Eternals is likely to become one of the most divisive Marvel movies in some time. But perhaps not for the obvious reasons. It’s hard to imagine lots of Eternals comics fans out who are so diehard that they will scream about “forced diversity” in the casting. However, it’s all too easy to imagine someone getting riled up over a fictional cosmology that appears to deny the existence of God as envisioned by most major Earth religions. But even that isn’t likely to cause the most contention.
The challenge with Eternals is that it’s very much a Chloe Zhao (Nomadland) movie. Yet probably not enough of one for Chloe Zhao diehards. It’s best compared to a really lengthy character-based episode of The Walking Dead. Those are the ones with only an obligatory fight or two with bloodthirsty monsters. Unless audiences are fully invested in these characters, the film might be considered boring.
In Marvel’s comic book universe, the Eternals are a Jack Kirby creation. Regardless, the movie takes more of its inspiration from Neil Gaiman’s 2006 reboot. As such, it’s full of his hallmarks, including long discussions between near-immortal beings about what fools/treasures these mortals be. For viewers with an interest in theology and the repackaging of same as superhero subtext for the masses — this is compelling stuff. But for those who expect the tightly wound Marvel machine that never stops entertaining for even a second, this isn’t that. It’s very slow.
And yet possibly not slow enough for Zhao’s existing fans. But it takes its time and stays focused on relationships rather than super-battles. Not to mention the different ways people react to religious dogma. There’s a reason Gaiman has had more adaptation success on cable and streaming.
In this case, the dogma comes from Arishem, a kaiju-sized space-giant of the race of Celestials. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, an opening text crawl informs us, he created the world, and more. We’ve previously seen Celestials in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies: Ego was one, the Collector’s home base of Knowhere was the severed head of another. There was also Celestial who appeared in a flashback that showed the Infinity Stones’ power. Arishem, though, appears to be on a whole extra God-level, fostering the creation of further Celestials.
Eternals are nigh-immortal beings sent by Arishem to protect planetary populations from his previous mistake, the Deviants. Looking like 3D printed flayed anatomy crafted from iridescent Japanese Beetle shell fibers, these apex predators evolved beyond their prior parameters to become a danger to all life. But they are all long-since dead, and the Eternals now wait to be called home. Or so they think.
For much of its first half, Eternals plays like It: Chapter Two. A fraternity of friends who long ago defeated an ancient evil must reunite to face its resurgence. All while having significant flashbacks to their early days on Earth. And not everyone wants to come back. Some question their original purpose, others would rather die, a couple finally hook up, and only a few really get it right away. All must deal with how the lives they have made on this planet over the centuries might see drastic changes with a return to large-scale heroics.
Connections to the rest of the MCU are minor. But the characters also mention Superman and Batman. It appears DC comics do indeed exist in the MCU.
Considering that Eternals must introduce at least ten new characters with extremely comic-booky names to a fresh audience, it does a good job. Sersi (Gemma Chan) is everywoman as immortal, enjoying her life with very periodic, subtle power usages. Ikaris (Richard Madden), her brooding ex, is more concerned with grander cosmic plans. Sprite (Lia McHugh) feels unfairly forced into both the sidekick role and an eleven year-old body. Gilgamesh (Don Lee) like to cook and punch things. There’s more, but the basics come across pretty quickly.
Kingo, of course, adds the comedy, since he’s played by Kumail Nanjiani. Often cast as the annoying nit-picky nerd, Nanjiani plays the Tony Stark role. Living the life of a movie star, he adds dry, real-world observations to outlandish situations. He’s way more JARVIS than Jar Jar.
When characters’ assumptions get tossed aside, it’s easy to imagine there’s a comparison to Zhao’s own disillusionment with Chinese communist dogma once she moved to Europe and learned alternative facts. That Arishem appears a red, monolithic, unemotional world-sized being surely is no coincidence. But there’s also a level of religious critique, analyzing the way that scriptural rules that were once simply meant as desert survival instructions can turn into toxic fundamentalism once overpopulation becomes a thing. The individual ways each Eternal takes in these changes reflect differences in human philosophies too.
All of which becomes more important to this movie than slaying purple monsters. The far more humanoid Deviants from the comics could figure into possible sequels, but they haven’t evolved to that level yet onscreen.
Speaking of sequels, the credits teases are not as important as some might claim, and one features some retrograde CG so atrocious that Marvel Studios should be ashamed.
Slow isn’t the same thing as dense, and nothing in Eternals should be incomprehensible to anyone paying attention. But for those not in the mood to just hang out with all-powerful beings, rather than following them into wisecrack-filled combat constantly, Eternals may tax the patience.
Eternals opens November 5 in theaters.
Recommended Reading: The Eternals by Jack Kirby Vol. 1
We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program. This affiliate advertising program also provides a means to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.