Hi, I’m a longtime comics reader who always thought the Eternals sucked.
Among the tenets of staunch dogma handed down by elder comic book fans is: Jack “King” Kirby was a saint and every page he breathed upon was perfection incarnate. To find fault in anything Kirby ever did is to sound like an edgelord poser and betray Comics. Kirby indisputably drew legendary comics and was one of the most significant co-inventors of one of our greatest American corporate mythologies, but his heyday largely ended a few years before my time. His pages could be wondrous panoplies of dynamic, majestic, blockbuster imagery, all the more mind-blowing if you can see the original, full-size art in person.
Then there were the other components, from the peculiar scripting in his post-1970 Stan-Lee-less bombastic productions to his predilection for pun-filled character names that could sound like their own MAD Magazine parodies. Multiple short samples of his mid-’70s Eternals, arguably a rehash of his DC “Fourth World” work with new nametags, left me cold. Later revivals by the likes of Walt Simonson and Neil Gaiman — yes, that Neil Gaiman — likewise did nothing for me. I didn’t even finish reading Gaiman’s version. I tried. Alas, I’m not proud to be a longtime heretic barred from the Eternal Orthodox Church of King Kirby the Konsummate Kreator.
Despite my indifference to the IP, I’ve been following and loving Marvel’s recent comics revival, in which writer Kieron Gillen has mitigated the team’s stuffiness and sillier trimmings by exacerbating their individual personality flaws and introducing a reliable narrator who undercuts the cast’s half-truths and cover-ups with a clever candor honed by millennia of exposure to foibles both mortal and immortal, which is overlong praise for how the narrator joyfully reveals secrets and backstory to the reader while treating Our Heroes like an MST3K film. Sincere fans can enjoy one aspect while us skeptics applaud the other. Everyone wins. All denominations are welcomed inside, where they might even glean insight into what folks on the other side of the aisle might see.
I had the full hero roster memorized before going in, but otherwise walked into Chloe Zhao’s Eternals as a nonbeliever with no attachment to the sacred texts, no checklist of hopes or wishes, and no desire to evaluate or care what the film got “right” or “wrong” about Kirby’s authorial intentions. Zhao’s participation aroused my curiosity but also didn’t guarantee success for me. I saw her Oscar winner Nomadland upon its day-and-date Hulu release (despite the cast and crew’s insistence that one “must” see it in theaters, months before vaccines came ’round and their petitions were therefore denied) and was engaged by its intellectual dissection of our knee-jerk habit of defining ourselves by our careers and by the external factors that determine where we call “home” and keep all our clutter, but couldn’t quite reconcile that meditation with its unironic embrace of Amazon warehouses as a charming workplace that encourages found-family bonding for employee retention purposes while dominating our lives as America’s leading vendor of clutter. At the very least, I figured Zhao’s take would look cool. Not just standard expensive-blockbuster cool, but, like, differently cool with some natural, non-CG artistry to it.
Also not in the film’s favor: the sometimes obnoxious, self-appointed heralds screeching from their pulpits a week before release that Eternals was Worst Marvel Movie Ever. Sometimes I ignore internet town criers, but this time they were a lot and they were not helpful.
So, about that film: leaden exposition dumped into a screen crawl (UGH, strike one) welcomes us with “In the beginning,” and we soon learn the Marvel Cinematic Universe has a very different Creation story from our own reality. Once upon a time, armored super-giants called the Celestials made planets, one of which was Earth. Then there were humans, but they weren’t the most powerful beings upon it. The Celestials also created a team of long-lived, super-powered watchdogs called the Eternals, who would smile upon it, inspire its residents, subtly nudge along its developments without any actual supervision responsibilities, and defend it from the Deviants, a separate Celestial creation that went astray and morphed into skinless, predatory mega-animals with chaotically textured bodies, like Beast Wars versions of Michael Bay’s Transformers. In their immeasurable wisdom the Celestials celestially gazed upon their works and pronounced with maximum basso profundo that it was good enough. The gods shrugged and waited to see how all this would play out.
For thousands of years the Eternals and the Deviants fought and fought and fought, while the first human journalists took poor notes, misspelled all their names, arbitrarily labeled some of them “gods” and some of them “heroes”, and called it “canon” so readers would be shamed for fact-checking them. When it appeared the Deviants had been hunted to extinction in the 16th century, the Eternals celebrated a job well done and asked each other “What now?” They could’ve stayed together and continued defending humanity from non-Deviant threats such as, say, intergalactic madmen wielding the power to slay half the universe with a snap of their fingers, but the Celestials failed to ring up the Eternals on their bright red Eterna-Hotline and order them to do this. Instead they were told to follow the Celestials’ lead, clock out and wait to see how all this would play out. Absent useful instructions, Our Heroes drifted apart like a rock band who’d lost their record deal and retired to opposite ends of the planet, where each respective culture in their vicinity stole their accents so they could sound cooler.
