Reviewed by Tim Robins
The latest film from Marvel Studios, pre-COVID-19, Eternals was intended to kick off Phase Four of the Marvel Comics Universe, although there is no mention of the multiverse in this new release. Judging by the mid-end credit sequence, Eternals it is also likely to lead into the next Guardians of The Galaxy film.
The film ends with a promise that “The Eternals will Return”. This may well need the caveat, “but not in their own film”, after critical reaction proved muted, with some critics predicting Eternals will be Marvel’s first box office Marvel flop, or at least a terrible misfire. I’m not so sure.
Personally, I approached new film with a certain wariness. Nothing in the trailers showed much of interest and the premise, that super-powered “gods” have been giving humanity’s development a nudge, is wholly patronising, suggesting that our “primitive” ancestors were incapable of remarkable feats of technology and culture. Indeed, my concerns for the new film partly came from this premise.
It seemed to me the film could inherit some of the problems of The Inhumans TV series; specifically, I would be asked to spend my time with a group of stand-offish beings whose powers and origins set them apart from us, the mere members of the audience. To some extent, these fears were realised.
Eternals is based on characters created by artist and writer Jack Kirby, co-creator of the Fantastic Four, and more, on his return to Marvel in the 1970s. The comic follows an archaeologist and his daughter as they explore a Myan temple with their mysterious guide, who turns out to be Ikaris, one of the Eternals, a race of beings who have guided human development in the past. Ikaris reveals that Earth has been a battleground between the Eternals and Deviants, both created by the Celestials.
The comic was a riff on the fantastical claims of Erich Von Däniken, initially outlined in his best-selling book Chariots of the Gods?, that Earth had been visited by aliens who gave humans advanced technology and helped build the pyramids, among other things, a theory since thoroughly debunked. Fortunately, Kirby’s short-lived comic was playful and exuberant, although some at Marvel were not happy that gigantic Celestials, who had created the Eternals, had now returned to Earth to judge their characters. Which in turn meant that the fate of Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, and others, now depended on whether or not a Celestial, Arishem the Judge, pointed his thumb up or down.
Kirby’s work was ahead of its time. It’s easy to see how the comic could have been developed for TV animation, and as a line of toys. However, it wasn’t until changes in the regulation of children’s television in America in the 1980s that similar series such as He-Man and the Universe and Thundercats became vehicles for selling toys.
After Kirby’s comic was cancelled, huge efforts were made to incorporate the characters into the Marvel Universe. Writers Roy Thomas and Mark Gruenwald spent thousands of words in The Mighty Thor trying to sort out the relationship between the Eternals and Thor’s pantheon of gods, while giving the comic-book Thor a greater relation to actual Norse mythology outlined in the Poetic and Prose Edda.
Since then, a vast and somewhat laborious continuity and retconning have tied the Eternals into the origins of other cosmic cultures, so that Thanos and his fellow Titans, and even The Inhumans, are related to each other. More recent iterations, notably the 2006 mini series by Neil Gaiman and John Romita Jnr, contributes somewhat to the film’s visuals although the characters’ gaudy costumes are more muted.
The film’s cast is a welcome change from the decidedly ‘White-bread’ Avengers. Gemma Chan plays Sersi and Salma Hayek, Ajak, who provide leadership for the Eternals and the group’s emotional core. Anjelina Jolie is alarmingly plausible as Thena, whose mind has been shattered by what seem to be fantasies of having lived many other lives.
There are tangled relationships that have developed over the centuries, particularly between Sprite’s (Lia McHugh) unrequited love for the already spoken for Ikaris (Richard Madden). So there’s plenty of sturm und drang up on the screen, but giving characters big emotions didn’t lead to me being interested in their lives. Shorn of Kirby’s rambunctious humour, and his point-of-view that sees the Eternals through human-eyes, the film leaves us in the company of a “family” of sorts, none of whom make us care about their various personal conflicts and private betrayals.
The film is not without a sense of humour; Kumail Nanjiani steals the show as Kingo, who has used his long life to establish himself as an entire generation of Bollywood superstars. Kingo’s valet (Harish Patel) spends his time making a Marvel movie of his own. Wider moral dilemmas are played out by Barry Tyree Henry as Phastos, who gives up his role providing humanity with technological innovations after he witnesses America’s use of the atom bomb, and Barry Keoghan, who plays Druig with the alarming ability to possess the minds of the human population, resulting in some of the film’s more arresting moments.
