“Eternals” is achingly earnest in tackling issues of diversity and representation, but fails as engrossing entertainment. I don’t expect to be educated at a Marvel Cinematic Universe outing and the exposition at the very beginning sets out to do just that…you need to know a lot about Eternals (our heroes) and Deviants (the villains) and Celestials (the supreme beings) and their connection to some supreme being, but you won’t be told all. That might feel like cheating, especially when you get halfway through.
I was surprised when Chloé Zhao was pegged to tackle this endeavor because beyond the diversity she brings as both a female director and a person of East Asian descent, her past efforts have been small independent films, best known for depicting semi-autobiographical works of marginalized people. The 2017 contemporary Western, “The Rider,” starred Brady Jandreau as a fictionalized version of himself named Brady Blackburn. Zhao became the first woman of color (and second woman) to win an Academy Award for Best Director for her 2021 “Nomadland” which starred Oscar-winner Frances McDormand as a nomadic worker living out of a van. In the film, Zhao had real people living the van-life playing people that the protagonist meets and learns from.
“Eternals” has nothing to do with reality or hardship. Zhao, along with Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo and Kaz Firpo, is credited with writing the screenplay which is based on characters by Jack Kirby. The persons with the biggest star power are Angelina Jolie as Thena and Salma Hayek as Ajak, but the main character is played by Chinese hapa Gemma Chan.
Kirby drew heavily from Greek mythology so if you need a rundown here’s how the characters come by their names, I have it here for you below. Otherwise, you can skip down to the next section.
Sersi (Gemma Chan) is Circe. Chan previously played Minn-Erva (Minerva is the Roman goddess of wisdom and war whose Greek equivalent is Athena.) in the 2019 MCU “Captain Marvel.” Circe is a minor goddess of indeterminate parentage (Helios and Perse or Hecate and Aeetes) who is best known for her role in Homer’s “Odyssey” for changing Odysseus’ crew into pigs as Odysseus travels home from the Trojan War. Odysseus didn’t hold it against her and stayed long enough to father at least two sons (Latinus and Telegonus) with Circe while his wife Penelope waited for him.
Sersi has been in love with Ikaris for centuries and her power is the ability to transform inanimate matter into something else–water into wood or a bus into petals. In the human world, she has been posing as a museum curator in London and dating a mortal named Dane Whitman (Kit Harington) after Ikaris dumped her a few centuries ago.
Ikaris (Richard Madden) is Icarus. Icarus was not a god, minor or otherwise. He was the son of craftsman Daedalus. Daedalus build the Labyrinth for the Minotaur for Minos, ruler of Crete. The Minotaur was the monster born to the wife of Minos when she had sexual relations with a Cretan bull through a device made by Daedalus (hollowed out cow-like construction). Minos had angered Poseidon who punished Minos by making Minos’ wife (Pasiphaë ) fall in love with the bull. After Daedalus’ provides Minos’ daughter with something to help Athenian hero Theseus in killing the Minotaur, Minos has Daedalus imprisoned in the Labyrinth. To escape Minos, Daedalus constructs wings for himself and his son to fly away from Crete, but Icarus fails to head his father’s warnings and flies too high and close to the sun. The heat of the sun melts the wax used to adhere the feathers to the wings and Icarus falls to his death.
Ikaris is the most powerful Eternal and can fly as well as send cosmic energy beams from his eyes. So he’s literally a guy whose very look can kill.
Kingo in the original Marvel Comics is Kingo Sunen and supposed to be a samurai. I guess Kirby wasn’t interested in Japanese mythology. He was supposed to be a major action star in Japan.
In the film, Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) is an Eternal who can project cosmic energy from his hands. In the human world, Kingo has become an acting dynasty but unfortunately Nanjiani doesn’t have the physicality to convincingly play a Bollywood dancing star.
Sprite (Lia McHugh) is often mistaken for a soft drink. Okay, not really, but every time I heard the characters refer to Sprite, I had to remind myself this was a character.
In the film “Eternals,” this Eternal can make lifelike illusions and is a storyteller of the group (imagine making movies before movies or augmented reality were possible), but she looks like a 12-year-old with a bad haircut. In “Eternals,” Sprite is in love with Ikaris.
Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) is possibly the Greek god Hephaestus, of the god of fire, the blacksmith of the gods who makes weapons and military equipment (e.g. the winged helmet and sandals of Hermes). Hephaestus’s wife was the goddess of love, Aphrodite.
In the film “Eternals,” Phastos is depicted as Black and gay. Instead of using an anvil and hammer, he is an engineer who makes high tech weapons and equipment. It’s suggested that he provides the knowledge for humans to slowly advance technologically (e.g. the plow because the timing wasn’t right for a steam engine and the industrial revolution).
Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) is Mercury. Mercury is a Roman god (Greek equivalent is Hermes) who is the god of messages, eloquence and travelers. As the original messengers of Ancient Rome and Greece were runners, he is portrayed as a runner.
