According to the official count by Marvel Studios and Disney, there are more than eight thousand characters in the Marvel Universe. This number doesn’t necessarily count supporting characters and one-offs. If it did, we’d be somewhere in the neighborhood of over seventy-two thousand. With numbers like that, it only makes sense that most characters will remain somewhat anonymous. The general public hasn’t the foggiest idea who Jack of Hearts or Dr. Druid happens to be.
Not every Marvel character is destined to be an icon, and even when the best is in the business of creation, sometimes their efforts can fall flat. An excellent example is Jack Kirby, who is responsible for at least co-creating The Fantastic Four, The Hulk, Captain America, the X-Men, and more. After numerous problems with fair pay and credit, Jack Kirby left Marvel to work for the competition, DC Comics.* While there, did he revitalize Superman or The Flash with his dynamic art and bananas plotting? He did not. Instead, Kirby created the sprawling quasi-fantasy/science fiction saga The New Gods, a concept so odd that the comics were canceled, forcing Kirby to return to Marvel.
Even after his return, Kirby couldn’t shake loose certain concepts. His ideas were a fusion of Chariots of the Gods by Erich von Daniken and 60s-era psychedelia. They concerned genetic engineering, mythology, science fiction, and gods locked in endless combat with their foes. His ideas came hurtling out in the late 1970s in the pages of The Eternals. Consider that, in a universe populated with surly mutants, Asgardian deities, and a duck running for President, the base concept of the Eternals was too weird. Like the New Gods, The Eternals was canceled. Considerable talents like Neil Gaiman tried to revive the characters, yet they stubbornly remained in obscurity.
Then, the MCU was introduced. Then, Disney and its rapacious appetites pushed for more, more, more, which is very much a good news/bad news situation. The bad news is that Disney knows the MCU is money in the bank and is perfectly fine cramming it down your throat. The good news is that the MCU is run by thoughtful people who are after more than a paycheck. That’s why Marvel Studios reached out to acclaimed filmmaker Chloe Zhao. They asked her what she was interested in. She came back to them with a very strong pitch. The end result is Eternals, a gorgeous and ambitious film cursed with being created in the wrong shape.
In the beginning, Arishem created the heavens and the Earth.** They are a Celestial, a member of a race of space gods. They are also, unlike other gods you might be familiar with, flawed. During the creation of the Earth, an invasive species arrives, known as the Deviants. These fearsome thingies exist to slaughter early humans, who were probably thankful they never had to deal with dinosaurs.
To counter the Deviants, Arishem created the Eternals, a band of immortal warriors. They are sent to battle the Deviants, live among humans, but never interfere in their conflicts. Sounds pretty straightforward, right? Not really! Somewhere in the 1500s, the Eternals finally defeat all of the Deviants, yet there’s no word from Arishem about what they’re supposed to do next.
They split up. Their leader Ajax (Salma Hayek) settles in the badlands of South Dakota. Sersi (Gemma Chan) and Sprite (Lia McHugh) head for London, where Sersi is in a tentative relationship with university professor Dane Whitman (Kit Harington). Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) blends in by not blending in as a wildly popular Bollywood star. The deaf speedster Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) and the cynical psionic Druig (Barry Keoghan) withdraw from civilization entirely, while the inventor Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) builds a family. Thena (Angelina Jolie) is afflicted by a kind of battle madness, and the kindly brawler Gilgamesh (Don Lee) takes it upon himself to watch over her.
Then there’s Ikaris (Richard Madden), an earthbound demigod who’s more than a little reminiscent of a certain Kryptonian. He disappears for centuries, then conveniently reappears just as Sersi, Sprite, and Dane are attacked by a very tough Deviant. This is only the first in a chain of catastrophic events that forces the Eternals to come together and re-evaluate what their purpose on Earth truly is.
Since Eternals first screened for critics, a somewhat gleeful narrative has popped up around the film. The conventional critic wisdom is that Eternals is the worst film in the MCU, due to Marvel Studios conscripting arthouse darling Chloe Zhao to make a movie about bottom-of-the-barrel characters. As a result, the conventional wisdom goes, the film will be a massive failure and ring the death knell of the MCU in particular and superhero films in general. Like most conventional wisdom, it’s totally wrong.
Chloe Zhao has made a flawed film, it’s true, though it’s bursting with beauty and ambition. It’s possible this might be the best-looking film in the MCU, and Zhao gifts us with strong cinematography and numerous shots of gorgeous vistas. Too often, the MCU uses a house style that combines CGI void space with anonymous gray locations, such as airports and hallways. Zhao knows that mainstream entertainment can also be aesthetically pleasing. Her action scenes are clear, crisp, and often extremely cool. She makes sure that each action sequence has emotional resonance, so instead of simple punching, we understand how the characters respectively feel about doing battle.
The root flaw is the extremely problematic pacing, and things often feel too slow or a little too fast. For a movie that’s a little longer than two and a half hours, that’s a nearly fatal issue. I think it’s due to the screenplay by Zhao, Patrick Burleigh, Kaz Firpo, and Ryan Firpo. Despite the strong characterization and moments of solid emotion, they have written a feature screenplay that yearns to actually be a miniseries like HBO’s excellent Watchmen. This screenplay has an enormous amount of heavy lifting to do, considering it has to introduce a number of wild-ass ideas such as the Eternals themselves and the Celestials. It also needs to show us who all the main characters are and their frequently volatile group dynamics. Additionally, the script keeps jumping back and forth through the entirety of human civilization. A common problem in screenwriting is not recognizing what format a story thrives in until it’s too late. If Eternals had been a nine-episode series on Disney+, it could have had time to breathe and let the story unfold organically.
It also bears mentioning that, for the most part, the villains of the piece are CGI monstrosities. As a result, most of the run time is spent with the Eternals, played well by a group of skilled and likable actors. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of their performances is the portrayal of the constantly shifting group dynamics. There are romances, almost romances, annoyances, loyalty, and a metric ton of bickering. Like any group of people who have been together for a little too long, they have transformed into a family.
As I write this, despite a dismal 47 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes,*** Eternals has made $161.7 million theatrically. That ain’t bad, considering we continue to slog our way through a pandemic. Should we expect to see an explosion of merchandise and memes featuring the characters? I don’t think so. These characters and this film aren’t designed to be embraced by the general public, despite Disney’s herculean marketing push. While it’s a good film, Eternals is flawed, though I think time will be kind to it. I also think it’s likely to remain an outlier. If the MCU is a high school, the Eternals are the artsy-fartsy drama students, forever overshadowed by the jocks.
*The history of how Marvel Comics really operated is fascinating. Check out Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story.
Here’s your next post-Eternals conversation starter. Does the existence of the Celestials disprove the existence of God in the MCU?
***A trick to learn is that the only time it’s worth taking a RT score seriously is if it’s hovering somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 percent. That’s where a number of interesting films live.