Hope Springs For Marvel’s Eternals

There is a running joke that not even Marvel fans know whom the Eternals are. Methinks constantly lampshading their obscurity is a psy-op to trick folks into buying Eternals comics so they can obtain the rarest of knowledge. I’m buying too many X-titles to fall for that! I didn’t care about Eternals & went to this primarily out of obligation to the MCU. Going in with low expectations turned out to be the right strategy, as it allowed me to enjoy it. I was shocked too! Not only is it better than I expected, it doesn’t deserve the review bombings it’s been getting. Join The Wages Of Cinema Uni-Mind for Deviant SPOILERS!

This is sort of like a reboot of Inhumans. Both are about secret societies of superpowered humanoids created by aliens that are deeply problematic in the comics. The Inhumans had a slave caste while Eternals were involved in eugenics. (Eventually the comics explicitly stated these were bad things.) Unlike Crystal & Quicksilver, Sersi & Black Knight actually meet. If Inhumans hadn’t been downgraded to a TV series, this film might not’ve been made.

Inspired by Chariots of the Gods by Erich von Däniken, Eternals were mistaken for the Gods of assorted pantheons, which is awkward when those other pantheons are real in this universe. Well they’re mostly Olympian impostors, but they have a few prominent outliers like Gilgamesh. (El Vampiro the vampire luchador is absent.) Making it more embarrassing is Eternals are just middle management for Celestials. Jack Kirby’s original series was ambiguous about intending them to be part of mainline Marvel, but they’ve since been absorbed despite successive creators never really getting them to catch on with readers. Even Neil Gaiman couldn’t make them popular. 

The Eternals have been rejiggered in various ways to be more inclusive. Marvel Studios put more effort into it than Thor’s token black Asgardian, Heimdall. They now have more women, non-whites, & even a few disabilities. (Is this the worst take?) Most of them use Hellenic names that are just off enough to trademark. Is Druig as misspelling of Druid or Droog?

Kevin Feige was astonished director Chloé Zhao filmed most of Eternals without CGI backgrounds. The naturalistic approach feels contrary to Kirby’s bombastic art of harsh angles & saturated colors though. There’s been plenty of Eternals comics not written & drawn by him, but Marvel keeps playing the “invented by King Kirby” card whenever they try a new version. Thor Ragnarok remains the MCU flick that best emulates Kirby aesthetics.

Despite having plenty of CGI spectacle, Eternals doesn’t feel like a typical Marvel movie. You don’t have to be an MCU completionist to understand it. There are no cameos from pre-existing characters. I was surprised by how well they were able to retcon the Eternals into the MCU though. The screenplay is credited to Zhao, Patrick Burleigh, & Ryan Firpo. This movie off with a wall of text. That’s a worrisome sign. The dialogue tries to be as clear about all the sci-fi stuffed into this. Since this is already set in the MCU where cosmic is commonplace, that cuts down on the exposition. While it’s succinct, unfortunately there’s a lot of bland dialogue. Switching between the present (The handful of modern needle drops don’t mesh well.) & flashbacks makes the pacing awkward. Perhaps that would’ve been more elegant in a television series. It’s an appropriately long movie, but it still could’ve used more time. Fortunately Zhao gets wrangles enough solid performances from the whole cast to ameliorate the shortcomings.

After being painted cyan as Minn-Erva, Gemma Chan gets a meatier role as Sersi that allows her to show off her range. Many outlets are reporting how novel it is that she plays two MCU roles, but that’s hardly unique. (Others include Michelle Yeoh, Enver Gjokaj, Tony Curran, Paul Bettany, Laura Haddock, Alfre Woodard, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kenneth Choi, Clancy Brown, Clark Gregg, Ming-Na Wen, Patton Oswalt, Brett Dalton, Iain De Caestecker, Elizabeth Henstridge, Tom Hiddleston, Annette Benning, Colbie Smulders, Sam Jackson, Jonathan Majors, Mahershala Ali, & Stan Lee. There’s even more if you count the returning thespians for “What If…?” ) Although less saucy than the comics, this matter transmuter is the ensemble’s protagonist who’s empathetic because of how invested she is in humanity. Not only is she the Eternal with crossover appeal in the comics, she also wears the best color. Sersi the Vampire Slayer left the Bavarian Illuminati because of its inferior buffet quality.

As Ajak, the Eternals’ leader, Salma Hayek is basically an exposition dispenser. She has the power to heal herself & others. Since Eternals are ageless (Is Scott Lang an Eternal too? How can they have a 2020 photo of Scott, considering that he was stuck in the Quantum Realm between 2018 and 2023?), I presumed they’d all be able to heal themselves or just be invulnerable. The Celestial Arishem communicates with her telepathically via a gold sphere implanted in her chest. Since Eternals have linked Uni-Mnd capability, why not give them commands that way instead of delegating?

