I didn’t like Eternals. It was overlong, meandering, and ponderous. Its action sequences were weightless in multiple senses of the word. It made baffling story decisions from the opening text crawl to the post-credit sequences.
I’ve lost interest in picking apart things I don’t like, not so much out of any vague push for “positivity,” but because there’s just too much good stuff out there I’d rather be concentrating on. But unlike some other high-profile projects that more or less evaporated after failing to live up to expectations1See: The Matrix Resurrections. Or better: don’t., Eternals left me with something. It was a hazy sense of well-being, a faintly optimistic feeling of global community and shared humanity. (More than just the general light-headedness that came from still being up at 3 AM after foolishly starting the movie at midnight).
In short: Eternals took a part of the Marvel library that was designed from the start to be grand and cosmic, and defiantly turned it into a gentler, more humanistic story. I might not think it was successful, but I can respect that it was so full of intent, especially considering the weight of the MCU machine behind it.
Because I’ve recently read Jack Kirby’s original The Eternals comics, and then Neil Gaiman and John Romita, Jr’s 2006 update, I can’t help comparing them with the movie version’s adaptation2I haven’t read any of the other Eternals comics, so I can’t really comment on the aspects of those that were used in the movie version.. In particular, there are two aspects of the comics that are done differently in the movie, and they end up saying a lot about what the movie was trying to do: one aspect is representation, and the other is the audience’s entry point into the story.
Representation is simpler and more straightforward: the cast of the movie is more representative of different genders, ethnicities, and physical types. Apart from any simpletons’ complaints about Marvel being “woke,” the casting just makes more sense: immortal beings who’ve been on Earth since the dawn of humanity, guiding mankind’s development and inspiring worldwide myths and legends, wouldn’t all look like Jack Kirby’s 1970s WASPs. (Even if the cast does still lean more “Aryan” than “global village,” and Kumail Nanjiani alone is tasked with representing about 30% of the world’s population and 99% of the film’s comic relief).3To be clear, I don’t think there was any malice or even insensitivity in Kirby’s version, just that it came from an entirely different context. Although it is unfortunate that he combines reverence for Incan civilization with the premise that everything they achieved was on account of white men from space.
But the casting in Eternals isn’t just a token update, with arbitrary gender swaps to keep things 50/50. There’s a thematic idea underlying it, which is that all aspects of our identity are sacred and important. It’s not just that they make the leader of the team a woman instead of a man; it’s that the leader of the team is the one whose super-powers are healing and communication instead of flying and shooting lasers out of their eyes. The one she chooses as her successor is the one whose power is transformation, which she uses primarily for defense and protecting people, instead of attack. Gaiman’s version takes Kirby’s archetypes and updates them to the 21st century — which to be clear, was the assignment — while the movie version had more freedom to reinvent and reinterpret them.4I’ll keep saying “the movie version” instead of “Chloe Zhao’s version” not to deny her any credit, but because with such a big project that was so clearly edited and rearranged by stakeholders, it’s tough to assign credit for any of it to any individual person. I think it’s generally a bad idea to assign authorship of a collaborative work to any one person, but especially so when I didn’t like it. “This thing was bad and it’s all her fault!”
It also implicitly and explicitly emphasizes that aspects of a character often treated as an obstacle or a disability is simply a part of their identity. Makkari is played by a deaf actress, but it’s never treated as a disability, or even explicitly commented on. Meanwhile, Thena’s stupidly-named affliction is treated as an analogue for neurodivergence, and a major source of conflict is over the question of whether it should be “fixed” or whether that would fundamentally change who she is.
In fact, the only character aspect that is treated as a disadvantage is Sprite’s eternal youth. Much like Gaiman’s version of the character, she resents being denied the whole of the human experience, which the rest of the Eternals are able to take part in. But while Gaiman’s version uses it mainly just to drive the plot, this version ties it into the rest of the movie’s overall themes of choice and free will vs determinism.
The more baffling decision, which I spent at least the first half of the movie trying to figure out, was why it had such a dud of an opening. It starts with my biggest pet peeve in cinema: a text crawl, which is almost always a sign that the screenwriters couldn’t figure out how to gracefully integrate their back story into the movie itself, so they just went for the laziest possible cop-out.5The obvious exception being Star Wars, which uses the opening crawl almost for stylistic effect instead of actually establishing the story.
Eternals starts with “In the beginning,” which I like, and then an explicit explanation of who are the Celestials, the Eternals, and the Deviants, which I hate. Especially since it’s followed by a sequence of the Eternals first arriving in Mesopotamia and fighting off some Deviants, essentially just re-establishing what the opening text already told us.
