4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch

“I don’t wear a cape” — Eternals

From August 2017 – January 2020, Keith R.A. DeCandido took a weekly look at every live-action movie based on a superhero comic that had been made to date in The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch. He has been revisiting the feature every six months or so to look back at the new releases in the previous half-year. We’ve covered Black Widow, The Suicide Squad, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, and Venom: Let There Be Carnage, and now we finish off with Eternals.

Jack Kirby was one of the most creative and dynamic creators in the history of mainstream comics, starting in the days before World War II (where, among many other accomplishments, he created Captain America with Joe Simon), and continuing into the 1960s, when he and Stan Lee collaborated to create the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, Thor, the X-Men, and the Hulk, among many many others. Creative and contractual disputes led to Kirby defecting to DC in 1970 (where he created the “Fourth World” characters of the New Gods, the Forever People, Apokalips, and Mr. Miracle), but by 1976, he’d returned to Marvel.

It was then that he created the Eternals.

Kirby was always interested in doing new takes on mythological beings, as seen in his work with Thor at Marvel and the Fourth World stuff at DC. To that end, part of his reunion deal with Marvel in the mid-1970s (besides working on Captain America, just in time for the Bicentennial, and Black Panther) was to create The Eternals.

Kirby’s notion was that giant powerful beings called Celestials experimented on early proto-humans, creating two divergent spinoff species: Eternals, who were nigh-immortal and powerful but having the same general appearance as humans, and Deviants, who were more animalistic in appearance and more genetically unstable. The Eternals lived in secret, but occasionally guided humanity, and were worshiped as gods. Among the Eternals were Kronos (Chronos), Zuras (Zeus), Ajak (Ajax), Makkari (Mercury), Ikarus (Icarus), Thena (Athena), Phastos (Hephaestus), etc.

The book was cancelled after nineteen issues, its plotlines left unfinished. But other writers took the baton and ran with it. Powerful beings on Titan, created by Jim Starlin as part of Captain Marvel’s storylines, and on Uranus, from the 1950s Marvel Boy series by Stan Lee & Russ Heath, were retconned into being part of the Eternals, and Roy Thomas and Mark Gruenwald & Ralph Macchio finished off the Celestials storylines in the pages of Thor. In addition, it was established that other species in the Marvel Universe were similarly experimented upon—with the Skrulls being examples of Deviants who took over their home planet.

The Eternals continued to show up here and there, including in a twelve-issue miniseries by Peter B. Gillis, Walt Simonson, Sal Buscema, Keith Pollard, & Paul Ryan in 1985 and a seven-issue miniseries by Neil Gaiman & John Romita Jr. in 2006. The latter was followed up by what was supposed to be an ongoing series by Charles & Daniel Knauf, Daniel Acuna, Eric Nguyen, & Sara Pichelli in 2008, but it only lasted nine issues. They were all killed off in a 2018 Avengers story arc by Jason Aaron & Ed McGuinness, but were hastily resurrected in 2021 as part of a new ongoing series by Kieron Gillen & Esad Ribić.

That ongoing series was prompted by the release of an Eternals movie, which was first announced in 2018 as being in development as part of the post-Endgame Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

While Celestials have been mentioned before—Ego described himself as a Celestial in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2—this movie provides their apparent purpose of guiding the universe in various ways.

Kirby’s Eternals were almost entirely white people—Phastos was a token POC, at least—and mostly male. Director Chloé Zhao—who petitioned to do an MCU film and was interested in doing her own take on the material, inspired in particular by Kirby and Gaiman’s work—went for a more diverse take. Ajak and Makkari are gender-swapped, with the former played by the Latinx Salma Hayek and the latter played by Lauren Ridloff, who is both a POC and deaf (Makkari is deaf in the film as well). Phastos is gay, played by Brian Tyree Henry, with Haaz Sleiman and Esai Daniel Cross as his husband Ben and son Jack, respectively. Asian actors Gemma Chan (who previously played Minn-Erva in Captain Marvel), Kumail Nanjiani (last seen in this rewatch in Men in Black International), and Don Lee play, respectively, Sersi, Kingo, and Gilgamesh. The Eternals cast is rounded out by Richard Madden (Ikaris), Lia McHugh (Sprite, also gender-swapped), Barry Keoghan (Druig), and Angelina Jolie (Thena). Supporting them are Kit Harrington as Dane Whitman (the real identity of the Black Knight in the comics, a state of affairs hinted at by the post-credits scene), Harish Patel as Kingo’s valet Karun, Harry Styles as Eros of Titan, Bill Skarsgård as the voice of the Deviant Kro, David Kaye as the voice of Arishem the Celestial, and Patton Oswald as the voice of Pip the Troll. A voice heard in the post-credits scene talking to Whitman has been confirmed to be Mahershala Ali in his role as Blade.