500 years later, the Blip has come and gone, billions of lifeforms have returned from the dead, and now it’s suddenly time to panic. The Deviants have somehow made a comeback and are stalking the Eternals for revenge. Tragedy befalls one teammate in a way that reveals a major difference between “long-lived” and “immortal”. Earth’s lead Celestial, Arishem (Beast Wars voice veteran David Kaye), notifies the Eternals that the time has come for…The Emergence. This event is a very big deal to him and the impetus for him to reveal Everything You Know Is Wrong — about the Eternals’ double-secret underlying nature of their jobs, about who the Deviants actually are, about the Earth’s true part in their plans, and about the End of the World, whose schedule has been updated from “you do not know either the day or the hour” to “in seven days”. One week’s notice is pretty unprofessional, only slightly better than “Surprise! You’re all dead!” as the plug is pulled.
The first three Eternals we get to know are understandably appalled and need a moment to compose themselves. There’s Sersi (Gemma Chan, a different MCU character from her Kree warrior in Captain Marvel), a matter-transmuter turned museum worker who’s not one for supervising; her ex-boyfriend Ikaris (Game of Thrones‘ Richard Madden), basically a Scottish Superman who relies too much on his heat vision and his self-assurance; and their mutual pal Sprite (Lia McHugh), an illusion caster inexplicably created by the Celestials to be stuck at age 12 forever, embodying those in real life who can struggle and/or persevere to live under sometimes maddening circumstances beyond their control. After a London throwdown with a creepy-crawly thing that should not be (which incredibly does not take place on the doorsteps of the same three landmarks from every UK-set film ever), they’ve little choice but to Overcome Their Differences™ and Put the Band Back Together™ for what might be One Last Job™.
For the sake of expediency and saving on parentheses costs, a teammate roundup checklist:
- Ajak (the Salma Hayek), the leader, resident super-healer, and official liaison to the Celestials for marching orders.
- Thena (the Angelina Jolie), a warrior who creates her own energy weapons. Imagine Wonder Woman with a Green Lantern ring, exactly as fantastic as that sounds and really needing her own film, except she’s hobbled by a mysterious mental condition that prevents her from simply leaping into the fray and ending the Deviants in the first hour.
- Kingo (Silicon Valley‘s Kumail Nanjiani), who likewise has energy powers but limits himself to showy hand-lasers. He’s far less inhibited as a Bollywood superstar who brings along his own cameraman (Harish Patel from Hulu’s Four Weddings and a Funeral) for comic relief and much-appreciated human emotional commentary.
- Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry from the amazing colossal Atlanta), an energy-smith/engineer who bitterly stepped away from humanity when some of his contributions made things worse rather than better. He’d rather stay home with his husband and son, but duty doesn’t always check our calendar or ask permission before calling.
- Druig (Barry Keoghan, fresh off The Green Knight), a mind controller, usually the first character you suspect whenever a super-team might have A Traitor in Its Midst™. His power is tricky to use for humanity’s benefit without seeming selfish or haughty, but it isn’t for lack of trying.
- Makkari (The Walking Dead‘s Lauren Ridloff), a congenial super-speedster who’s deaf and whose sign-language subtitles were of enormous help in teaching the audience how some characters’ names were spelled. Her impressive power displays also demonstrate what The Flash might look like with its VFX budget quintupled and its silly plot contrivances tossed out.
- The Gilgamesh (Don Lee, a.k.a. Ma Dong-seok, fairly awesome in Train to Busan), Thena’s caretaker and BFF, a skilled chef who’s every bit the Hulk-level monster-puncher we’ve heard about since childhood.
It’s a big, unwieldy team, nearly all of whom earn great moments. They’ll have to find a way to cram into the same film frames clown-car style as the apocalypse is nigh. But can they stop it? More importantly to them: what if they don’t have Arishem’s permission to stop it? And what if this once-unified congregation who kowtowed for the Celestials in harmony are no longer on the same page?
The nature of The Emergence and their varied reactions to it constitute the sort of philosophical debate that can fracture a group of believers who seemingly shared the same precepts, up until their interpretations — or the very foundations, in some wobblier instances — are called into question as new information comes in and situations change. It can be easy to accept the “true purpose” assigned to you by an authority figure. And when that purpose clashes with baseline morality, do you stick with the dogma that’s always kept you comforted and filled with meaning, for the sake of a being a good follower and adhering to group mentality, or is it nobler to push back when the plans of higher beings dismiss the rights of lesser beings on grounds of self-appointed superiority? Do speeches about long-term benefits outweigh repugnant short-term catastrophe? Can 7000 years of unconditional faith properly prepare someone to be Abraham ramping up to sacrifice a staggering number of Isaacs, but without the bluffing at the end?
In other hands, such quandaries might be reducible to easier outcomes. At best you might get Captain America: Civil War, where the questions concern justifiable authority versus governmental overreach on Twitter-relatable terms. Eternals aims for loftier deliberations on what we stake our identities on (echoing Nomadland here), which dogma we freely cling to without considering “dogma” a pejorative, whether “true purpose” is settled above our pay grade or ultimately by our own free will, and the consequences in either case. That all may or may not be apropos of the god-tier mythos that Kirby could’ve had in mind in some key issues I never read. Offhand I wouldn’t know, but his works may have aspired greater and have certainly inspired in turn. At the very least, it has me adopting the distinctly Darkseid practice of encasing random phrases in arbitrary quotation marks. (Wrong company, yes, but nonetheless Kirby.)
