I had to think about the Eternals. A lot. First off, overall, I liked the film. I agree with many reviewers that the big-named stars in the film were underused, but an ensemble piece was never going to let Angela Jolie or Selma Hayek shine. And they knew that. My sense is becoming part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has its own perks. And it isn’t like they didn’t get paid well or they would not have joined the cast.
Eternals was never going to be a star vehicle for any member of the cast. It isn’t that kind of property. The Eternals each have unique powers, despite the mostly superior capabilities of Icarus.
In short, Eternals is a vibrant, sometimes emotional, epic that spans eons of human history. We see fleeting glimpses of interactions between the Eternals and their human charges.
Eternals raises existential issues for beings that would be considered gods by mortals. But to the actual gods, they are pawns, reprogrammed at each emergent juncture to prepare worlds for new Celestials. Do these beings have free will? Do the humans they encourage have free will? And does the apparent emergence of free will prove more important than a new Celestial to drive the creation of new life?
Questions we find some Eternals grappling with at the end of the film.
As grandiose as Eternals is, it also fills itself with distractions and frustrations.
The worst thing about Eternals, and it’s a big worst, comes in the form of the Deviants—which appear stringy yet formless. The ropey, seemingly cobbled together, fierce, and undulating forms have nothing in common with the Deviants of the comics. The comic Deviants, while the negative incarnation of Celestial creation, are not mindless beings in search of a mind. They collectively form a society in opposition to the Eternals and plot their latter’s demise and that of humankind.
Cholé Zhao and Kevin Feige’s Marvel team likely found narrative conflict in telling the Eternals’ origin story and that of the Deviants in a film that would be anything close to watchable in even the extended running time allotted to superhero stories. Cutting the Deviant’s origin story to exposition created a more compact film, but because they were not cast as near equals to the Eternals, it forced the entire plot of steeling powers to become sentient. It would have been better to limit the Deviants’ exposure, but make them real characters.
The Deviants, a deformed offshoot of Celestial engineering acted as the impetus for human monster myths (as the Eternals did for ancient gods), but the comics engendered them with a religion, including a priesthood. The Deviants fought against themselves as much as they did humans and Eternals. Kro and Thena had history, not recent history through assimilation of knowledge and memory as portrayed in the film, but a deep history as lovers long before the events of the film.
Again, a nuanced origin story with dozens of characters was too big to tell in one film. So, Marvel, unfortunately, shoehorned the Eternals into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (As a side note, they could have created another lens through the MCU that pre-dates the age of modern heroes and told the stories of the Eternals and the Deviants across multiple films rather than trying to cram all of the human, Deviant, and Eternal history into a few hours.)
Moving beyond the problem with the Deviants, the Eternals create a striking cast themselves, filled with luminaries of old in fiction, and many current luminaries in the acting ranks. The historical swaths through which the Eternals stroll make for rich visuals, and for social commentary. There was not, however, enough of that. Look closely and the smaller movie Zhao wanted to shoot lies hidden in the ruins of action sequences.
But the Eternals need the Celestials. They need the Deviants. Not in the film, but to adhere to canon, at least tangentially. Although Marvel has no issue reworking details of the comics for films, they seldom wholeheartedly abandon them in favor of something smaller and more intimate.
The Deviants could have been referenced as a backdrop. They could have been allies in helping stave off the emergence, as their lives were just as threatened as those of humanity.
But that was not the film we were given. What we received was a film that rushed to relevance, that tried to encapsulate a huge story in a way that brought us to the Avengers, to the MCU, to the films and plots we have not yet seen.
Some of the stunning visuals do justice to Jack Kirby. The film, however, does little to honor his myth-building, narratives that inspired Neil Gaiman to take up the considerable gauntlet of telling an alternative history of humankind’s origins and the fictional demigods and demons that accompanied it.
It remains unclear how Eternals will reverberate through the MCU. We know of side trips, again, squeezed into the material, that connect Gemma Chan’s Sersi to Kit Harington’s Dane Whitman, leading eventually to vampires and darkness. We met Star Fox in the guise of Harry Styles, brother of Thanos—who was, unbeknown to the general MCU community not stepped in Marvel lore, an Eternal and Deviant hybrid. And that brings us to Titan, which is another emergence world—but that is a story for another day, not yet told in the MCU—and it might never be (as Thanos ends up looking a bit more reasonable as a stopper of the emergence rather than an irrational thug trying to eliminate half of the universe’s population).
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Notice that the deep links all show up as post-credit scenes, not in the core film. In the comics, Thor arrives to help win the day in some Eternal and Deviant battles, as does Iron Man. Those explicit links don’t appear. The passing references and jokes are for the audience. They establish the film in the MCU, but never leverage that connection. As much as people asked, “Where we the Eternals when the Avengers were battling Thanos,” audiences could equally ask “where were the Avengers when the Deviants started showing up again?”
The MCU, as interconnected as it appears, still creates films for the moment. Zhao and her writing team were not Markus and McFeely threading together their own private concoction of Marvel lore. They were initiates, taking a huge property, trying to hone it into a film, and then allowing Marvel to weave in its connections. Ultimately that fan service approach does a disservice to the Eternals. Zhao may have had a Nomandland vision for Eternals, but her artistic sensibilities came up against the hard reality of Marvel’s fiction.
The MCU makes demands on an artist, and while intimate moments can be had, they must be fleeting. The number of times Spider-Man films invoke the, “with great power comes great responsibility,” in a loved one’s dying moments, shows how bereft even the source material is of intimacy and the more florid emotions.
Disney did not build the MCU for heartfelt films, but for adventures that tug on heartstrings to bring characters closer to the audience, in-service of story—not to become the story.
I have now watched Eternals several times. I remain conflicted and disappointed. Those who know the comics will see wonderful moments of drawings brought to cinematic life, but they will also find confusion in the disregard for the stories they know. And those who don’t know the stories will find the film’s villains difficult to fathom—as they will find no motivation for the Deviants, and not enough myth-building on the Celestials to overcome their own personal myths or lack thereof.
As we careen with unwieldy hope toward the multiverse of madness, it will be interesting to see if the MCU incorporates any of this vast canvas into that narrative, or if it remains a set piece that mostly stands alone without its internal pop culture references or end credit scenes.
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