ETERNALS Takes Marvel Into the Philosophical

The post-Endgame period for Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe has been amongst its most experimental. This has manifested both in the form of medium (the invested venture into long form series) and of substance (integrating kung-fu as an aesthetic.) The latest entry, Eternals, is noteworthy for a whole slew of reasons, most notably that it’s the first time that an MCU film has been helmed by an Oscar-winning director; the fact Chloe Zhao actually finished filming on the movie before she went on to make Nomadland is a fairly moot point as far as the bragging rights go.

But perhaps almost more interesting is the fact that the Eternals, as characters, are far and away the most obscure property Marvel has given a major motion picture to at this point. A creation from prolific comics legend Jack Kirby, the Eternals were a continuation of the some of the epic, cosmic storytelling that he started in his New Gods stories, but are much less fondly remembered. Thus the mystery of why this property would be given a tentpole place in the new Marvel order remained somewhat a mystery, even to this viewer for around the first ten minutes of the film. But as the story goes on, it becomes clear what Zhao and Marvel in general found so powerful in the story. The characters, broadly sketched and totemic, allowed them to do the previously unthinkable: Marvel had made a Justice League movie.

Now that might sound like a bit of a reading between the lines…up until you a character refers to Richard Madden’s Ikaris, who can fly and shoot destructive lasers from his eyes, as “Superman.” Angelina Jolie’s Thena is a mighty warrior with ties to Grecian mythology. Lauren Ridloff’s Makkari is a speedster clad in bright red. The direct one-to-one analogues to characters mostly end there, but even the tone of the film provides echoes the modern understanding of the most iconic superheroes: Gods who step in to protect those who can’t protect themselves, fueled by epic combat. And while Zhao never uses slow-motion, her use of framing has echoes of Zach Snyder’s work in his Warner Brothers superhero work, a distinct visual language that feels at odds with the MCU’s visual lexicon.

But this is simply one thing that Zhao and her collaborators are up to. Eternals is a film that is quite honestly bursting at the seams with ideas, and simultaneously isn’t in any rush to get through them or quite have the space for all of them to breathe. It is ambitious in a way that most MCU films are not, about something broader than the edges of its screen. It tackles topics of faith and the questioning there of, the role of the powerful in an unjust world, the cost of free will and the whole of human of history. At the center is a familiar space, likeable heroes with warmth and recognizable pathos, but the context pushes boundaries and asks much larger questions. Kirby would be proud.

The titular Eternals are a race of immortal guardians, created by Arishem, an ancient God-like being called a Celestial. The Eternals single purpose in life is to do battle with the Deviants, strange sinewy monsters that threaten humans. The Eternals were placed on Earth from the dawn of known civilization to do battle with the Deviants, allowing humans to progress and evolve. Once their task is completed, they can return to their home planet of Olympia.

Or so they thought. Because even as the Deviants are all seemingly defeated, Arishem remains silent, abandoning the Eternals and forcing them to figure out how to live an immortal existence amongst the mortal Earthlings. Eventually they splinter apart due to ideological differences on what their role should be in this world, if they should intervene to stop human atrocities, or keep to their mission of only doing battle with Deviants. All of this backstory is told in a combination modern day reality, as well as copious and effective use of flashback.

In that modern day, the Deviants have unexpectedly returned, forcing the Eternals to rejoin together… albeit slowly, as the film has a large cast to collect together and in no particular rush to do it. One of the great strengths of the film overall is the juggling of the absolutely massive ensemble cast. There are ten Eternals in total that we get to know, and it’s important to note that we do truly get to know all of them. None are cast off characters without emotional stakes or story; they have vulnerabilities, fears and needs, as well as growth throughout the arc of the film. All of which is communicated within the (admittedly long) runtime of one film, on top of the weighty world building that comes with it. Compared to how cramped and frantic Infinity War felt at times while flexing its “Can you believe we’re doing this?” muscles, Eternals performs an equally if not more impressive feat of juggling a massive cast of primary characters who never get lost in the shuffle and submit to the whims of necessary plotting.

Not everything is quite so effective; multiple threats are established throughout, including one of the Deviants who becomes more evolved and dangerous, but none effectively stick as a stand-out or especially compelling villain. The conflict of the film is much more insular, with our heroes questioning what their role and place in the larger world is now. Doubt and uncertainty are the primary villains of the movie, often wanting for a big bad to emerge. And even when the final act does finally play its hand, it is both out of left field and depressingly familiar.

But the ambition of the film constantly impresses, and the whole cast embodies characters that have a rich interiority that defies easy classification. Ironically, given their near godlike status, the Eternals emerge as amongst the MCU’s most humanistic heroes. They can be vain, petulant, vengeful and untethered. But they also show tenderness to each other, an aching loneliness that there are so few living things that share their experience. They are both inspirational and tragic, heroes who are unsure how to best be heroes in such a richly, frustratingly complicated world.

And this is where Eternals succeeds where Zach Snyder’s various stabs at the DC universe fails. Zhao inherently understands that these characters distance needs to be balanced with their closeness, that our Gods are much more knowable when they look, talk and act like us. It is a beautiful blending of the macro and micro, as explosive and implosive, and ushers in an exciting new corner for the MCU to explore.

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