As the MCU expands beyond the familiar properties of the early 2000s to find new stories to tell, it is continually faced with the challenge of introducing new characters. Sure, you can always tell another origin story: bite a teenager with a radioactive spider, launch an arrogant doctor into a catastrophic car accident, or inject a scrawny guy from Brooklyn with a magical serum. But sometimes you need to introduce a group of characters who have been around all along – not just since the beginning of the MCU but since the beginning of time. And it’s really important for Marvel to get this right, because they are going to explain where these characters got their powers and where they have been while the events of the first three phases were going on.
The elevator pitch for “The Eternals” is actually pretty straightforward. Super-powered aliens protect humans from monsters, until they learn that succeeding in their mission will doom the entire world. The Eternals were created by a Celestial called Arishem for the purpose of fighting monsters called “deviants” on Earth, and much of the film is spent going back and forth between the present and the past. After all, the Eternals arrived at the dawn of human civilization, so we have several thousand years of history to speed compress into one movie. At first the Eternals spent most of their time hunting deviants and only marginally involved themselves in human affairs. They didn’t speed up technological advancements too much, didn’t stop humans from killing each other, and didn’t invent rock ‘n roll before its time.
But that whole “not stopping the humans from killing each other” became a sticking point. Believing the Deviants to be gone, an Eternal named Druig with mind-control powers tried to intervene to stop the sacking of Tenochtitlan. This combined with Thena apparently contracting Eternals-rabies (it has another name but this is basically what it is) leads Ajak, the groups leader, to disband the Eternals. She sends them out to live their own lives among the humans. Sersi spends most of her time with
Robb Stark Ikaris, whom she married in 400 AD, until he abruptly left her in the early twentieth century. In the present she mostly hangs out with the childlike Sprite and flirts with her boyfriend, Jon Snow Dane Whitman.
In the present, things have gone off the rails. New, more powerful deviants have emerged with the ability to absorb the Eternals’ powers. Ajak is found murdered and the task of reuniting and leading the Eternals falls to Sersi. Eventually they learn the truth – The Earth is basically a giant egg for a new Celestial, who will absorb the life force of the growing population, burst through the planet, and be born from its destruction. The Eternals were created by Arishem to hunt the deviants, also created by Arishem but corrupted by their ability to evolve. It turns out that the Eternals have done this before, safeguarding other planets until their appointed dooms so that new Celestials could be born from the wreckage, only to have their memories wiped after the fact. This time, however, the Eternals fight back. Ajak decided to fight her orders first, but when Ikaris discovered this he murdered her. The other Eternals band together to defeat Ikaris, stop the Emergence of the new Celestial, and save the world. At the end, Arishem summons a group of the Eternals for judgement while Dane Whitman talks to a sword. Oh, and Harry Styles shows up for some reason.
“The Eternals” suffers from a bit of lore overload. After all, it has thousands of years of human existence to walk us through. The ensemble cast is so big that it is difficult to form attachments to most of the characters, or even to learn all of their names.
Anyone familiar with D&D alignment can understand Ikaris’ plight. He is acting as the classic Lawful Good paladin faced with the choice when Lawful and Good come into conflict with each other. In this case, he has to decide whether to follow his mission or prevent the destruction of the human race. For Arishem, that’s no choice at all. In Arishem’s mind, Celestials are forces of good who use their power to help every sentient race across the universe, therefore bringing a new Celestial into existence is worth the minor sacrifice of one planet’s population. But Arishem is also infinitely far removed from human life, where the Eternals are not. They have grown attached to their charges after thousands of years of protecting them from deviants and helping them develop. Ikaris stays true to the mission and forces the other Eternals into a fight with him.
“Eternals” looks cool. I love the use of real sets instead of green screens (so did Kevin Feige, apparently) and a lot of the fights with deviants are well done. It was just a lot of information to jam into one film, and it feels like it shoehorns a group into the MCU that was supposed to be there the whole time. If there are future installments, hopefully we won’t have to feel like we are spending so much time going back to fill in the gaps and instead we can jump right into the action.