The movie is set up for a sequel, likely adapting the general storyline of the Celestials judging humanity, though no second Eternals film has yet been announced. Ali’s announced-but-not-yet-scheduled Blade film is likely to have Harrington in it. The presence of Eros and Pip in the mid-credits scene may also indicate that some of this may be followed up on in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, since Eros and Pip have been heavily linked to Gamora, Drax, and Nebula in the comics.

The movie also hits Disney+ today, showing impeccable timing…

 

“You know what never saved the world? Your sarcasm…”

Eternals
Written by Ryan Firpo & Kaz Firpo and Chloé Zhao & Patrick Burleigh
Directed by Chloé Zhao
Produced by Kevin Feige, Nate Moore
Original release date: November 5, 2021

In present-day London, Sersi follows up a day of teaching with a date with her boyfriend Dane Whitman. Whitman asks to move in with her and she refuses. Whitman think it’s because she’s a wizard like Dr. Strange, especially since he heard Sersi’s roommate Sprite say (a) she broke up with her last boyfriend a hundred years ago and b) that he could fly. Sersi’s reply to (b) is that he was a pilot—but then a Deviant named Kro attacks them.

Ikaris, the ex-boyfriend in question, shows up to help Sersi and Sprite (who is eternally a teenage girl) fight Kro, who can heal himself. Ikaris tells a shocked Whitman that he, Sersi, Sprite and seven others were sent by the Celestials to Earth seven thousand years ago from the planet Olympia. Whitman is nonplussed to say the least, and wants to know why the Eternals never got involved in any of humanity’s wars, or the Chitauri invasion, or the fight against Thanos. Sersi explains that they’re only supposed to defend humanity from Deviants. But they’d killed the last one in 1521—or so they thought. Since then, they’ve been waiting for further instructions from Arishem, the Prime Celestial.

We flash back to Babylon, with Ajak, the Prime Eternal, being cautioned by Arishem to not get too attached to this planet when Ajak expresses admiration for humanity. Phastos is also discouraged from showing humanity a steam engine, being forced to settle for a plough. Sersi and Ikaris fall in love and get married in India.

During the final battle with the Deviants in 1521—which was fought alongside the Spanish invasion of Tenochtitlan—Thena suffers from what’s called the Mahd Wy’ry, which causes her to turn on her fellows. Once the battle is over, Ajak offers to cure Thena, but at the cost of her memories. Gilgamesh offers to take care of her so she won’t lose her personality.

With the Deviants seemingly eradicated, and the Eternals not all agreeing on how to proceed—Druig, for example, believes they should help humanity, and he uses his mind-control powers to end the Spain-Aztec conflict—they go their separate ways.

In the present, Sprite, Ikaris, and Sersi go to South Dakota to find that Ajak is dead, killed by a Deviant. When they arrive, the sphere that Ajak used to communicate with Arishem passes to Sersi, to her surprise.

They go to India to recruit Kingo, who has become a Bollywood star (and also the “descendant” of past movie stars, all of whom were him of course), and he only agrees to help to avenge Ajak. His valet, Karun, accompanies him to record a documentary. Their next stop is Australia, where Gilgamesh and Thena were also attacked by a Deviant, which brought back Thena’s Mahd Wy’ry.

Sersi notices the different paintings Thena created, all of planets being destroyed. She manages to make contact with Arishem, who reveals the truth. The Eternals did not come from Olympia, but were created by the Celestials in the World Forge. Their job is to safeguard the planet until the time of Emergence, when a new Celestial—in this case, Tiamat—will be created from the ashes of the destroyed Earth. The Deviants’ purpose originally was to maintain the balance between predator and prey, but they evolved into predators themselves. Arishem’s solution was to make the Eternals incapable of evolving. Each time there’s an Emergence, their memories are wiped and the cycle starts anew on a new world. (Thena’s Mahd Wy’ry is due to her memories not being completely wiped during the previous Emergence the Eternals were involved with.) There are also tons of other Eternals on other worlds…

Screenshot: Marvel Studios

The Eternals are devastated. They resolve to try to save the planet, and that means they need the help of Druig and Phastos. Druig has taken over an entire village in the Amazon and is more than happy to live in peace there, and Phastos has been living in Chicago since atom bombs were dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945, having lost faith in humanity. Kro and other Deviants attack the village, and Gilgamesh is killed. Kro absorbs his energy, and now can walk upright and speak.

