Opinion

Marvel's Eternals makes an ancient, powerful heroine a petty, sad stereotype

One step forward, two steps back.

The world is ending, once again. It is up to the Eternals — a superhero squad even more super than the Avengers — to prevent armageddon. Only two things stand in their way: The team's Judas, and the Eternal with an unrequited crush on him. 

Needless to say, if spoilers are something you dislike, you'll want to watch Eternals before reading a single sentence more. But if you rolled your eyes when Sprite abandons her friends and the fate of the entire planet in order to tag along with her crush, Sersi's on-again-off-again boyfriend Ikaris, as he enables the end of the world, you aren't alone.

Yes, it's 2021, and yes, Disney evidently still thinks female jealousy is good plot point. Marvel does plenty of posturing about historic "firsts," but it's just box-ticking. A nuanced story about women with complex character motivations is apparently still too much to ask. 

This problem isn't unique to Marvel. Last year, I took DC Comics' Wonder Woman 1984 to task for relying on a similarly sexist character motivation. In that film, Kristen Wiig's villain, Barbara, is a frumpy, lonely gemologist who uses a magic stone to become "sexy, smart, [and] strong" like Diana Prince. "Barbara's ... desire to be like Diana plays into cultural pressures that pit women against other women," I wrote at the time, so much so that the "ensuing battle between Barbara-turned-Cheetah and Wonder Woman devolves to being exactly that: a catfight." There's also an incredible lack of imagination in writing a female villain whose whole goal is ... to look good and have a boyfriend. (The movie's male villain, by contrast, wants to take over the world). 

Eternals, thankfully, isn't quite that bad. But it uses an uncannily similar premise. Sprite (played wonderfully by the 14-year-old actress Lia McHugh) is a 7,000-year-old Eternal who physically appears as a child; her superpower is the ability to create illusions. In Sprite's introductory scene, we see her in a bar where she "wears" the appearance of an attractive 20-something — but when the man hitting on her touches her hand and risks realizing she's only an illusion, Sprite slinks out of sight and resentfully returns to her childlike form. It's Sprite's adolescent appearance that presumably precludes her from being a viable partner in the eyes of Ikaris (Richard Madden), with whom she secretly is in love but who falls in love with Sersi (Gemma Chan) instead. 

Like Wonder Woman 1984's Barbara, Sprite faces a physical hurdle to being considered desirable, and she's jealous of other women who more easily get to enjoy male attention. Ultimately this leads her, in the film's climax, to abandon all her friends in the Eternals to tag after Ikaris as he aids in the destruction of the planet. Though Sprite's motivation is little more complicated than Barbara's — she feels she's been infantilized for literally thousands of years (fair enough!) — it's also essentially true that she's willing to throw everything away because she isn't getting any. You'd think, it being the end of the world and all, there'd be more pressing concerns.

In one sense, this is a tension pulled directly from the comics. There, Sprite is a male character who is a mischievous sometimes-villain. In one scheme, Sprite erases the memories of his fellow Eternals and they're reborn as humans, which Sprite hopes will give him the "opportunity to finally grow old enough to experience the vices of adulthood," Screenrant writes (Comicbook Herald does less beating around the bush: "As for why, well, Sprite was jealous that the Eternals all got to have sex with each other but he couldn't since he would always be a child").

Ordinarily, gender-swapping a character like Sprite could be step toward better representation of female characters. But in this case, by flipping Sprite's gender and putting her in a love triangle with Ikaris and Sersi, Eternals turns a male character with an interesting dilemma into a female character with a cheaply stereotypical motivation: jealousy over a guy. 

That hollow feminist gesture, which ends up unintentionally regressive, isn't Eternals' only box-ticking failure. Salma Hayek's Ajax was also originally male in the comics. Clearly, Marvel wanted to adjust the optics of this male-dominated superhero group, but writing good women characters requires more than casting actresses instead of actors. Director Chloé Zhao is credited as co-writing the script with Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo, and Kaz Firpo, but it seems her influence wasn't enough to bring real subtlety and depth to these characters.

And while Marvel racks up laudable "firsts" for Eternals — the first woman of color to direct a Marvel film, the first gay superhero, the first deaf superhero — the writing of Sprite remains obnoxiously stuck in Phase One. That I wasn't even certain walking out if the film passed the Bechdel Test — apparently, it does — highlights the movie's attention to how the female Eternals are all paired off, or trying to pair off, with their male counterparts. Where are the rich female friendships in this thousands-of-years-old team? Where are the sororal loyalties? 

Marvel is undoubtedly taking a step forward, but it's still taking two steps back. Women in the audience deserve better than movies where even millenniums-old goddess-like beings are content to throw away the whole planet for one mediocre flying man.

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