• Joel Ryan

Marvel's "Eternals" Falls Under the Weight of its Own Ambition, Faulty Mythology, and Unclear Theme

Marvel Studios’ 26th feature film (yes, it’s been that many), Eternals, premiered last week in theaters and the reviews are in. Despite the Eternals’ ambitious attempts at expanding the cosmic mythology of the MCU, exploring some pretty massive ontological themes, and committing to on screen representation, Eternals now holds the unenviable title of being the worst reviewed Marvel film in the series by a wide margin.

If Rotten Tomatoes, the website that aggregates critic reviews and audience consensus is still credible (I have some questions about that), Eternals currently sits at a 47% critic rating and 80% audience score at the time of this post. To put that in perspective, the next worst film in the MCU, Thor: The Dark World, holds a 66% critic score, 75% audience rating. That’s nearly a twenty-point gap between Eternals and the Thor sequel, which most fans agree, did not bring the thunder.

So is Eternals really that bad?

By some standards, yes, however, Eternals is also not as erroneous as some critics might suggest.

Directed by recent Academy Award winning director Chloe Zhao, with a screenplay by a legal mishmash of far too many writing credits, Eternals introduces audiences to earth’s oldest cosmic protectors, the Eternals, and I should start by giving credit where credit is due. Eternals tries to break from the mold of a traditional superhero film, explore deeper philosophical, even cosmological themes, and distance itself from the intertextual tie down of past films. However, though it has some promising elements, Eternals is too often an unfocused, thematically ambiguous spectacle that wants to do and say a lot but ends up accomplishing very little when all is said and done.

Too long, tonally inconsistent, and at times confusing, Eternals seeks to soar above the typical MCU entry in terms of size and narrative scale, but unfortunately, the filmmakers’ Icarus-sized ambition are what inevitably lead to its own downfall.

So why does Eternals fall to Earth in a heap of melted feather and wax? Here are a few observations.

Who are The Eternals?

The Eternals are essentially a group of immortal beings created (or genetically engineered) by the Celestials to defend humanity against the Deviants, a race of monstrous creatures who prey on Earth’s inhabits.

It’s worth noting, however, that the Eternals are not invincible. Like the elves of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, they can still be killed in battle. They simply cannot age or die of disease or natural causes. Moving on.

To defend humanity, each Eternal is gifted with a unique ability/superpower.

· Ajak (Salma Hayek), the leader of the Eternals, has healing powers and a direct line of communication to Arishem, the Prime Celestial.

· Ikarus (Richard Madden) can fly and shoot lasers from his eyes.

· Sersi (Gemma Chan) can alter the state of matter.

· Thena (Angelina Jolie) is the greatest warrior the universe has ever known.

· Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) can manipulate and project cosmic energy.

· Gilgamesh (Don Lee) has super strength and packs one hell of a punch.

· Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) has super speed.

· Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) is the inventor.

· Sprite (Lia McHugh) is the storyteller of the group and can alter reality.

· Druig (Barry Keoghan) can control minds.

Instructed not to interfere in human affairs unless Deviants are involved, the Eternals have lived on Earth for seven thousand years, witnessing the best and worst of human history along with the rise and fall of countless empires.

Eventually the Deviants are defeated around the 16th century, and the Eternals go their separate ways, living rather inconspicuous lives (save for Bollywood star Kingo). However, when the Deviants return (in present day), the gang must reunite to defeat their mortal enemies once and for all.

That is the basic premise.

However, the major twist comes when the Eternals learn that the Celestials’ actual cosmic plan involves the seeding of worlds like Earth for the Emergence of new Celestials and civilizations. Humanity has only existed as life energy to support the growth of a new Celestial.

The Celestials, you might remember, have been mentioned in the MCU before. They are cosmic beings responsible for creating new worlds and entire species. Ego the Living Planet (Kurt Russell) and Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt’s) father was the primary antagonist of Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2.