To honor Gilgamesh’s sacrifice, Druig agrees to go along. They then go to Chicago, where Phastos is living with a mortal husband and their son. They convince him to (reluctantly) go along—though it’s his husband Ben who actually convinces him—and they go to their spaceship, which is in Iraq. Makkari is living there, and she joins them. Phastos’s notion is to use the Uni-Mind to link them all so that Druig will be powerful enough to control Tiamat and keep him from emerging and destroying the Earth.

The other shoe then drops with Ikaris. We flash back six days. Ajak reveals that the Emergence is almost upon them, as the energy from the Hulk restoring half of life in the universe was the final piece needed for it to happen. But Ajak is resisting their function: the people of this world beat back Thanos and restored the half of life he eliminated. They can’t just let them die.

Ikaris, however, wants none of it, and takes Ajak to where the Deviants have been gathering and leaves her to be killed by Kro. Then he brings her back to South Dakota and leaves her body for him to “find” alongside Sersi and Sprite.

When the Emergence is about to happen, the Eternals take sides once the truth about Ikaris is revealed. Sprite—who has been secretly in love with Ikaris this whole time—joins him. Kingo abandons the fight all together, not wishing to go against Arishem’s wishes.

The battle is joined. Phastos is able to activate the Uni-Mind and Sersi gets the powers of all the Eternals on her side, enabling her to use Druig’s power to freeze Tiamat before he can destroy the Earth. Meanwhile, Thena takes care of Kro.

Ikaris, wracked with guilt over betraying his friends and especially his erstwhile lover, flies into the sun. Sersi grants Sprite mortality so she can grow up and live a full adult mortal life. Sersi returns to London (and to Whitman), Phastos returns to Chicago (and to Ben and Jack), and Kingo goes back to being a Bollywood star. Thena, Druig, and Makkari take off in their ship and try to seek out other Eternals to tell them the truth of their existence.

Arishem summons Sersi, Phastos, and Kingo and allows them to get away with what they’ve done—for now. The Celestials will be back to judge them—and Earth.

Thena, Druig, and Makkari find themselves joined by Eros of Titan (brother of Thanos) and Pip the Troll. On Earth, Whitman takes possession of the Ebony Blade…

 

“When you love something, you protect it.”

Screenshot: Marvel Studios

Eternals has been one of the most polarizing installments of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, if not the most polarizing. It’s hardly the first time Kevin Feige and his merry band of loonies have taken Marvel characters who weren’t exactly A-list and tried to make them into stars. In fact, that’s kinda how the MCU started, since Iron Man was always strictly B-list before 2008. And then we have the gold standard, Guardians of the Galaxy.

The Eternals are not quite as obscure as the Guardians were before 2014, but they faced a much bigger problem: they’ve never been all that popular. Jack Kirby’s original comic was cancelled in mid-story, the 1985 miniseries switched writers partway through and nobody either noticed or cared, and rarely is Eternals mentioned when people discuss Neil Gaiman’s comics oeuvre. Jason Aaron’s wiping them out in Avengers in 2018 was probably seen as a mercy killing.

To give Chloé Zhao and her co-writers credit, they almost pulled it off. The story is magnificently epic in scope, and manages to tell a story on a grand scale that fits nicely within the established MCU.

Unfortunately, there are two factors that torpedo the film from being what it can be, one an objective issue, the other a more personal issue of mine.

The first is a rather unfortunate cast bloat. There are just too many characters here, and very few of them are well served. Most of the actors are doing the best they can, but there just isn’t space to give them room to breathe. The only characters who really work are Brian Tyree Henry’s Phastos and Angelina Jolie’s Thena. The former’s eagerness to aid humanity in the flashbacks and his complete burnout in the present day is beautifully played by Henry, while Jolie invests you fully in Thena’s disturbed state.

Almost all the rest of them are either underused or are too busy serving plot functions to actually be interesting characters. Or both.

Salma Hayek gives Ajak the perfect gravitas, but she’s dispensed with early on in the movie, and every time she’s off camera, the movie misses her charisma. Gemma Chan doesn’t get nearly enough to do as Sersi because she’s needed to move the story along. We get frustratingly little sense of her as a person. It’s a waste of Chan’s talents, sadly.

Lia McHugh and Kumail Nanjiani manage to stand out mostly by being funny—Sprite is a snot of the highest order, and Kingo has completely thrown himself into the role of the egotistical movie star to hilarious effect. Unfortunately, Sprite’s unrequited romance with Ikaris seems to mostly be there to give them an excuse to give Ikaris another ally, and Kingo feels like he’s mostly being removed from the climax because there are too many characters to fit on screen.

Eternals, Kumail Nanjiani as Kingo

Screenshot: Marvel Studios

You could remove Lauren Ridloff’s Makkari and Barry Keoghan’s Druig from the movie and it wouldn’t change hardly anything, as the two barely participate. It’s to Keoghan and Ridloff’s credit that they sell the attraction between the two of them, but it’s entirely on the actors, as the characters are pretty much nowhere.