The film is directed by Chloé Zhao, for whom Kevin Feige, talking to Entertainment Weekly, provided fulsome praise.“We thought, here’s a filmmaker who is equal parts cinematic visionary and genre nerd”. Zhao’s involvement has still surprised many who wonder what the director of Nomadland, based on a factual account of older American citizens who had become “nomads” following the 2008 recession, could possibly bring to the corporate behemoth that is Marvel Studios.
There are a number of answers to that: one is prestige. Nomadland won the 2020 Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion, The People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival and picked up two Oscars, one for ‘Best Director’, the other for ‘Best Actress’. Another is that although Hollywood movie making is industrialised, one way it differs from a production line is that its products can’t be absolutely identical to each other, in the way a company’s cars or cans of beans are. New talent is used to introduce differences to generic similarity. And Hollywood is driven as much by ideas of creativity and art as it is by money. Finally, in today’s postmodern culture, it is not at all strange to find a director committed to her craft who is also a fan of popular culture.
Sometimes the appropriation of talent can pay off. Ang Lee’s Hulk (2003) was not only one of the highest grossing films of 2003, it was an ambitious take on the Marvel character, utilising comic book storytelling with an attempt to ground the character as a force of nature and the product of family conflict. In her own way, Zhao brings a very different sensibility to Eternals, one that is far from the Marvel universe’s home in wise-cracking, freewheeling fisticuffs.
Eternals certainly shows off Zhao’s and cinematographer Ben Davis’s eye for landscapes. The locations are stunning. Even London acquires a glossy sheen. A CGI recreation of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon is particularly awe inspiring, as is the Eternals space craft, which hangs in the air in the manner of the spaceship in Villeneuve’s The Arrival.
The visualisation of the Eternals’ enemies, the Deviants, as suitably grotesque skinless assemblages of bone and sinews is also impressive. However, a lot is lost by not making the Deviants intelligent humanoids. Kirby’s comic prefigured 1980s cartoons’ troubling trope that good characters looked handsome and evil characters looked evil. Kirby subverted this by allowing the Deviants to revel in their own grotesque diversity and be repelled by one of their number who is conventionally handsome. In the film, the creatures just provide something for the Eternals to punch, pull apart or turn into a tree. I had hoped that Deviant and Eternal might have teamed up against a common enemy, but instead we get a horrible quasi-rape scene in a cave.
I wasn’t bored, by the film, but I did want to sit the director down and point out that just because her characters experience human-like emotions, that doesn’t mean I cared less about them. Perhaps Eternals could have been set up through the eyes of one of those charlatan Ancient astronaut “theorists” (or blaggards) who populate The History Channel’s Ancient Aliens series. Stumbling upon real aliens would have been an amusing and more humanly interesting approach to the Eternals’ god-like posturing.
My indifference undercut moments that should have been startling revelations. By the end, too much has to be resolved and explained. Tune out at any point in the film’s over two hours length, and you’ll miss several nuanced explanations.
Superhero movies are the genre de jour, but the studio need to bring fresh perspectives to their products. Eternals does that, but its world and time-spanning narrative is tonally and structurally all over the place.
I expected more from a director who has explored the nightmarish post-recession landscape of America. Certainly more than trite cliches about war leading to technological advancement and nonsense about social evolution. Actually, two World Wars led to the expansion of human suffrage and decolonisation. At least the Eternals cast embody these fought-for human rights, even if the film’s plot does not.
Dear Reader, a review is an opinion, other opinions are available, including yours
• Eternals is in cinemas across the UK now
Imagine a race of immortal beings possessed with seemingly limitless superhuman abilities. Once worshipped as gods, this fantastic group left Earth to explore the stars after warring with the Greek, Roman and Norse pantheons for supremacy over humankind. They are the Eternals, and they are just one part of a cosmic mythology.
Their opposites – the Deviants – also secretly populate Earth, while the towering cosmic entities that created both – the Celestials – are fated to arrive and judge our planet. This is but the beginning of an epic cosmology of gods and men that sprang forth from the limitless imagination of Jack “King” Kirby, the co-creator of Captain America, the X-Men, the Avengers and more. Now, Kirby’s ETERNALS epic is collected, complete, in this single volume.
Against the backdrop of Marvel’s Civil War, the Eternals are awakening one by one from a strange, waking dream, at once coming to terms with the fact that they are far more than the normal people they have thought themselves to be. They find there is little time to commiserate about such things, however, as they are thrust into a life and death struggle that spans both time and space!
A 164-page edition collects Eternals #1 – 6 by Kieron Gillen and Esad Ribic, published by Marvel US earlier this year