“Eternals” Has Phenomenal Characters. Fight Me.


“We have watched and guided. We have helped them progress, and seen them accomplish wonders. Throughout the years, we have never interfered. Until now.

The newest entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) – Chloe Zhao’s Eternals – is easily the most controversial. Absolutely nobody can agree on it. Scrolling through popular movie review sites like IMDb or Letterboxd, one can read equally passionate five-star and half-star reviews directly next to one another. And in the comments sections of those reviews, one can read vehement assertions of disagreement. Suffice it to say, any discussion about Eternals will likely devolve into a screaming match. One side thinks the film is an incredibly unique, artistic vision that completely breaks away from the MCU… and the other side thinks it is a boring slugfest that makes absolutely no sense and introduces ten dull, undeveloped characters.

I, for one, loved Eternals. But I can’t say either side of the argument makes sense.  Eternals is a well-executed, solid addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe – but above all, it has phenomenal characters. There are ten Eternals, each sent by an ancient being known as a Celestial to protect the people of Earth from creatures called Deviants. And in my humble opinion, they are some of the best in the MCU thus far. Spoilers ahead for the characters of Marvel Studios’ Eternals.

Let’s start with Icarus, a laser-shooting Eternal played by Richard Madden. He is one of the more major Eternals, though perhaps one of the lesser ones in terms of personality or performance. However, the way his character ties into the plot and is developed in the third act more than makes up for any shortcomings he might have.

Gemma Chan’s matter-manipulating Sersi is another character who many might consider bland, but her layers have layers. She is the Eternal who is arguably the most “human,” and her kind-natured, understated personality provides the backbone not only for the ensemble, but for the film’s narrative and thematic structure. The character Kingo, a more comedic Eternal played by Kumail Nanjiani, has a fantastic introduction and is consistently funny – many, even those critical of Eternals, agree that he is downright hilarious. There is the wise spiritual leader Ajak (Salma Hayek), the amazingly quirky speedster Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), the gentle giant Gilgamesh (Don Lee).

And then there are the four truly engrossing characters: Thena, Sprite, Druig, and Phastos. Let’s start with Thena, played by Angelina Jolie – a ferocious warrior who suffers from a mental illness in which she attacks those around her in short “episodes,” whenever she becomes burdened with the 7,000-year expanse of her memories. It is known as Mahd Wy’ry, and the screenplay handles the topic sensitively and interestingly. I found the concept of the most powerful Eternal being taken out of many fights by her own mind an inherently fascinating one, and the execution didn’t disappoint. In addition to this, her relationship with Don Lee’s Gilgamesh was heartwarming and a bit tragic. It was certainly one of the most interesting parts of the film, thanks to the fantastic premise, execution, and Jolie’s convincingly vulnerable performance.

Then there’s Sprite, who appears as a 12-year-old girl and is played by Lia McHugh. It’s almost a unanimous opinion that she is one of the most annoying, poorly developed characters in the film. This is something that I’d have to strenuously disagree with. The Week, a British news magazine, wrote an article saying that Eternals made “an ancient, powerful heroine a petty, sad stereotype.” Sprite is an illusion-creating hero who, like the rest of the Eternals, is 7000 years old. However, she appears as a 12-year-old, making her love for Icarus problematic. Yes, I said love. She, played by child actress Lia McHugh, has great love and affection for a person the same mental age as her. Her arc in the film is learning to deal with the fact that she will never be able to experience being an adult, until she is turned into a human by Sersi. This notion is fundamentally misunderstood by The Week, who assert that “Sprite abandons her friends and the fate of the entire planet in order to tag along with her crush.” Ironically, their assertion is thematically relevant to the film, so far as that they treat a 7000-year-old being capable of immense emotion as a 12-year-old girl like she appears. Anyhow, my opinion is that Sprite is an incredibly well-executed character, and it’s a shame that few agree.

Two characters remain for discussion. And it is almost comedic how good the rest of Eternals‘s cast is, and yet how inferior they are to these two. They are Druig, played by Barry Keoghan; and Phastos, played by Brian Tyree Henry. I wasn’t acutely aware of these actors prior to Eternals, but I certainly am now. Their performances were simply outstanding, and their characters were even better. One thing they have in common is that they’ve both lost their faith in humanity. Druig, an Eternal with the ability to control the minds of humans, becomes disillusioned with their mission in a flashback. He sees how greedy, violent, and jealous they are at their core and snaps after seeing conquistadors kill thousands of people in 16th century Central America. Keoghan ensues into a deep, moving monologue about how he doesn’t like standing on the sidelines while humans slaughter each other. His performance is at times calm, but the bitterness he shows about humanity in this scene is ever-present. It’s a remarkably complex character in terms of acting, but Keoghan nails every line given to him – in scenes with him and the other Eternals, he acts circles around them with so much emotional range and minor mannerisms it is stunning. Druig takes control of some of the nearby fighting humans and retreats into the Amazon rainforest. His philosophy is fascinating, he simultaneously loves humanity and hates it, taking control of humans in order to protect them from themselves. This raises a beguiling question – is it better to control the humans, turning them into robots but saving them from themselves; or is it better to let them destroy each other? And Eternals, being the philosophically sensitive film it is, takes note of this and makes it a major element of Druig’s character.

Phastos is also a character who has become dejected on humanity. He can create technology with his mind, and has helped humanity with many of their technological advancements. He is comparable to a father teaching his child how to ride a bike. But then, he witnesses the atomic bomb explosions of 1945 – his “children” have used technology that he taught them how to create, to murder each other. It is a profoundly tragic moment. Tyree Henry on his knees, watching the mushroom cloud unfurl, sobbing. The camera does not cut. It is just Phastos and the bomb, for almost thirty seconds straight. Phastos later has a real child, and his family is a significant element to his character, but it is this lingering shot that I find most compelling about him. At its core, this is what Eternals is about. A group of beings with the power to make humans do anything. But humans choose to destroy each other, and in the end, the Eternals attempt to do so as well. It is a painfully poetic and poignant commentary on the nature of conflict, in addition to a wonderfully entertaining sci-fi romp.

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Editor for Culture | Writer for the MB Spyglass

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