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You’re All Wrong About 'Eternals'
In defense of Chloé Zhao's contribution to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
While we’re on the topic of under-appreciated releases from Marvel Studios, let’s talk about Eternals.
Released in 2021, Eternals was directed and co-written by Chloé Zhao, fresh off of making Nomadland, for which she became became the first woman of color and the first woman of Asian descent to win an Oscar for Best Director (she was also only the second woman of any race to win that award ever). Full of next-level-bonkers sci-fi concepts and profound philosophical pondering, Eternals was met with mostly negative reviews and middling box office (at least by Marvel standards), and is now generally regarded as the Disney-owned behemoth’s first real theatrical disappointment. Perhaps Eternals was just too far-out there for most people. Perhaps it is a triumph of meaning over craft, and the admittedly-uneven narrative simply failed to connect with viewers. Or perhaps Zhao’s recent historic achievement doomed the film to the inevitable failure of unrealistic expectations; perhaps nothing short of Marvel’s answer to Citizen Kane would have satisfied critics and audiences.
Or maybe people didn’t like Eternals because they’re fucking dum-dum idiot babies who need everything to be spoon-fed to them. Who can say, really?
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[SPOILERS FROM HERE ON OUT]
Eternals is based on characters created in 1976 by Jack Kirby, arguably the single most groundbreaking and influential artist and writer in the history of comic books (Stan Lee took a lot of credit for things Kirby actually did). Although the film takes plenty of liberties with the source material - which honestly was never that beloved by even the most ardent Kirby admirers - it maintains Kirby’s penchant for intricate, psychedelic mythology.
Zhao announces her intentions to use heady science-fiction as a means of exploring deeper existential issues from the very opening of the film. The on-screen text which serves as the story’s preamble literally starts with the phrase “In the beginning.” The first proper shot of the film is of the Eternals ship passing the Sun as it approaches Earth; the ship’s design recalls the Monolith from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which remains the ULTIMATE intellectual sci-fi movie about God and creation and the evolution of man (and which has a direct connection to Kirby, who wrote and drew Marvel’s 2001 comic book). The Eternals ultimately land in Mesopotamia in 5,000 B.C.E., where they encounter humans, and one of them semi-accidentally gives a boy the necessary tool to launch the Bronze Age. This prologue is very much Eternals’ version of 2001’s ‘The Dawn of Man’ sequence (instead of Strauss’ ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra,’ Eternals’ opening concludes with Pink Floyd’s “Time,” from Dark Side of the Moon - an equally empyreal, if more overtly psychotropic, selection).
Eternals is, in fact, lousy with references to religion. The Eternals have been dispatched to Earth from their home planet, Olympia (as in the Greek Olympians), by a Celestial, which is basically a planet-sized god. Not, like, a god the way Thor and Loki are gods, where they’re basically super-powered humans with extraordinary lifespans - like a GOD, like the Celestials conceived the heavens and the Earth and the birds and the bees and all of that stuff. The ‘Prime Celestial’ - the one to whom the Eternals answer - is called Arishem (the big red fella in the photo at the top of this post); the name is likely a play on HaShem, the Hebrew word for “The Name,” used in the Jewish faith to practice prayers or discuss God in a more secular context. Eventually, we will meet a second a Celestial, this one called Tiamut, like the Mesopotamian goddess Tiamat.
Arishem needs the Eternals to protect humanity from sinewy, predatorial, polychromatic monsters called Deviants. The Eternals themselves are kinda like gods in the Thor/Loki sense, with each one having a particular power set/speciality. And every Eternal’s name is either identical or extremely similar to those of various mythical deities, the idea being that over the course of many centuries, they became the basis of legends:
Ajak (Salma Hayek), the healer and the group’s leader, is the inspiration for the mighty warrior Ajax from Homer’s Iliad.
Ikaris (Richard Madden), who is basically Superman, is the inspiration for the Greek myth of Icarus.
Sersi (Gemma Chan), who can transform matter, is the inspiration for Circe, a mythological Greek enchantress who would transform her enemies.
Thena (Angelina Jolie), the master of swords and spears, is the inspiration for Athena, the Greek goddess of war and wisdom.
Gilgamesh (Ma Dong-seok), the strong man, is the inspiration for the Mesopotamian poem The Epic of Gilgamesh.
Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), who is basically The Flash if The Flash were a bookworm, a hoarder, and a thief, is the inspiration for the Roman god Mercury, whose purviews include messages, travelers, and theives. Roman god of financial gain, commerce, eloquence, messages, communication, travelers, boundaries, luck, trickery, merchants, and robbers.
Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), the engineer, is the inspiration for Hephaestus, the Greek god of artisans, blacksmiths, carpenters, and craftsmen.
Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), who can manipulate energy, is the inspiration for the Mesopotamian god Kingu… who, in mythology, is the son of Tiamat.
Sprite (Lia McHugh), the illusionist condemned to forever inhabit the body of a child, is the inspiration for sprites, the fairies of European mythology.
Druig (Barry Keoghan), who can control minds, is the inspiration for druids, ancient Celtic prophets and, according to legend, wizards.
Now, as the films of Zack Snyder make evident, religious iconography alone does not a meaningful movie make. What truly renders Eternals a worthwhile film is the ethical and metaphysical quandaries at the heart of its story, and the way it presents and explores those quandaries.
See, roughly halfway through the movie, the Eternals uncover a horrifying truth about their mission: Planets are Celestial eggs, Arishem needed the Eternals to protect life on Earth because that life provides the energy necessary for the baby Celestial to grow, and that process is now winding down, meaning the Earth will soon hatch. (I repeat: THIS IS A MOVIE IN WHICH EARTH IS A GIANT EGG THAT WILL HATCH A GOD. If that fact alone doesn’t make you excited about Eternals, I feel bad for you.) As Arishem himself explains…
So now the Eternals have to decide whether or not to rebel against the Celestials and save Earth, or do as they’re told and allow the Celestials to carry out their plan. Which might seem like an easy choice… but it’s not, really.
There are a lot of movies in which the antagonist wants to kill people “for the greater good.” Heck, some of Marvel’s most memorable villains have this mentality: Ultron, who aims to end life on Earth so as to save the planet, and Thanos, who wants to wipe out half of all life in the universe as a means of conserving resources, are ostensibly eco-terrorists. Ultimately, however, the stories very firmly come down against this idealogy. The villain says “Humans are dicks and the whole species is fucked,” and the hero retorts, “Ah, but their flaws are part of what make them wonderful,” and then the hero wins.
But in Eternals, the heroes are presented with a Sophie’s Choice on a incomprehensibly cosmic scale: If they prevent Tiamut from being born, they’ll save humanity - but they’ll also prevent the further creation of the stars necessary to allow other lives on other planets to flourish. And were they to decide that no Celestial should ever again be allowed to hatch from any planet, they would ostensibly be condemning the entire universe to a slow death in the cold and the dark. As Arishem explains in the above clip, “Without Celestials, all life will die.”
In other words, the Eternals can directly aid in the genocide of eight billion people, or indirectly aid in the genocide of trillions of living beings. Considered under those terms, is there not something selfish and short-sighted about saving the Earth? Or is it better to let everything die rather than live in a universe where survival means even one being must suffer?
Unlike most mainstream Hollywood movies, Eternals asks us to ponder and debate these questions, but does not, itself, provide a concrete argument for or against the antagonist’s thesis. The Eternals do not, as a collective, decide to rebel against the Celestials - they split into two sects, with one fighting to prevent Tiamut’s birth and the other fighting to enable it. And the movie muddies the moral waters as much as possible by ensuring that none of these characters are coded as being purely “good” or purely “bad.”
Druig, for example, has ostensibly abducted and removed the free will of an entire population in the name of creating a utopia without war or murder. But while everyone agrees that mind control is wrong, he’s one of the Eternals who fights to save the Earth, because his love for humans is sincere. And whereas most movies would have him die in battle as a means of redeeming himself, that’s not what happens here - he survives, and by all indications plans to go back to the brainwashed cult he has created as soon as possible.
Makkari also fights to prevent Tiamut’s birth. As played by Ridloff, Makkari is charming and playful… but, again, she’s a thief, and also, she has an ongoing flirtation with Druig, suggesting she’s not all that upset about the manner by which he has built his violence-free community.