Kingo Sunen was originally Japanese, so it’s odd they didn’t cast a Japanese actor. Why isn’t there room for both a Pakistani & a Japanese Eternal? This is sort of like how Disney made Big Hero Six more diverse by making most of the team not Japanese. Not only does it not fit the mythological trend of his kin, Kingo Sunen doesn’t sound like a credible human disguise name either. It’s just odd they put so much effort into making Shang-Chi not appear racist but then do a both a raceswap & keep the gibberish name. Despite that, Kumail Nanjiani gives a very charismatic & droll performance. He got (needlessly) jacked to play Kingo. He’s armed with impeccable eyebrow acting & literal finger guns. Although he’s no longer a Toshiro Mifune analogue, Kingo is his own Bollywood acting dynasty via a Highlander strategy. Kingo comes with his own comic relief sidekick, Karun the valet (Harish Patel), whom once tried to stake him.

Why’d they put both Robb Stark & Jon Snow in this? Kit Harrington shocked me by having more expressions than pained confusion. Dane Whitman is likeable boyfriend for Sersi in a handful of scenes. I expected he’d be in it more as the audience surrogate, but the Eternals are compelling enough that he’s not required. You have to wait until the stinger for him to meet the Black Knight’s Ebony Blade. The voice he hears at the end is from Blade, who may invite him to slay some bloodsuckers.

Richard Madden is much stiffer as Sersi’s ex-boyfriend, Ikaris. Sadly he never goes by his stellar disguise name, Ike Harris. (If the comics version took his son’s name, does that mean he’s really Daedalus?) The final line of this toy review is funny in hindsight. The twist is that Ikaris set the movie’s conflict in motion by feeding Ajak to Deviants. (Once you introduce characters with an ironclad rule, it makes it irresistible to do stories where that rule is dramatically broken. So you automatically get tales of Eternals dying, Uatu interfering, & Batman killing people by going down on them.) This reveal recontextualizes why he’s so aloof to give him depth. It also creates Watchmen parallels.

Arishem the Judge (voiced by David Kaye) is so huge it fills the entire screen. This Celestial charged the Eternals with protecting humans from Deviants until Tiamut the Dreaming Celestial within Earth is ready to hatch ala Earth-X. Humanity will be destroyed once it emerges. (Other lifeforms are most likely doomed as well.) New Celestials are needed to create more worlds & maintain the cosmic equilibrium. Billions will die, but Tiamut will create trillions of new beings. Ajak went native & wanted to halt Tiamut’s emergence to save humanity. Ikaris had her killed because he zealously believes they must carry out their prime directive. So this is basically The Trolley Problem: The Movie. Do the Eternals exterminate humanity or abort the Celestial? Are Earthlings worth saving at the expense of universal balance, or is this just sunk cost fallacy? I appreciate the grand stakes of this philosophical conundrum. 

Angelina Jolie is great at both playing Thena the regal warrior that develops berserker-dementia as the cost of the mission. Superstrong Gilgamesh (underused Ma Dong-seok credited as Don Lee) volunteers to be her carer & chef rather than having her memory reset to factory default. It turns out the root of her problem isn’t that she’s forgetting her allies but that she’s remembering all the planetary genocides Arishem scrubbed from the others’ minds. Thena spontaneously generates weapons like Hela. Her costume is most comic accurate. According to her action figure, Thena has no kneecaps.

Makkari is a bored speedster turned kleptomaniac like Daphne Millbrook. She has The Emerald Tablet, Excalibur, & a Toscano Anubis statue. Both Makkari & Lauren Ridloff are deaf. Unlike Quicksilver & Whizzer, she survives!

Druig (Barry Keoghan) is a red herring. He wears villain colors, has mind control powers, & cynically criticizes the mission. He’d get along well with Loki & Maximus.

Sprite (Lia McHugh) is thousands of years old but physically stuck as a teenager. Not only couldn’t humans save themselves from ravenous Deviants, Sprite also had to invent the accompanying myths. Her body dysphoria has made her bitter. She does illusions like Loki & shares his penchant for backstabbing. She could’ve used more show & less tell.

Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry of Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse) has power to generate light-up blueprints that become real inventions. He’s also Marvel’s first gay movie character that isn’t a director cameo. Eternals are barred from interacting with human invents that don’t involve Deviants, so it’s unclear how responsible he is for human technological advancement. This paternal inventor feels great remorse over his part in creating atomic bombs. This scene is ambiguous as to whether he was directly part of The Manhattan Project (It’d be interesting to examine the effect a black WWII-era superstar scientist would’ve had on public in the MCU’s alternate history.) or much more indirect input ignited his guilt. Your mileage may vary as to whether this scene is tasteful. His faith in humans is restored by his husband & son (Haaz Sleiman & Esai Daniel Cross).