When Earth’s human population has reached its pinnacle, a new Celestial will “emerge” from the Earth’s core, like a bird hatching from an egg. But in doing so, it will effectively wipe out the planet and its inhabitants. After that, the Eternals’ memories will be wiped, and they will be relocated to another world to begin the process all over again.

The events of Avengers: Infinity War/Endgame only delayed the Emergence by removing half of the population required for Celestial growth. And no, despite what some blogs and YouTube commentators have suggested, Thanos is not a retconned hero for "saving" humanity from the Celestials. Genocide for the "greater good" is hardly heroic.

Having learned of their true purpose, the Eternals must now decide if they are going to follow the Celestials’ cosmic plan and complete their mission (as they’ve always done) or defy their creators and actually defend humanity by stopping the Emergence.

As you might have guessed, there are some pretty big themes packed into that plot regarding creation, humanity, free will, destiny, and time.

Eternals, however, borrows from a plurality of world religions and worldviews to flesh out its own mythology and cosmology. But by trying to grapple with all views, it actually fails at communicating a view of its own.

Comic books have being doing this for decades, combining Norse, Egyptian, Greek, and Chinese mythologies with contemporary ideology and sometimes a Judeo-Christian view of good and evil, the supernatural, and the eternal.

Of course, I’m not against complex world-building or story mythology. J.R.R. Tolkien was the master this, as are many high fantasy writers. Done right, an expanded mythology has a place. It will shape the world we see on screen (or read on page) and provide important context for the story being told.

However, it’s the writer’s job to determine how much or how little information the audience needs, keeping the focus always on character and the immediate plot. And there’s a reason why Peter Jackson didn’t try and win over moviegoers with The Silmarillion before The Lord of the Rings.

We’re now twenty-six films into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and I don’t fault Marvel Studios or Chloe Zhao for trying something different or wanting to expand the Marvel universe beyond what we’ve already seen and know. However, the amount of exposition, world-building, and new character introductions being crammed into a nearly three-hour movie overwhelms this particular entry, which feels bloated and unfocused. Perhaps a multi-episode Disney+ series might have been a better vehicle for this kind of supplemental mythology.

Furthermore, there are simply far too many characters to keep track of and care about in the Eternals lineup.

Remember, the first Avengers featured six primary heroes, four of which had already been introduced in their own solo movies leading up to The Avengers. The other two, Black Widow and Hawkeye, were featured in previous movies as well, though not as extensively.

The other big MCU team, The Guardians of the Galaxy, had five initial members. In this instance, we didn’t get individual movies featuring Star Lord, Drax, or Gamora, but we also didn’t have to. Peter Quill was always the central character. Other members were slowly integrated into the story over the course of the movie.

And in both cases, the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy come together for the first time on screen.

Eternals, by contrast, features ten primary characters who are introduced all at the same time. The amount of story and mythology needing to be explained makes it difficult to introduce or develop each character properly. Shared screen time and the performances don’t help either.

Likewise, Eternals doesn’t really know how to deal with the divine nature of its ten immortal heroes, who aren’t human but are engineered to look and sound like them. There is potential a story about gods among men or angels learning what it means to be human or deciding why mortal beings are worth (or not worth) fighting for. It's there, but that theme gets lost amongst the mythology of the extensive exposition and mayhem of the film's final act.

What’s confusing also is that the Eternals are told not to interfere in human affairs unless Deviants are involved, which is the main reason why they didn’t join the Avengers in the fight against Thanos.

However, the Eternals have clearly been involved in human history, influencing many historical events. From Sprite’s stories to Phastos’ inventions, the Eternals have dramatically shaped the course of human history for better and for worse, which seems to be a direct violation of their Celestial mandate.

There’s a lot of character potential and powerful themes to explore here, just not enough time or focus to make it happen.

For example:

Druig, who has the ability to control minds, grieves that he’s not allowed to interfere and save humanity from its fear and hatred. This brings up a powerful conversation about the purpose of free will and humanity’s ability to choose good and evil.

Phastos, the inventor, wants to help humanity develop life-saving technology but feels the guilt of his involvement when his ideas are used to create weapons of mass destruction, like the Hiroshima bomb.