Thena and Gilgamesh’s entire subplot is a microcosm of the movie’s larger thematic question. Thena suffers from a fictional disease call Mahd Wy'ry (“Mad Worry”), which is basically a mish-mash of PTSD and intergalactic Alzheimer’s. It makes her a threat to everyone, because she’s unknowingly prone to sudden fits of violence, and the only cure is to wipe her mind completely. Gilgamesh, however, volunteers to stay with Thena as her caretaker (there’s an implication that their relationship is romantic, but it’s just an implication). Gilgamesh is immediately interesting because his sweet nature is such a contrast from what you’d expect from the world’s greatest fist-fighter, like if the Hulk enjoyed baking pies as a hobby; he’s killed by a Deviant before the final battle, and if you follow the thematic thread, it’s clear that his sacrifice is what inspires Thena to revolt against the Celestials. The ideals to which Gilgamesh devoted his life - i.e., not to value of the needs of the many over the needs of the few - would never have allowed him to sit idly by and just let the world end.
Phastos, too, joins the side trying to save the planet, but he does this, at least in part, for selfish reasons: He has fallen in love and adopted a child. Prior to that, he spent decades having abandoned humanity, so heartbroken was he by the way mankind used the knowledge he imparted to build weapons of mass destruction.
Ikaris, meanwhile, kills Ajak and fights to let Tiamut be born - but only because he earnestly believes in Arishem’s leadership, and that to abort a Celestial is to doom the rest of the universe. He and Sersi are deeply in love, but he uncovers the truth about why the Eternals are on Earth long before the others do, and he feels so torn up inside about it that he forces himself to leave Sersi, lest he spill the beans and saddle her with the same terrible knowledge. "Do you think it was easy to live with the truth?” he asks the other Eternals when they learn of his deception. “To know that one day all this would end? To keep on lying to you? If we gave humanity the choice, how many of them would be willing to die so that billions more could be born?" Killing an entire world is not, in other words, a matter he takes lightly.
Sprite - who, as a perpetual child, seems the very personification of innocence - joins Ikaris, mostly because she’s in love with him. She’s also frustrated that she can never appear to be an adult, because it robs her of the chance to experience romantic love… so even putting her feelings for Ikaris specifically aside, she’s maybe a little bit more inclined to let the world end.
And Kingo? He can’t decide which side he thinks is right, and thus opts to sit out the fight altogether. This (deliberately) feels like a set-up for him to triumphantly re-appear during the final battle at the heroes’ lowest moment and save the day, à la Han Solo at the end of the original Star Wars… but this never occurs. The battle begins and ends without Kingo’s participation. More than simply undermining expectations for the sake of it, this is because Zhao understands that in movie-speak, if Kingo were to return and fight to save the planet, it would be signaling to the audience that his choice was the ethically “correct” one - and the movie isn’t interested in doing that.
To that end, while the Eternals who fight to save the Earth unsurprisingly emerge victorious, their success is hardly a celebratory moment. With tears his eyes, Ikaris tells Sersi he’s sorry, before flying into the sun (which is very literal-minded but also kind of awesome). When the remaining Eternals - including Kingo and Sprite, neither of whom are cast out or punished for their decisions - reunite soon thereafter, the movie specifically takes a moment to acknowledge that their preventing Tiamut’s hatching may not have, in the long run, a positive thing:
These not reassuring words of a kind with those Vision speaks to Ultron. Eternals won’t soothe you with simplistic morality. Zhao hopes to achieve something far, far more ambitious than that.
And this is one of the Marvel movies everyon hates? THIS? This trippy, bizarre, esoteric, spiritual, introspective, complex film? What the actual fuck??? Eternals isn’t the worst movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe; it’s not even the worst movie I’ve watched this week.
I’m not arguing that Eternals is perfect, or even that it’s the best Marvel movie. That Sersi is both the de facto protagonist of the narrative and also the least-morally-complex of the Eternals is an issue, as is Ajak being more of a plot device than an actual character. The Deviants are similarly perfunctory. There’s a lengthy sequence early in the movie that really only exists to set up a love triangle between Sersi, Ikaris, and another character, but then that other character disappears for the rest of the film. The general structure of the picture, which involves a lot of flashbacks, could use some smoothing-over. And none of the action sequences are all that cool, which is obviously a problem in a spectacle picture such as this one.
Thing is, most of those troubles are the result of Zhao being too ambitious. She didn’t just take a paycheck and phone it in; she used the vast resources at Marvel’s disposal to swing for the fences. These are, in other words, the best kind of troubles for a movie to have.
That’s what makes Eternals is one of the most stimulating and thought-provoking sci-fi/fantasy films to come along in quite some time. Zhao’s achievement should be celebrated, not shunned. Only a fucking dum-dum idiot baby would argue otherwise.