None of this would work if Zhao didn’t take the milieu and its sides seriously, and not just with the exotic landscapes that everyone correctly assumed would populate every background with a refreshing use of natural beauty behind so much supernormal proceedings. The more fantastical scenes are likewise wonders to behold, least of all the lopsided conversations with the massively intimidating Arishem, a Kirby-tastic walking panorama unto himself. Zhao and cinematographer Ben Davis (marking his fifth MCU film) bring needed clarity to the obligatory fight sequences, with far fewer combatants in any given melee than the average MCU film, and thankfully no use of overwhelming copy/paste CG armies. Every skirmish is mighty in impact but personal in scale.
Eventually everything does come down to super-punching, but not just that. Notes are compared in tones of doubt and fury. Tears are shed. Lines are drawn as each respective actor explores their perspective and brings it to uneasy life, not always with a simple grin or a disposable quip. Some accepted what they were told since time immemorial and see no reason to stop now. Some reject what they see as a radical change in direction predicated on suppressed information, direly at odds with deep-seated “common sense”. Some have strong opinions but refuse to be drawn into mortal combat over it. (Try finding that response in any other superhero film, Marvel or otherwise.) Some are on the fence and need convincing. Some choose a side based not on opinions or beliefs, but on who they want to impress most. For better or worse, the ten apostles of Arishem are us.
Our showing suffered a bit when the projector broke down about an hour into it and gave us a 15-minute surprise intermission. After the showing resumed and finished, I also wondered if it seemed facile for beings over 7000 years old to have easy life lessons yet to learn (genocide is bad! leadership is hard! some people don’t like being filmed!) until I thought about the number of folks ages 70-up who’ve done or said some of the worst things ever, and it then felt reasonable to argue the aging process doesn’t automatically confer wisdom. Zhao’s version (devised with three co-writers) also bore no resemblance to the aforementioned, current-comics version other than the character names and some reliance on Thanos for crucial plot ignition. Any fans jumping from one medium to the other out of curiosity may have thoughts on their wide differences.
Otherwise, this is normally the part where I’d rave on and on about my favorite performances, but the generous run-time — still shorter than No Time to Die — afforded the ensemble greater space to spread out amid their environments and go deep with their friends and opponents. Apart from Hayek getting shortest shrift and my surprise that Kevin Feige and company denied any urge to reposition this as Thena and Her Eternals, it seems like overkill to devote a bonus paragraph to, well, nearly every single actor because we’re well past the point where anyone sane is still reading. Eternals is the most thought-provoking Eternals story I’ve encountered to date (with Gillen’s version a narrow runner-up), and so far it’s the best Marvel movie of the year. It only took 45 years of searching to find the right Eternals denomination for me.
Meanwhile in the customary MCC film breakdowns:
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Yes, I did indeed leave some for last. Bill Skarsgard (It‘s Pennywise) shows up late as a Deviant who fights for his right to dialogue. Game of Thrones‘ Kit Harington has a few scenes as Sersi’s Concerned Boyfriend. In comics he’s someone notable; in the main film, he’s a someone-adjacent human.
How about those end credits? To answer the burning question that MCC is always happy to verify: yes, there are indeed two scenes during and after the Eternals end credits. For those who fell asleep in the theater and really want to know…
[…insert space for courtesy spoiler alert in case anyone needs to abandon ship and would rather wait to fast-forward to the end of the eventual Disney+ premiere…]
…once Our Heroes have split in two directions for the moment, three of them receive a visit from a pair of new strangers: Marvel veteran Patton Oswalt (M.O.D.O.K., Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) as a grungy, undertall sidekick named Pip the Troll; and a bonus Eternal named Eros (world-famous singer and fledgling actor Harry Styles from Dunkirk), brother of the late Thanos and future maker of comic-relief trouble. They offer their assistance for wherever the Eternals might turn up next, only in the Marvel Cinematic Universe!
And in the final scene, Kit Harington receives one more minute of screen time as history professor Dane Whitman. Thena and Her Eternals found Excalibur — yes, that Excalibur — among the artifacts gathering dust in their old spaceship and thoughtfully mailed it to him. Before he can unwrap it and ascend to his destiny as Marvel’s second-string hero the Black Knight, a deep voice asks from offscreen if he’s sure he’s ready for that. Viewers who avoided advance spoilers would have no idea till later it was the voice of Academy Award Winner Mahershala Ali, future star of the planned, non-R-rated MCU reboot of Blade. Not unlike recent comics, apparently Blade will be diversifying from his original specialization as a vampire hunter and becoming, if not a generic superhero, maybe something more like a super relic hunter? Find out the answer probably years from now, only in the Marvel Cinematic Universe!