“In the beginning…”: Marvel’s Eternals presents a new creation myth

Sersi (Gemma Chan) in Marvel Studios' ETERNALS. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

In the beginning. . .

These words are the first in the Christian Bible, the Jewish Torah, and now, the cultural juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

These words are what open Eternals, the 26th film in the MCU canon, and its most explicitly religious one so far. In contrast to the previous Phase 4 films Black Widow (which focused on telling a missing chapter in the life of the premiere female superhero’s history) or Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (an entertaining origin for a new hero with a diverse cast and some of the MCU’s best action . . . and worst CGI), Eternals is instead focused on crafting an epic narrative in the most classic sense of the word. Spanning multiple millennia and introducing nearly a dozen new heroes and villains, the latest entry in the MCU is the most expansive so far. To tackle this, Marvel have brought on Academy Award Winning Director Chloé Zhao, who recently won both the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars for her work on indie drama Nomadland.

It’s also the most polarising MCU film so far. According to Rotten Tomatoes, only 48% of critics have reviewed the film positively (the lowest of any MCU film), with criticisms aimed at what they describe as a convoluted ‘lifeless’ plot, thin characters, and the tension between the more experimental aspects of the film and its reliance on the traditional MCU structure. Conversely, over 80% of fans on the site have viewed the film positively—with some arguing that the film is only being negatively reviewed because of its diverse cast (the film features amongst its heroes, the first openly gay MCU hero, a deaf speedster, and women and men of various genders and ethnicities).

With opinions being so mixed, many may be curious whether this is the MCU’s first flop. Initial box office indicates that’s unlikely, but many questions remain—including two which may lodge in the curious viewer’s head: is it any good, and what is it trying to say?

The answers to these questions are ultimately subjective, but I think there is plenty to discuss in regard to both of them. But before we dive in, there’s one other question we must answer

Who are the Eternals?

Marvel’s Eternals is based on The Eternals, a comic created by famous artist Jack Kirby. Kirby was inspired by the 1968 pseudoscientific book Chariot of the Gods which posits that extra-terrestrial beings or ancient aliens have influenced the development of human technology and history. Translating these ideas into the Marvel universe yielded the Eternals—immortal beings sent to earth by the Celestials (creators of the universe) to protect humanity from the threat of the Deviants, apex predators who would wipe civilization out. These Eternals, in their consistent attempts to protect humanity but not meddle in human affairs, have become the basis for many myths and religions throughout human history. This can be seen in their names. Ikaris (played in the film by glowering heart-throb Richard Madden), for example, was the progenitor of the story of Icarus. Thena (Angelina Jolie) is the inspiration for Athena, ancient goddess of war, and Gilgamesh (Don Lee, also known as Ma Dong-Seok) is the real hero on which the mythical story is based.

Over the years, the story of the Eternals has changed and evolved with new wrinkles being added over time (the current comic written by Keiron Gillen, for example, aims to break down the barriers between the Eternals and Deviants in an interesting new status quo)—but this basic premise is what is adapted for this film. The Eternals, lead by Prime Eternal Ajak (Salma Hayek) are sent to Earth by Arishem the Judge (David Kaye), leader of the ancient race of cosmic gods known as Celestials. Their mission is to protect humanity from the Deviants. After seemingly defeating them, the Eternals integrate into humanity and live amongst us for hundreds of years. It is only after the long-thought-dead Deviants attack the Eternals Sersi (Gemma Chan) and Sprite (Lia McHugh) in the present day alongside Sersi’s human boyfriend Dane Whitman (Kit Harington) that they realise their mission may not be as complete as they had thought, and the Marvel film really kicks off.

Is it any good?

Fans of Marvel Studios may be relieved to find that much of what they appreciate about the long running franchise is present in Eternals, though whether that is enough to satisfy them may differ from person to person.

