Eternals: The Burden of Purpose
[The following essay contains MAJOR SPOILERS; YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!]
I am Loki of Asgard, and I am burdened with glorious purpose.
Oft-quoted and frequently meme’d, this line of dialogue from Joss Whedon’s The Avengers has become undeniably iconic amongst fans of superhero cinema. It evokes imagery of a villain on a mission of conquest that is both wondrous and terrible—the pursuit of a “necessary evil” that is simultaneously a privilege and a curse.
In retrospect, however, this interpretation doesn’t quite fit the God of Mischief’s established personality (indeed, the character’s spinoff series on Disney+ attempts to re-contextualize the statement's deeper subtext). Ironically, the sentiment was expressed with greater clarity and emotional impact by Marvel’s rival studio, in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel:
I exist only to protect Krypton. That is the sole purpose for which I was born. And every action I take, no matter how violent or how cruel, is for the greater good of my people. And now... I have no people. My soul, that is what you have taken from me!
Even here, the theme is slightly diminished by the fact that the conflict emerges only after General Zod has been deprived of his “glorious purpose.” He is otherwise convinced of the righteousness of his cause, secure in the knowledge that his violent and cruel actions serve a “greater good.”
Unfortunately, Ikaris—the unlikely antagonist of Chloé Zhao’s Eternals—can’t claim to enjoy the same luxury. The most powerful and pious of the eponymous team of immortal spacefarers, he spends millennia dutifully obeying the commands of his deity, Arishem. After learning the awful truth behind his origins—that he and his comrades are artificial constructs, mere cogs in the Celestial lifecycle, which utilizes the sentient life that they protect and nurture as fuel for the “birthing” process—Ikaris’ faith is shaken, but his loyalty to his master never wavers. After all, he reasons, such genocide is an inherent part of the “natural order” of the universe; the loss of billions of human lives may be horrifying in the short term, but the planets and galaxies that will eventually be created by the new Celestial that emerges from Earth’s destruction will make the sacrifice worthwhile.
But unlike Zod, Ikaris is not a prideful zealot; he takes absolutely no pleasure in enacting his “glorious purpose.” With every step of his journey—when he murders his beloved leader, Ajak, to stop her from betraying Arishem; when his manipulation and subterfuge result in the unintended death of Gilgamesh; when he reveals the full extent of his treachery to his friends—the weight of his guilty conscience becomes increasingly unbearable. The heavy burden of his self-doubt ultimately prevents him from actually following through on his threat to kill his former allies (especially his wife, Sersi) during the final battle; instead, he chooses to aid them in their efforts to halt “The Emergence”—a decision that directly contradicts his own principles.
His soul split in two, adrift in a world that can no longer support his inflexible values, Ikaris takes a page from Les Misérables and retreats into oblivion, stoically committing suicide by flying into the sun—reducing his obsolete “purpose” to cosmic dust.