In “Eternals,” Makkari possess super speed and runs so fast she can run on water. Don’t worry, there are no slo-mo action scenes to show time suspended for everyone else as she zips around like someone super-caffeinated. Makkari as portrayed by Ridloff is both Black and hearing impaired. Makkari communicates via sign language.
Druig (Irish actor Barry Keoghan) sounds like this might be taken from Druid, but I don’t see any co-relating mythological character. In “Eternals,” Druig is not a team player and often goes against what the others want. He has the ability to mind-control people. This doesn’t seem particularly helpful when battling the Deviants.
Gilgamesh (Don Lee) is Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh is the hero of the epic poem from Mesopotamia (Iraq, and parts of Iran, Turkey, Syria, and Kuwait), “Epic of Gilgamesh,” and was supposedly the king of Uruk. Uruk was an ancient city of Sumer (and later of Babylonia) situated east of the present bed of the Euphrates River in Western Asia (Iraq).
Gilgamesh as the king of Uruk was a serial rapist who claimed the droit du seigneur (lord’s right) to rape women on their wedding night. His people prayed to the gods to help lift his oppression and the gods find Enkidu and arrange for him to be civilized (this involves a temple prostitute named Shamhat). Enkidu and Gilgamesh become friends and they have great adventures together until Enkidu dies and Gilgamesh mourns him, hoping that they will be re-united. So the solution to a serial royal rapist was a bromance that took the king away from his people so he could rape and pillage elsewhere.
In “Eternals,” Gilgamesh becomes the seemingly platonic companion of Thena when she becomes mentally unstable. He is the strongest Eternal. While it is nice to have an East Asian face (Lee was born in Seoul, but has US citizenship), one wonders how people from West Asia feel about being excluded. Also, some people at the press screening initially thought Lee’s Gilgamesh was Wong from Doctor Strange. I’m not sure if that means different East Asian types need to be cast or critics and audience members need to be exposed to more characters with East Asian faces or both.
Ajak (Salma Hayek) is likely Ajax and was originally portrayed by Kirby as male. In Greek mythology, Ajax the Greater was the son of the king of Salamis and the great-grandson of Zeus. He’s mentioned in Homer’s “Iliad” as a tall and big man, second only to Achilles in strength and bravery. Ajax and Odysseus compete to claim the magical armor of Achilles after Achilles’ death. The armor was made on Mount Olympus by the god Hephaestus. The council awards the armor to Odysseus (who was aided by Athena in his arguments). Ajax then commits suicide.
In “Eternals,” Ajak has the ability to heal and acts as the leader of the Eternals and their mother figure. It is her death that brings the Eternals back together to fight a common enemy, the Deviants.
Thena (Angelina Jolie) is obviously Athena. Athena is the Greek goddess of war and wisdom, peace and weaving. She is depicted as a virgin and the patroness/protector of the city of Athens. She is the daughter of Zeus with no mother. Her Roman equivalent is Minerva.
In “Eternals, Thena can form weapons out of cosmic energy and uses spears, staffs and a shield. She contracts “Mahd Wy’ry” (pronounced like “mad weary” or “mad worry”) and wants to attack her fellow Eternals. This is a type of Eternal madness caused by the extreme accumulation of knowledge from centuries of living. The usual cure is to erase the memories, but because this set of Eternals doesn’t want Thena to lose her self, they opt to allow Phastos to care for her as he is able to calm her down to a certain extent.
The movie begins with two paragraphs of exposition (“In the beginning…”) that explains that there were Eternals who came from the Planet Olympia under the guidance of the Celestials. The Celestials have charged the Eternals to keep the Deviants from taking over planets. The Eternals are in contact the Celestials through the Celestial named Arishem the Judge (voiced by David Kaye. Only the leader of the Eternals, Ajak (Salma Hayek), who has a golden sphere that rises from inside of her chest at certain times, is able to make direct contact. She has always had complete faith in Arishem and never doubted their mission until recently.
In their big long block of a black spaceship, the Eternals arrived on Earth. One of the first things they introduce is bronze weapons, ushering in the Bronze Age but the Eternals only do so after killing the Deviants who were attacking the primitive tribal peoples. That defensive battle is when Sersi first meets Ikaris and emotional sparks begin to fly.
Jumping to Present Day London, Ikaris is nowhere to be found. Sersi (Gemma Chan) is late and her current crush, Dane Whitman (Kit Harington), is trying to distract the students gathered at the museum. Sersi begins to talk about apex predators which are required to balance an ecosystem when the world, including London, is hit by a series of earthquakes. I don’t know where you are, but in California, we had an earthquake (3.9) the day before the screening. Earthquakes are common in California, but uncommon in London.
Later, Sersi, and Dane are at a birthday party and Dane wants to move their relationship forward. No, he’s not proposing marriage. Dane wants her to move in, but Sersi hesitates. He wonders, “Are you a wizard like Doctor Strange?” Sersi isn’t a wizard, but she can’t bring herself to tell her man that she’s much older than he thinks, by a couple of thousand years. And when you don’t die, you think you have all the time in the world. That’s true for Eternals, but not for humans. Sersi’s gal pal, Sprite (Lia McHugh) quips, “He won’t live forever.”