The film features multiple extravagant fights between the Eternals and their foes which are likely to appeal to those looking for some entertaining action—some standout sequences come thanks to the energetic speedster Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) and mind-controlling Druig (Barry Keoghan). For those looking for humour, Kumail Nanjiani’s Eternal turned Bollywood star Kingo and his assistant Karun (Harish Patel) will provide some of the film’s funniest moments. And if you’re interested in the ongoing story or direction of the franchise, Eternals promises to set up multiple interesting future conflicts—and that’s not even including the post credits scenes.

(L-R): Karun (Harish Patel), Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), Sprite (Lia McHugh), Sersi (Gemma Chan), Ikaris (Richard Madden), Thena (Angelina Jolie), Gilgamesh (Don Lee) in Marvel Studios’ ETERNALS. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

So for those worried, Eternals is still very much in the vein of the Marvel movies that came before. But perhaps part of the reason the film had a more tepid reaction is the times that the film attempts to extend itself beyond the Marvel formula, with decidedly mixed results.

On the more successful side is the directorial flair. Zhao, alongside cinematographer Ben Davis bring some beautiful imagery to the screen that helps differentiate the film from its MCU counterparts. While the film never captures the colourful pop art imagery of the Eternals comics, multiple scenes in a variety of time periods and natural environments allow Zhao to bring some of her indie sensibilities to the franchise. As a reviewer for Den of Geek notes, Eternals does not look or feel like the MCU films which came before it.

More mixed however, is the increased focus on nearly a dozen main characters and a lot of weighty themes. It’s undeniably a plus to see an MCU film shift gears to focus more on these aspects than the action, but its unfortunately one of the more wobbly aspects of the film. Eternals is a chock full diverse cast of new characters, and while many of the actors are doing a great job of selling the script, the latter itself struggles to give time to all of them in the way they deserve. While there are some nice character moments and arcs, they are hampered by multiple expository scenes and a conflict which the characters are thrust into before the audience establishes strong connections to any of them.

Eternals is a decidedly mixed bag. That bag however, is mixed in ways which are more interesting than any of the previous MCU films and promise an interesting future that makes it easy to recommend—should the franchise commit to it. But to discuss this, and the philosophy behind it, we need to dive into spoiler territory.

Warning: Full spoilers for the ending of Eternals from this point on.

What is Eternals saying?

At the heart of Eternals is a moral paradox which questions the very purpose of humanity. The mission given to the Eternals by their god, Arishem, is not what they thought it was. They are not protecting humanity to preserve them—humanity is only being protected as they are necessary for the growth of a new celestial—Tiamut—who lives in the centre of Earth and will destroy the planet when they awaken. Humankind is nothing more than fuel for the creation of another being, and the Eternals are the grunts who help cultivate the process which will lead to the demise of humanity. The dilemma that the Eternals face is whether to sacrifice humanity to bring about the birth of a new god, or break from their destiny and purpose as established by their god Arishem and defend the race they have come to empathise with. The team is split on the matter, though ultimately they end up choosing to protect humanity and prevent Tiamut’s emergence (unsurprising considering the majority of the MCU does take place on Earth).

This dilemma echoes some of the philosophical arguments raised in other recent Marvel projects which tackled questions of free will, purpose and destiny. Much like in Loki, the Eternals are confronted with the fact that their perceived purpose differs from the plans assigned to them by greater powers. Ikaris ultimately makes for one of the more compelling MCU villains due to his relatable motivation—he does not want to hurt his family, but he is fanatically devoted to the purpose given to him by Arishem, secretly masterminding Ajak’s death in order to make the emergence come to pass. Others like Druig and Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) challenge this purpose, choosing instead to prevent suffering where they can—even if it diverges from their assigned mission.

Ikaris (Richard Madden) in Marvel Studios’ ETERNALS. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

Many religions aim to explain the disconnect between the complicated reality we face and our intended purpose. While Druig and Phastos lament the pain humans inflict on each other, philosophers and theologians alike look for answers as to why this may happen. The Bible, for example, notes that this is a deviation from the original purpose for humanity—it is the result of mankind straying from the plans of their creator God. The evil actions we see in our lives are not natural and not just—indeed, God will ultimately bring about justice and restore the world to its intended, perfect form where we need not worry about these things.