Why don’t these lazy Celestials take care of their own Deviant problem they created? After absorbing Eternals’ powers, Kro resembles Venomized Groot. Why was Kro able to do this but not other Deviants? I prefer the Deviants in the animal forms. They had cooler chimera designs like griffin, minotaur, Hellboy’s Sammael, & sabre-tooth axolotl. These iridescent shapeshifting predators just want revenge for Eternals exterminating them. I wish they’d all been able to speak like Bill Skarsgård from the start so the question of whether it’s right to genocide a sapient species would’ve been raised earlier.

Is the big sex scene between Thena & Kro? (They had kids, & it’d be inverted Beowulf. Plus the behind the scenes footage without VFX would be funny.) How about Thena & Gilgamesh? It’s not Phastos & Ben? Sersi & Dane? No, it’s Ikaris & Sersi doing the horizontal mambo atop sand. This is the worst scene in the whole movie. Madden & Chan are both gorgeous, but somehow their fornication is completely unsexy. The sandy discomfort isn’t even used as an erotic kink. All that pearl-clutching over something that dull? Supposedly we even got extra nudity in IMAX. This isn’t a coupling where Sersi would honestly say “You could make a fish sweat when you reach climax,” I would’ve preferred a sex scene with Makkari & Druig since at least they sizzle. Do Eternals having sex with each other count as incest? That’d make them closer to some pantheons.

While Zhao’s style is more distinctive than many Marvel directors, the color grading unfortunately isn’t. Despite the characters clad in vibrant colors, the hues are washed out. Modern day action sequences, particularly the Amazon one, are dark & cool-tinted enough to come from an Underworld movie. The flashback fights are clearer, but I’m unsure if that’s a stylistic choice or just because they’re set at daytime. Thankfully these grievances are less apparent during the climax.

The Eternals’ costumes aren’t kooky Kirby enough. They’re wearing similar robes in (thankfully) different colors. Their unified look may be more fashionable, but they have less personality. Ajak’s hat isn’t big enough, & Gilgamesh the Forgotten One is missing his cow helm altogether! Ikaris has a white streak in his hair that makes him look more like Jason Blood than the dude that inspired He-Man’s haircut. Alas, he doesn’t break out the sick magic rhymes!

Ikaris_JasonBlood

Why couldn’t this be a movie about Etrigan? He’s a Kirby creation I care about!

The climax is a highlight. Sersi, Phastos, Makkari, Thena & Druig try to prevent Tiamut from emerging from a volcano while Ikaris & Sprite oppose them. Kingo conscientiously sits this out because, while he agrees with Ikaris, he refuses to battle his family. Kro arrives to kill all of them. Makkari beating up Ikaris at superspeed was delightful. Phastos traps him in power-nullifying restraints. Thena regains her sanity (or had feigned madness) to slice up Kro in a cave illuminated by her weapons. When Ikkaris breaks free, he can’t bring himself to kill Sersi. She activates the Eternals’ Uni-Mind (Kingo should’ve been included regardless of his locale) by touching Tiamut & apparently freezes the baby Celestial to death. (I wonder if many of the negative reviews come from pro-lifers?) Ikaris commits suicide by flying to The Sun to live up to his name. He had a very satisfying end.

The denouement sees Sersi using spare energy from Tiamut to turn Sprite a mortal whom must attend high school like a sparkly vampire. Druig, Makkari, & Thena return to space to search for other Eternals. Their spaceship, The Domo, appropriately evokes 2001’s Monolith. (When Kirby adapted the film, he realized it was missing a purple android with Inspector Gadget limbs.) Arishem collects Sersi, Phastos, & Kingo to try them for their actions. Why did it allow the emergence of Tiamut to be thwarted? Then the two stingers are tonally weird. Since Arishem made duplicates, might we get new Ajak, Ikaris, & Gilgamesh in the sequel? Will Sersi, Gilgamesh, Starfox, & Black Knight join the Avengers?

Multiple outlets leaked the cameo of Harry styles as Starfox early in headlines. Starfox has the power of rape. Why are they trying to salvage him? Patton Oswalt is in this but not as a Koenig or MODOK. (This is the best timing for MODOK products & the worst timing for Nextwave products.) He’s Pip the Troll, conjured with dodgy CGI.

Eternals is an outlier in its Marvel Legends line is solely movie figures. They even made everyone except Black Knight. Ajak is a Walmart exclusive while Thena is Target exclusive. Celestials look great in LEGO.

We got a questionnaire to fill out, with is rare for a non-test screening. The early scathing reviews must’ve scared Disney. (This movie has been banned in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, & Kuwait, either for being too gay, sexual, or sacrilegious.) Although I wouldn’t rank it among the top MCU movies, I thought Eternals was actually good. Black Widow had more modest aims & hit most of them. While Eternals didn’t always reach its lofty ambitions, I was impressed by how much actually did work. I appreciated that the astronomical stakes were presented as an ethics test between former lovers. Even the bits that fell flat failed in unique ways. That still doesn’t mean I’m going to give a tinker’s cuss about comics Eternals though.

~

Eternals is sandwiched betwixt DC blondes in blue. Last time I covered Stargirl’s second season. Next week we come to the supersized end of Supergirl!

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