Marvel Studios is known for elevating B and C level heroes and comic book characters to cinematic stars (such as the Guardians of the Galaxy) and mining gold.
Eternals is another attempt to do so, with a short-lived Jack Kirby series from 1976 that he wrote and illustrated on his return to the House of Ideas. Outside of die-hard fans of Marvel Comics who know the long story history of the Marvel Universe, The Eternals have always been an interesting footnote in the grand scheme of Marvel’s space lore.
Don’t get me wrong; the Eternals add to the intricate and engaging aspects of Marvel’s universe, but aside from a few mini-series, the almost two-year long Thor crossover (Roy Thomas and Mark Gruenwald’s “Celestial Saga), and Neil Gaiman and John Romita Jr.’s seven issue examination of the characters from 2006, not many comics, let alone films, have been dedicated to the group.
The Eternals have always acted as supporting characters (and to further establish the idea of the Celestials as one of the most powerful (and influential) forces in the comics) so, it was a surprise to many fans of the comics that Kevin Feige and Marvel Studios decided to elevate them to Hollywood status.
Director Chloe Zhao’s was tasked with an almost impossible task of fitting over a dozen new characters into the fabric of the MCU and telling a coherent, inclusive story. The results are mixed (as you may have heard), but the fact that Eternals compresses historical flashbacks, the hidden cosmic history of the Marvel Universe, and all of the unique characters into just over two and half hours is an accomplishment.
Zhao’s visuals are engaging, colorful, and different from what we have seen previously in the Marvel catalog, and the film does have the stamp of the director’s vision, which smashes up against the need to tell a story that is going to fuel (we can imagine) future entries in the next stage of Marvel movies. Much has been discussed about the “cookie-cutter” approach to the Marvel films, and this one diverges, but perhaps not in the ways that viewers expect, with the potential to alienate naysayers and pundits alike.
Zhao juggles way too many characters for one film, and yet she is able to get performances from the most diverse cast of characters ever seen in a Marvel film, allowing their personalities, rather than just their powers, to set them apart. As players are taken off the board throughout the film (and the numerous flashback sequences end), the narrative becomes tighter and the story improves as viewers have less brand new characters to keep track of and a more direct, immediate plot line to follow.
Speaking of the narrative, the third act of the film gets very serious for a Marvel film, which results in the most engaging portion of the Eternals, with high stakes superhero battles, but even more interesting comments about ideology and the nature of heroism and personal identity.
Eternals ends in a satisfying fashion in terms of the Zhao’s story, but not in the way that most modern hero stories (especially superhero stories) conclude. As the characters from Eternals are integrated into the MCU, people may look at the film differently in a few years, giving an ambitious, if uneven film a chance to stand on its own two feet.