It’s also very easy to buy Don Lee’s Gilgamesh’s affection for Thena, the devotion they have for each other also shining through in Lee and Jolie’s performance, but Gilgamesh is killed off, and while it’s nice to have the man killed to have an effect on the woman for a change, it still feels like the character was killed mostly so there’d be one less person to try to give lines to.

That just leaves Ikaris, who gets the most screen time and the most interesting character arc, done in by a charisma-free, don’t-hate-me-because-I’m-beautiful performance by the leaden Richard Madden.

It’s funny, there are a lot of ways that this movie reminds me of Watchmen. The death of one of the main characters drives the plot, we get multiple flashbacks, one of the main characters turns out to be a bad guy, and there are way too may characters to fit in one movie.

Indeed, one of my issues with the Zack Snyder adaptation of Watchmen was that the story was badly served by whittling it down to a feature film’s running time, and the same holds true for this. For this to truly achieve the scope it needs to succeed, for the characters to actually have the space to be characters instead of plot movers, for the breadth and depth of the storyline to really get a chance to shine, this needed to be a six-episode series on Disney+.

Unfortunately, the most interesting and compelling characters in this movie about the Eternals are the humans: Kit Harrington’s Dane Whitman, Harish Patel’s Karun, Haaz Sleiman’s Ben, and Esai Daniel Cross’s Jack. Whitman is the most enjoyable part of the film’s early minutes, and his loss in most of the rest of the film is keenly felt. Ben and Jack provide Phastos with the kick in the ass he needs, and they serve as a reminder of what (some of) the Eternals are trying to save. And Karun is an absolute delight, Patel’s superb comic timing dovetailing nicely with his earnestness and (not entirely justified) belief in the Eternals. Patel grounds the movie, and his departure with Kingo when the latter buggers off is also a major loss to the film.

Which leads me nicely to the second factor that damages the film: it isn’t about superheroes. The one thing that the MCU has never lost sight of is that its protagonists are in the business of saving lives, and are in this to help people. Even those of a less heroic bent—Tony Stark and his dancing ego, e.g.—are still mortified by the notion of innocent people dying because of their actions—or inaction.

Until now, because the Eternals aren’t heroes. They seem to be set up as heroes, but we learn before long that that’s an illusion. They’re protecting the planet because it’s an incubator for a Celestial. Some of them are still at least pretending at being heroic, but many of them either actively don’t (Ikaris, Kingo, Sprite) or are very bad at it (Druig, Makkari) or are summarily killed when they get heroic impulses (Ajak).

I think that’s why some people had trouble getting their arms around the movie: it’s not about heroes. The protagonists themselves barely manage to make it to heroism.

Worse, the villains are reduced to boring CGI monsters. In the comics, the Deviants are smart, clever, devious, and dangerous. Kro is a worthy foe to the Eternals because he’s brilliant and nasty. In this movie, the Deviants are massively and disappointingly uninteresting.

It’s a pity, as Zhao has filmed a visual feast of a movie. This is a lush, beautiful motion picture, with some of the most spectacular visuals of any film in this rewatch. Zhao is an absolute master of framing, of lighting, and of simultaneously showing grand spectacle while never losing track of the fact that she’s filming people. She manages a perfect blend of grandiose and intimate.

But all that great work is serving only to present an overstuffed, undercooked narrative that really needed a lot more than even its 157-minute running time to do it justice.

***

 

Thanks, everyone, for following along on this latest gaggle of superhero movie rewatches. Come the summer, we should have a bunch more to look at, including the December 2021 releases of Spider-Man: No Way Home and The King’s Man, plus the current early 2022 docket includes Morbius, The Batman, and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. And I’ve got a few older movies that I missed in my previous go-rounds that I also plan to cover. Meantime, keep reading my Star Trek: Enterprise Rewatch every Monday, and I’ll continue reviewing the new Star Trek shows on Paramount+ as well…

Keith R.A. DeCandido‘s latest short story is “The Light Shines in the Darkness,” part of the superhero shared-world anthology Phenomenons: Every Human Creature, available for preorder from Crazy 8 Press. Other contributors include superhero veterans Peter David, Michael Jan Friedman, Robert Greenberger, Dan Hernandez, Paul Kupperberg, Ron Marz, and Geoffrey Thorne, along with Ilsa J. Bick, Michael A. Burstein, Russ Colchamiro ,Mary Fan, Glenn Hauman, Heather E. Hutsell, Aaron Rosenberg, Hildy Silverman, and Marie Vibbert.

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