galaxy, which made household names out of Z-listers Drax the Destroyer and Groot.
With Adam Warlock, things are even more complicated. Not only has the character had different names and very different motivations, and not only does he have a fairly convoluted back story, but his prominent stories have involved Thanos and the Infinity Stones, things that are no longer going concerns in the MCU. But as you’ll soon see, Adam Warlock has never lent himself to straightforward and obvious adventures.
From Him to Sacrificial Hero
Adam Warlock entered the world not as Adam Warlock, but as “Him.” Introduced in Fantastic Four #67, published in 1967 with art by Jack Kirby and words by Stan Lee, Him was the product of scientists seeking to make the perfect person. But when Him realized the scientists’ evil intent, he turned against them and traveled the cosmos, occasionally dropping by to tangle with Thor or the Hulk.
He didn’t get the name Adam Warlock until 1971’s Marvel Premiere #1, when writer Roy Thomas and artist Gil Kane gave Him a new purpose. Him landed on Counter-Earth, a planetoid that ran opposite in orbit from our Earth, ruled by the High Evolutionary. When the High Evolutionary found Him, he gave him a new costume, rechristened him Adam Warlock, and equipped him with the Soul Gem to defend Counter-Earth.
Despite his fantastic costume, Warlock proved to be a reluctant hero. He did battle against the monsters threatening Counter-Earth, especially the Man-Beast. One of the High Evolutionary’s animal-human hybrids he calls “New Men,” the Man-Beast was a corrupting force, who brought evil and imperfection into creation.
But Warlock soon found himself questioning the High Evolutionary’s decisions, and his moral questions earned him a group of followers — disciples if you will. Despite his doubt, Warlock eventually sacrifices himself to stop Man-Beast, only to return a few days later and ascend back into space, leaving work for his followers.
If that story sounds familiar, that’s because Thomas drew inspiration from the 1971 rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. Working alongside co-writer Mike Friedrich, Thomas did away with the psychedelic rock that Andrew Lloyd Weber brought to the Christ story and replaced it with muscles and capes, resulting in something even more strange.
Thanos and the Infinity Watch
As unlikely as Warlock’s religious turn certainly was, it set the stage for his third, and most enduring incarnation. Writer Jim Starlin picked up Warlock’s post-Counter-Earth adventures and started integrating him with characters he created elsewhere, including a minor Iron Man and Captain Marvel villain called Thanos.
In Starlin’s hands, Warlock became less a Christ figure and more a spacefarer in search of inner-peace, conflicted by his association with the Soul Gem, which seems to have a vampiric mind of its own. Warlock soon learns what basically everyone in the world now knows — that the Soul Gem is just one of six Infinity Gems, jewels that grant the user incredible abilities and may lead to horrible corruption.
While some of Thanos’s exploits pit him against other superheroes, most notably Starlin’s excellent Infinity Gauntlet crossover (which served as the inspiration for Avengers: Infinity War), he most often battled against Warlock. Furthermore, instead of physical battles in which he and Thanos beat each other up, Warlock usually engaged in philosophical debates with the Mad Titan, depicted by Starlin’s mind-bending pencils.
Warlock, the Magus, and the Guardians of the Galaxy
While Warlock certainly tangles with Thanos a lot, his true arch-enemy is a violet-hued madman called Magus. Decked in a purple version of Warlock’s signature lightning-bolt uniform and sporting a white afro, Magus leads the Universal Church of Truth, an organization whose dogmatic ways lead to soul-crushing conquest. To his horror, Warlock learns that Magus is in fact Warlock from the future, having grown more powerful, but more cynical after years of soul-searching.
Magus works as a villain precisely because he’s a rejection of all of Warlock’s hopes. He stands before Warlock as an inevitable end, a promise that the hero’s search for inner peace and good works will come to nothing. Worse, the Magus’s unflinching smile suggests that the perpetually grumpy Warlock will only find happiness when he gives into his domineering side, cynically embracing the power to harm others.
But Warlock doesn’t battle always battle Magus and the Universal Church alone. The Church has many times run up against the Guardians of the Galaxy, leading Warlock to join the team during the 2008-2010 run by writers Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, one of the key inspirations for the Guardians of the Galaxy movies. And even before the formation of the Guardians, Warlock often worked alongside its future members, especially the assassin Gamora.
Adam Warlock in the MCU
As this short history indicates, Warlock is a natural fit for a Guardians of the Galaxy movie, which is why he’s been teased in one form or another since the first film. He finally makes his MCU debut with Vol. 3, played by Will Poulter, but it wasn’t immediately clear what role he would serve in a universe that lacked both Thanos and Infinity Stones.
Trailers for Guardians Vol. 3 suggested that much of the movie would take place on Counter-Earth, complete with the High Evolutionary, who is the film’s big bad. Even before he left to become the co-head of DC Studios, James Gunn made clear that he intended the third entry of Guardians to the last, at least for this team, and in this trilogy-capper Warlock evolves within the confines of the film to become a Guardian himself, setting up a big future in the MCU – including a possible fourth film where Rocket is the captain of the team.
As an incredibly powerful figure with an idiosyncratic approach to justice and morality, Warlock would make a great fit for the cosmic goings-on in the Multiverse Saga. As theorized earlier, he may be the key to bringing back the Infinity Stones, restoring the mystery and power that was stripped away during Infinity War and Endgame (and stomped to death in Loki).
Whatever form Adam Warlock takes in the future MCU, it’s sure to be weird — just like his comic book forebearer!