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Eternals’ Ikaris Inverts a Key Theme of Black Panther

Eternals and Black Panther are two very different films, but both incorporate themes of superheroes struggling with isolation and responsibility.

Black Panther was a stellar film that stood out from the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It made over a billion dollars at the box office, thanks in part to its resonant themes and stellar storytelling. Wakanda represents an African nation allowed to grow and thrive without colonial intervention. But it also chose to remain isolated, shut off from the rest of the world and protected by both a metaphorical veil of secrecy and a literal illusory forcefield. It’s called out for that choice by the film’s antagonist, Erik Stevens, aka Killmonger. He believes Wakanda needs to help the rest of the world and its his belief in reunification that stands against the film’s heroes. However, a villain in the MCU’s recent Eternals takes a much different tack.

While its protagonists are adorned with similarly-futuristic and fantastic technology, they’re actually alien robots created by an all-powerful Celestial. And like the Wakandans they stayed hidden from the rest of the world for centuries. But in doing so they leave the rest of the world to suffer, only realizing they need to reach out and help others when the world is about to end. In their case, the antagonist is one of their own, Ikaris. He’s the only one of the Eternals to try and stay “on-mission,” fighting the rest of them to try and bring forth the Celestial Tiamut, whose birth will destroy the Earth.

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So, both films are about a drive for secrecy and isolation versus a need to connect with the rest of the world. It even connects back to Spider-Man and one of the greatest axioms in superherodom — “with great power comes great responsibility.” The right choice for people with power is to reach out to those in danger and help them. Eternals recognizes that and has its villain speak as the voice of staying hidden. Black Panther recognizes it, too, but flips those roles on their head, and has its villain speak out in favor of helping others.

And that’s because Black Panther is a more complicated film. It’s about reckoning with the sins of the past just as much as it’s about moving forward into the future. Erik Stevens was left alone when his father was killed for trying to help disenfranchised African Americans, and as a result, he had to grow up and face the racism of 1990s America. The tragedy is that, while he’s right about what needs to happen, he learns and grows up in a system built on colonialism and the military-industrial complex. By the time he has the power to affect change, he only knows how to use the methods of that system and plans to remedy Wakanda’s isolation by using its superior technology to take over the rest of the world.

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Ikaris’ views are because of a different kind of zealotry, but he and Killmonger still share something in common: a lack of empathy. Ikaris doesn’t care about the eight billion people who will die for the Celestial, and even Killmonger doesn’t care about those who will be hurt in his plans to overthrow world governments, even going as far as to say he’ll kill the children of those who stand against him.

But that sort of ideology can’t thrive. Killmonger gets through to T’Challa and convinces him to start the process of Wakanda reaching out to the rest of the world. But he’s mortally wounded in the fight against the Black Panther and refuses to accept any healing. He dies for his beliefs — he doesn’t want to live in a world where he can’t fight for them. Ikaris commits a more direct and unexpected form of suicide, flying headlong into the sun. He doesn’t want to live in a world where he’s been proven wrong. There are similarities between the two, but there’s a reason Killmonger’s death was beautiful and bittersweet. He was a tragic villain whose death felt unnecessary. Ikaris is just a villain, and his death just feels unasked for.

To see Ikaris invert Killmonger’s beliefs, Eternals is streaming now on Disney+. 

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