That highlights some of the other more interesting spiritual aspects of the film. Throughout Eternals, various characters call Arishem god. It’s a fitting descriptor in the narrative; he is the creator of the Eternals and countless worlds including Earth. He and his kind are the ones who give many races and beings their purpose.

He is also an uncaring, impersonal deity. Until the climax of the film, Arishem only communicates with the leader of the Eternals, and only to convey information critical to their mission. He does not give a second thought the lives of humanity—they are merely a tool used in the creation of more Celestials. While the cycles he perpetuates are claimed to be in the greater good, Arishem is the type of deity who will not explain themselves to their creations.

In this way, it might be argued that the purpose of humanity put forward by the villains in the film is even more cynical than the perspective of those in the real world who do not believe in a higher power. While atheists believe that there is no greater reason for life to exist, that does not mean they believe that our individual lives do not have a purpose. Indeed many atheists argue that this merely allows us to create our own reasons for being—often centered around community and helping one another.

imageEternals seems to align itself with this self-deterministic ideology. In the end, the heroes reject their designated roles and choose their own ones. Where it differs from the atheistic philosophy is in the direction it takes to reach this. Unlike those who believe that life is the result of random chance, in Zhao’s film there is a reason for humanity to exist—it is just one entirely unconcerned with the feelings, actions or interactions of humanity itself and deserves to be rejected.

And indeed, the film ends up rejecting Arishem’s philosophy towards humanity. In doing so it arrives at the same ideology espoused by more humanistic and atheistic theologies (literalised in some ways by the heroes killing a being from the same race as their god at the climax). Ultimately Eternals believes that our intended purpose is not important—what is important is what we choose to do. And it is true that we should be putting the needs of others before ourselves, and helping them where we can.

What’s interesting is that this does not need be in conflict with faith like it is in the film. Our purpose for being does not always conflict with what we choose to do with our actions. As I mentioned earlier, the Bible tells us that straying from the will of our creator is the cause of conflict and strife. The flipside of this is that in aligning with his intended purpose, we can be a force for good with our actions—following our purpose can make the world a better place. Out of all the instructions given to humanity, the Bible tells us that the most important is to love God, and love our neighbours as we have loved ourselves (Matthew 22:37-39). In another verse, Jesus provides a commandment “love each other just as I have loved you” (John 15:12). In this way we can see that the purpose we have been given is one which does not tolerate or propagate pain—it works to minimise it. In contrast to the Marvel universe, where the creators do not care about if people are hurting, the Creator of our world takes a personal interest in all of us and our pain. “For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord. Plans to prosper and not to harm you. . .” (Jeremiah 29:11)

Eternals does not truly resolve this moral quandary. Like Loki before it, the film ends on a cliffhanger which promises the resolution to this conflict in another, upcoming release. Will the Celestial Arishem judge the rebellion of the remaining Eternals to save Earth as just, or will he decide to destroy the earth himself once he has examined the Eternals’ memories? If the franchise is anything to go by, I suspect the former is more likely, but as is true of many MCU products, it’s something which will be resolved in a future show or film. Even beyond the main conflict, the end credits scenes are already focused on setting up the next big thing (what was Harry Styles doing there?). In contrast, the Bible tells us that the conflict which we find ourselves in is already resolved. Good will triumph over evil and all will be restored to its original purpose. “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:4). The only thing that’s in doubt is what we choose: to ignore the truth of the Bible or to examine it more.

Want something more? Get in touch with our team with your questions or requests and we’ll do our best to help you.

Ryan Stanton is a PhD student at The University of Sydney. While he’s currently studying digital cultures, he very nearly did his honours thesis on the ways that big blockbusters adapt and influence classic comic book series. His favourite superheroes are Spider-Man, Loki and Green Lantern, though he does also recommend the current Eternals comic book series.

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