It seemed not just redundant, but redundant in a way that would’ve been frustratingly easy to fix. It’s a problem that had already been solved twice before in the source material. Neither Kirby’s nor Gaiman’s versions are perfect — Gaiman’s has long stretches of exposition where Ikaris recounts the whole of human existence to a man trapped in a hospital bed, while Kirby’s just slaps a caption panel on the top of page one with an explanation of the entire premise. But both of them had a more compelling entry point into the story: Kirby’s with a discovery of an ancient communication device in a previously-undiscovered Incan temple, and Gaiman’s with an intriguing mystery of a fairly average doctor and the mysterious stranger with whom he seems to have a past connection.
I thought it would’ve made a lot more sense to start the movie with Sersi in present-day London. In fact, those scenes seemed so obviously written as an entry point that I suspected that they had been at the start of an earlier draft of the screenplay. I spent most of the movie assuming it must’ve been a clumsy edit, either to appease some executive demanding the movie to start with an action sequence6By the way, have you played the first episode of Sam & Max Season 3?, or some weird contractual clause that said Angelina Jolie and Salma Hayek had to appear in the first five minutes of the movie.
That frustration continued through the rest of the movie, as it kept choosing to move the plot forward in the flattest, least impactful ways possible. Some scenes just repeated an idea that had already been established, others jumped to a flashback that would’ve been more effective or dramatic if it had been shown earlier or later. Intriguing questions that could’ve kept the story momentum going — Why did they split up? What happened to this character? — are either resolved too early and too casually, or answered long after the stakes have been raised and the question is no longer that important.
Plus, ideas are presented as if they were the focus of a scene, and then dropped completely or brought up again haphazardly, seemingly with no connection to the larger and more pressing storyline. In one scene, they’re dealing with the repercussions of Thena’s unpredictable violent attacks, and then suddenly they’re talking about the ethics of mind control and the responsibilities of family. One scene has Sersi explaining that she can’t contact the Celestials, and then (as The Weekly Planet podcast pointed out), someone asks her, “Have you tried?” after which she can do it. That presents a revelation that should drive the rest of the movie, but then they go back to a sequence that seems to again revolve around chosen family and the ethics of mind control. Seemingly right after getting the band back together, they have a flashback where one of the characters blames himself for the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It all felt like the movie was constantly looking for ways to undermine its own impact and kill its own forward momentum.
But when it ended (finally), I was left with that strange sense of interconnectedness that put everything else into context. I had thought that the movie was haphazardly jumping between disparate ideas, but now I think that the movie was asserting that all of those ideas were related, and related in ways that I’d never considered.
The question of free will is inseparable from the issue of colonization, which robs people of their free will. The Eternals are shown to be both colonizers and slaves. The inter-relatedness of memory, ability, and identity is much more important than any abstract sci-fi musing about the nature of the universe and the value of life. More “traditional” science fiction would make the question of the Eternals’ final plan the entire focus of the story: how do you weigh the existence of an impossibly powerful cosmic being against the lives of billions of humans? Eternals seems to insist that that question is so abstract as to be completely irrelevant; our attempts to think of death and suffering in terms of “collateral damage” or “acceptable losses” are merely crutches to avoid having to acknowledge the sanctity of the lives of mundane individuals.
To put it another way: Kirby’s version was all about the premise, the awe of impossibly powerful space gods come to Earth! Gaiman’s version was all about the storytelling, updating and emphasizing the mystery and intrigue of a somewhat obscure corner of the Marvel Universe. Eternals is all about philosophy, morality, and humanity. It suggests that it’s pointless to ask “how did we get here?” without also considering “why are we here?” It insists that awesome space gods controlling the continued existence of the universe aren’t as compelling or as interesting as a young woman wanting to grow up and find a boyfriend, or a man wanting to raise his child with his husband, or a caregiver selflessly protecting and encouraging a loved one, or a man who’s disappointed his super-powered girlfriend can’t turn him into a giraffe.
Going back to that first scene: I suspect that the filmmakers didn’t consider the opening sequence just a repetition of the opening crawl because it didn’t think that the fight against the Deviants, or the text explaining the history of the universe, was the most important part of the sequence. I suspect that it was more about the moment when Ikaris met Sersi, both of them believing it was for the first time.
- 1See: The Matrix Resurrections. Or better: don’t.
- 2I haven’t read any of the other Eternals comics, so I can’t really comment on the aspects of those that were used in the movie version.
- 3To be clear, I don’t think there was any malice or even insensitivity in Kirby’s version, just that it came from an entirely different context. Although it is unfortunate that he combines reverence for Incan civilization with the premise that everything they achieved was on account of white men from space.
- 4I’ll keep saying “the movie version” instead of “Chloe Zhao’s version” not to deny her any credit, but because with such a big project that was so clearly edited and rearranged by stakeholders, it’s tough to assign credit for any of it to any individual person. I think it’s generally a bad idea to assign authorship of a collaborative work to any one person, but especially so when I didn’t like it. “This thing was bad and it’s all her fault!”
- 5The obvious exception being Star Wars, which uses the opening crawl almost for stylistic effect instead of actually establishing the story.
- 6By the way, have you played the first episode of Sam & Max Season 3?