The Heart of Marvel’s Eternals
Sersi is the film’s redeeming feature
According to ScreenRant, Eternals was the first film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe not to certify fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. The film’s negative reviews were harsh, and for the most part I don’t disagree, but the film does offer one clear good, and that’s Gemma Chan in the role of Sersi.
Eternals (2021) is about a race of immortals with superpowers. A space god called a Celestial created them and sent them to Earth to live across the centuries aiding human development and fighting creatures known as Deviants. After defeating the Deviants, the Eternals began living relatively normal lives amongst Earth’s human population, but now the Deviants are back, treachery is afoot, and another space god is about to awaken from the planet’s core and destroy everything. That means it’s time for the Eternals to save the world.
And Sersi is one of them. Her most distinctive power is transformation of matter, fitting since she’s named after the enchantress in Greek mythology named Circe, who changed Odysseus’ crew into swine in Homer’s Odyssey. Early in the film, she changes a bus into a burst of rose petals and later she turns falling rock into a flock of birds, thereby providing two of the film’s best, however brief, moments. In a group notable for its generic powers — speed, flight, strength, eye-lasers — Sersi’s is cool and she eventually uses it in a colossal way.
Fans of the comics may experience a moment of disorientation as they realize that Sersi is the film’s focus. The comics usually put Ikaris out front and many MCU fans assumed Angelina Jolie would take the lead as Thena. The film, however, is more about Sersi’s personality, relationships and rise to leadership. This last demonstrates more of the filmmakers’ often clumsy preoccupation with social issues, but Sersi becoming the top Eternal is less significant than the manner in which she embraces the role.
That’s gradually, humbly and with grace. This is surprising, because while there are exceptions, Black Widow, Captain Marvel, Gamora and others often feel interchangeable for their combat skills, confidence, tough talk and snark. That’s also true of the male characters, and it’s a big part of the superhero genre, but it can be a bit much sometimes. Everyone loves a fighter skilled in caustic banter — my latest favorite is Yelena Belova — but does nearly every character have to be like this? By contrast, Sersi is thoughtful, quiet and caring.
The Critical Drinker describes the character as a “nothing burger” and “soggy loaf of bread.” I disagree, but I agree with the recurring theme in the Drinker’s rants that female characters increasingly exhibit the characteristics associated with toxic masculinity. Setting aside for the moment any debate about the meaning, validity and efficacy of some of the terminology here, I’d say that while Eternals goes to lengths to turn male characters into female characters and to sideline traditionally masculine characters, it has at the same time introduced a more traditionally feminine character into the center of the MCU.
Gemma Chan plays that woman perfectly. Chan had previously appeared in the MCU in a minor role as Minn-Erva in Captain Marvel. In Eternals, she impresses while everyone else — right up through the credits scenes — is boring, awful or simply working with a script intent on sabotage. Chan, however, transforms the often scantily clad, chatty and even ditzy heroine of the comics into a reserved, intelligent and powerful woman second to no Ajak. She is the mighty heart of Eternals, and especially those critics given to moaning and groaning about progressive social agendas should give credit where credit is due.
I’d like to see Sersi show up again, perhaps in an all-female Marvel film or prequel series. I assume those projects would have lots of kicking butt, asking questions later and delicious smack talk, but I hope that as Disney implements Mockingbird’s feminist agenda, it also includes a place for women like Sersi who aren’t always leaning in but outshine everyone else when they do.