And then, the Deviants rise out of the River Thames. Sersi and Sprite are soon joined by Ikaris (Richard Madden) to fight them off. That forces Sersi to explain to Dane (and the audience) that she and the other Eternals came to earth seven thousand years ago. In this post Thanos-snap world, that makes Dane wonder why the Eternals didn’t rise to help out the Avengers. Good question. The Eternals have something in common with the universe of Star Trek. Arishem had given them a prime directive: Don’t interfere unless the Deviants are involved.
Now Dane gets some back story about Sersi and her “pilot” love. They, Sersi and Ikaris, were together for five thousand years, but Ikaris left her and she moved on. More on that romance later.
In a flashback to 575 BC Babylon, the Eternals are a unified team. Yet Ajak (Salma Hayek) and Sersi feel there is something special about the planet Earth, but they still respect the grand design of their directive. The script suggests that Phastos is somewhat clueless because he’s interested in introducing the steam engine, but Ajak feels it is too advanced. Under Ajak, the Eternals decide to give humanity the plow.
Sersi is content helping to tend the fields and even use her celestial powers to water the plants. There she and Ikaris fall in love. In 400 AD during the Gupta dynasty in Northeastern India, they marry.
Back in the present, Sersi, Sprite and Ikaris head to South Dakota. On an expansive farm that seems to grow nothing, they find the dead Ajak on the ground outside with her arms at her side as if she fell asleep after fighting the Deviants. There’s not doubt the Deviants killed her, but her home seems strangely untouched. CSI and NCIS fans will want to examine this scene more closely, but we won’t stay in the present for long.
Flashing back to 1521, the Eternals reach a breaking point when they witness Hernando Cortéz in Tenochtitlán, conquering the Aztecs after a three-month siege. The Eternals are conflicted because, “This isn’t war; it’s genocide.” Druig is the most vocal opposition to non-intervention. During this battle, Thena shows the first signs of her mental illness. The Eternals separate and somehow integrate into human societies of their choosing.
We learn (but don’t see) Sersi and Ikaris were together until Macedonia where he abandons her, perhaps tired of moving every five years to keep their immortality a secret.
Back in the present-day, there’s more globe-hopping involved in gathering the Eternals together. Kingo has pretended to be his own son (grandson, great grandson and great great grandson) for generations in order to build a Bollywood acting dynasty and has a valet, Karun (Harish Patel), who at one time thought he was a vampire. Their relationship is humorous and I wish this had been further explored. The Eternals finally converge in Australia where Gilgamesh and Thena have a homestead. Gilgamesh fixes a hearty meal and the Eternals discuss how to take on the Deviants and who should lead them now that Thena is dead.
As you can probably guess, Sersi ends up being the leader, but not without opposition from her former love, Ikaris. How Sersi and Ikaris end their conflict and how we get to Harry Styles as Eros/Starfox, are surprises I won’t spoil. There is, as you might expect from an MCU offering, mid-credit and post-credit scenes.
The time jumping is jarring and prevents us from really seeing how these Eternals handle each major cultural evolution (and the possible setbacks) by just giving us brief glimpses of their final solutions. It’s like forgetting that sometimes the sights along the way are just as important as the final destination in a journey. If only a whole film had been devoted to one or two periods of time. Think of how much build up it took before the Avengers got together. To an extent, the film seems like a diversity diversion tour: we have to hit a geographically balanced history because surely there were other genocides and moments of ingenuity.
The actors might be charming enough alone, but there’s no emotional depth between them. There’s a lack of charismatic physicality in so many aspects of this film, from the lack of adjustment time to their new environment and how their powers function within it, to even their fighting styles and turns at dancing. Sorry Kumail Nanjiani, I loved your interaction with your valet, Harish Patel’s Karun, but the dancing was not convincing, particularly since Kingo has had centuries to perfect his moves. Lauren Ridloff’s Makkari is the exception and watching her move and act is a joy, particularly since the director Zhao has chosen not to go slo-mo anywhere. My scientist husband tells me some of the physics are off (e.g. what would happen if someone ran fast on water), but I’ll complain about the lighting choices and the often static quiet, non-battle scenes in terms of blocking and frame composition.
Can Chan carry a film? It’s hard to say with this film since there are failures on so many levels. On the level of costuming, Jolie’s costume makes it clear why Athena was one of the three goddesses that Paris judge in a fateful beauty contest. Yet her costuming doesn’t present the Eternals as a visually cohesive team.
Lastly, I can’t help thinking that in this #MeToo era, is it really wise to elevate the world’s oldest and best known serial rapist to hero status?
“Eternals” premiered in Los Angeles on 18 October 2021. I saw it in IMAX. Its theatrical release will be on 5 November 2021 and the film is part of MCU Phase Four.