Thena, the warrior of the group, suffers from “Mahd Wr’ry”, a psychological condition brought about by her eternal memory and recollection of past events. No longer able to distinguish friend from foe, Thena fractures under the weight of knowing this world and all who live in it are also doomed.

Ajak, the Prime Eternal, understands the Celestials’ plan but has comes to love and defend humanity, even when humans don't deserve to be saved.

Sprite is forced to live eternally in the body of an adolescent, never able to grow and experience the joys of adulthood. Like Tinker Bell and Peter Pan, has also fallen in love with Ikarus, a man she can tragically never be with.

Ikarus, likewise, experiences his own existential crisis when he realizes that his entire life purpose and identity have been a lie. But rather than stand against his creators, the Celestials, Ikarus is willing to destroy one civilization and turn on his family for “the greater good.”

Not unlike Thanos, Ikarus believes that the creation of new worlds and Celestials justifies the sacrifice of humanity. However, unlike Thanos, Ikarus cannot bring himself to actually kill the one he loves (Sersi), allowing the Eternals to stop the Emergence and halt the birth of a new Celestial.

Again, there’s a lot of potential here, but there’s also too much going on thematically to know what this story is about.

The writers cannot decide if the Eternals are immortal beings learning (or yearning) to become more human or supreme beings struggling to care for a broken, sinful civilization seemingly destined for self-destruction.

The plurality of mythology, religion, worldview, and philosophy undermines any theme the film might stand upon. In trying to say everything and speak to everyone, Eternals ultimately says very little and speaks to no one in particular.

Avengers: Endgame was the culmination of twenty-two films and nearly a decade worth of story. It wasn’t a bar that all future films must exceed.

If Marvel Studios wants to create another Endgame level event, it’s going to have to earn it. That may mean a bit of a soft rebuild.

No, I’m not suggesting the MCU reboot itself entirely. But similar to a championship sports team, if the MCU wants to reach a spectacle of infinite greatness, it has to be patient.

  • Previous stars (Captain America, Ironman, Black Widow) have retired.

  • Established players (Falcon, Dr. Strange, Ant-Man) must take up the mantle of leadership.

  • Core pieces (Hawkeye, Hulk, Thor) will need to accept new roles.

  • Young talent (Spider-Man, Scarlet Witch, Shuri) aren’t rookies anymore and need to step up.

  • New players (Moon Knight, Blade, and the Fantastic Four) will need to be drafted and developed.

Rebuilds take time.

Is it possible audiences have grown tired of comic book movies? I wouldn’t rule that out. However, the same criticism levied against Eternals would probably be true whether it was released five years ago or today.

Some have also hastily and rather erroneously concluded that the diversity of the Eternals cast and filmmakers’ commitment to on screen representation was the reason why many fans and critics didn’t get on board with the film. That's nonsense. Is the movie good or not?

Diversity cannot be used as a shield against rightful criticism.

A diverse, international cast isn’t a problem, nor is it the reason why those who didn’t like Eternals were disappointed. The issues with Eternals would exist regardless of who was on screen or behind the camera. It all comes down to story. Eternals simply does not deliver.

If anything, Eternals proves that sometimes less is more.

Marvel Studios will never fully top the cinematic triumph of Avengers: Endgame, and in many ways, it shouldn’t try. With smaller scale stories, consistent, universal themes, and well-defined, sympathetic characters, Marvel films can still fly, however, the assumption of success and folly of their own ambition is what caused a film like Eternals to scuttle.

But what did you think? If you loved Eternals, I’d love to hear about it. I certainly don’t hate this movie as much as many critics, but I also see where Eternals earns its 47% score. Rotten? Not entirely, but it is definitely Marvel’s first big stinker and one we hope isn’t the scent of things to come.


As always, thank you for stopping by. If you enjoyed my review, feel free to hit the heart icon below, share my work, or subscribe for news, exclusive content, and more.

Thanks again. Now get back to writing.