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Eternals, the 26th theatrical release in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is a tantalizing concoction of big ideas, mixed messages and missed opportunities that succeeds despite the shortcomings.

Cultural Connections

Eternals features Angelina Jolie and Salma Hayek
Eternals features Angelina Jolie and Salma Hayek

By openly mining the treasure trove of storytelling history that’s been a hallmark of humanity through the ages, Eternals approaches the MCU from a slightly different angle. It’s a survey of theology, history, mythology, Arthurian legend and culture. The contemporary pop culture references come early and often. There’s Star Wars (by way of a wholly appropriate product placement), Harry Potter (thanks to an iconic location), Peter Pan and (in what might well be an MCU first) there are even references to DC’s Batman and Superman.

Surprisingly, there’s only a loose connection to the MCU’s storyline itself, at least until the end credits offer up some teases of things to come.

While some of the foundational characters in the Eternals’ mythology have appeared or otherwise been glimpsed tangentially in the Guardians of the Galaxy volumes, the main connection here is with Infinity War and Endgame, with some of the Eternals chattering amongst themselves, speculating as to who will lead the Avengers given the passing of Tony Stark and Steve Rogers. There’s also the whole Thanos situation. The Eternals find it inspiring that, while Thanos wiped out half the population of the universe, humans were able to bring them back with the snap of a finger. It’s an act that makes the human race worth saving.

The Eternals, you see, hail from the planet Olympia and are basically the embodiment of mythological gods and sundry other legends. While some of the spellings are a little different, their names should sound familiar. Sersi. Ikaris. Thena. Phastos. Gilgamesh.

They’ve been keeping an eye on Earth’s humans for the past 7,000 years and they’ve been instructed by their leader, Arishem (a godlike being on the scale of Zeus and Odin), to not interfere with human conflicts unless Deviants are involved. Deviants are the evil that balances out the Eternals’ good. At least that’s how it plays out on the surface. It’s what lies beneath that’s more interesting.

The Emergence

Arishem is tasked with the hefty responsibility of judging whether a civilization should survive or be wiped out. Yes. After all the drama surrounding Thanos, humans are right back on the cusp of annihilation.

The story spans the globe and the centuries, with the action bouncing between epochs in history such as Babylon in 5000 B.C. and Tenochtitlan in 1521 as well as present-day locations including England, India, Australia and the United States. Through it all, enticing themes are touched upon without really digging into the heart and the meat.

One of the biggest surprises in the story Chloe Zhao crafted with a trio of collaborators (and based on a comic book series created by Jack Kirby in 1976) is the extent of the religious references. It’s not just Christianity and parallels to the Biblical timeline, but the broader realm of theological concepts.

There are the baseline notions that the ending of one life is the beginning of another and that the universe is an infinite cycle of creation and destruction, but the material mostly plays with the higher-level concepts of good and evil, angels and demons.

And, of course, these words are uttered: “The truth will set them free.”

Pathetic Earthlings. Who Can Save You Now?

The Eternals in Babylon
The Eternals in Babylon

Human history is filled with brutality. The Conquistadors running roughshod over the Aztecs and the atomic bomb levelling Hiroshima are two of the episodes covered in the epic scope of Eternals. But, just like Jor-El commanded Kal-El in DC’s Superman: The Movie, the Eternals must not interfere with human history.

Nonetheless, that doesn’t stop Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry, Godzilla vs. Kong) from doing his best to spur on technological innovations. His plan to introduce the steam engine back in the halcyon days of Babylon was shot down by his Eternal colleagues, so he settled for the hand plow. But, given some wriggle room after the Eternals split up (centuries ago), Phastos had his fingers all over the A-bomb.

And therein lies the biggest problem with Eternals. It suffers from what the best of the MCU avoids: helpless humans syndrome. The best part of the Marvel universe is seeing humanity overcome enormous obstacles and insurmountable challenges. Okay, there’s also the whole god-like aspect when characters like Thor enter the mix, but the A-list is filled with characters like Bruce Banner, a tortured soul grappling with the impact of his own science experiments, and Tony Stark, a playboy who grows into a power player and starts putting his money where his mouth is instead of into G-strings. They’re mutants (or metahumans) in some form or fashion, but they’re also grounded and relatable.

Here, it’s back to intergalactic super-beings protecting the weak and self-destructive humans from themselves and nefarious celestial forces hellbent on humanity’s destruction. At least the story doesn’t fall into the trap of becoming overly preachy, but there are light references to global warming and an array of social issues on the agenda (for example, Phastos becomes the first openly gay hero in the MCU).

Hooray for Bollywood!

A mortal documents the adventure
A mortal documents the adventure

In Eternals, the only mere mortal with a major role is Karun. As played by Harish Patel, a Bollywood star in his own right, Karun is a Bollywood filmmaker and associate of Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani, The Big Sick). Kingo, an Eternal, has found the golden ticket to a comfortable life while acknowledging the burdened existence of the Eternals requires moving from place to place every five years or so simply to avoid the awkward conversations around how they never, ever age a single day. While it’s customary for Eternals to introduce each other as “friends from college” when comingling with humans, Kingo also latched onto becoming a Bollywood screen legend and has, through the course of Bollywood history, become his own lineage of Bollywood Barrymores.

It’s the dynamic of Kingo and Karun that creates quite a bit of magic all its own. Theirs is a relationship that could be expanded into a full-blown Disney+ series, they’re that good and provide that much entertainment value in Eternals. It’s the sort of human connection and grounding that could’ve greatly benefited Dune, another big-budget extravaganza currently in theaters.

All of that is balanced out by some fleeting glimpses at the Eternals offering a spark of positive inspiration, such as a scene (centuries ago) in which Sprite (Lia McHugh, The Lodge) encourages her captivated audience to become legends of their own, to go out and embark on their own remarkable adventures.

Maybe Eternals would’ve packed more punch if it curtailed some of the Eternals’ navel-gazing (O the wretched hell of being a god in love) in favor of a tighter integration between Eternals and humans, more moments like that scene with Sprite foreshadowing human history to come. But as it stands, Eternals is such an ambitious venture that it warrants admiration. And the movie’s spirit tips the scales with the good outweighing the bad.