By David T. Valentin
Eternals may have released in theatres just yesterday but it’s already a global hit, despite reviews being purposely bombed by homophobic fans complaining of “wokeness” in their movies. To put it simply: Eternals goes big on scope, stakes and worldbuilding while beautifully and masterfully still keeping us grounded and contained in the stories and emotions of the characters, balancing the story to feel both character driven and plot driven at the same time.
Eternals tells the tale of the children of Arishem the celestial the eternals and there goal to rid the planet of their savage siblings, the deviants. They are gods among men, roaming the earth with power not yet fully comprehended. And yet, despite being there through the years, they cannot interfere no matter how messy human history gets. Eventually we reach the present day where Ikaris, Sersi, Druig, Gilgamesh, Kingo, Ajak, Makkari, Faustus and Thena discover a dark secret about their origins and an evil looming inside the earth.
At first first glance looking at the summary of the film, the whole thing might sound over ambitious. You know, with the whole cosmic horror monster vibe lurking in the background, creating and building the tension right until the very end. But Eternals takes there relatively small cast of gods and puts them in small situations throughout history that teach them about their own kind of humanity, in relationship to themselves, to each other and to humanity.
I think though what really pulled together the movie was the motion and dedication to character driven story. Each and every eternal had a chance to shine as the eternals group up again to save the world. Each moment gives us a glimpse into what they find when they departed from one another thousands of years ago, a glimpse of the love they’ve learned by spending their time here on earth.
Even more so, the characters were all the best versions of themselves and not just cheap shadows of superhero tropes that never seem to get fleshed out. The noble, strong leader doesn’t get chosen to lead next in line; the compassion and love shown by the leading woman Sersi is not a lesson that emotions are weak and useless; the big, chubby guy isn’t made out to be a fat joke or a mean brute but instead he’s a cuddly, in-touch-with-his-emotions kind of guy who’s just trying to bring out the good in everyone; the brooding teen learns compassion; the mentally ill woman isn’t shown as a hindrance to her team, but someone who just needs a little more help in life; and the queer character is not given the role as the sufferer but the one who exemplifies the best in a chosen, familial bond.
It was refreshing to see Faustus, the queer character, as an exemplification of the best parts in a chosen family and not used as some cheap gimmick to show an emotionally distraught mess who’s living in the streets (which happens often in stories as queer characters are rejected by their family and thrown out to the streets). I would go so far as to argue it is Faustus’ connection to his chosen family—his husband and son—that finally make the eternals realize of their own humanity that they found within themselves throughout the centuries. And it is that lesson in humanity from Faustus that allows the eternals to see their own familial bonds which I think is the heart of the film.
One form of representation I did not think I would see in the movie was a positive representation on the mentally ill powerful superhero trope. You know, the one that usually gives in to stereotypes of women being overly emotional and irrational? Well, not with Thena. Throughout the movie she struggles to keep herself in the present moment as she keeps on slipping into reliving her dark past. Her illness, what the eternals call “Mahd Wy’yr” a disease that has her lash out and attack those around her, is never seen as a burden to the eternals. Even when their leader Ajak tells them the only way to help her is to wipe her memory, they refuse. Eventually Gilgamesh steps up to take care of her. The moments between the two are tender and sweet, never one of abuse and anger.
Each scene always looks to really express Thena’s suffering while never playing her as the bad one in the situation. And even as we see Thena and Gilgamesh’s friendship blossom throughout the film, Gilgamesh’s care is never out of a need to seek Thena as a romantic partner, or is an act of an ulterior motive to get with her, but as genuine, unconditional love to help a friend in need and who is still deserving of the best despite her PTSD. In all honestly, it almost made me cry more than seeing Marvel’s first ever onscreen queer kiss.
It is not only through Gilgamesh’s kindness and genuine love towards Thena where we get our critique of masculinity but also through Sersi’s very respectful boyfriend, Dane Whitman (played by the handsome Kit Harrington), Druig’s genuine and playful love for Makkari, Kal’s platonic love for his manager/assistant. Even Ikaris himself is a critique on men’s inability to express and communicate emotions effectively due to the expectations placed on them to be rational, emotionless leaders with a sense of entitlement to said power, which is subverted when Sersi is chosen to lead the eternals in the present day over Ikaris.
Eternals was also a very good step away from the whole coworker vibe from the Avengers, who for the most part when they’re together are always fighting back Iron Man who seems to make everything about him. It really felt more like an X-men story and a Guardians of the Galaxy team up who both have a very chosen family vibe. And because Eternals was so different from other Marvel films, not just in character dynamics, but also humor, story pacing and a healthy dose of worldbuilding, the result is a film that’s a refreshing and a much needed change in direction after the last decade of Marvel films that might possibly be one of Marvels best films; if not the best and certainly my favorite. It’s certainly a step in the right direction. Now, after Shang Chi, Eternals, and Marvel shows like WandaVision, Falcon and the Winter soldier, and Loki I really feel like we’re moving in a much different and much needed direction for Marvel films, one that doesn’t seem to copy the lighthearted and humorous tones from film to film, regardless of how serious a situation might be.
As Arishem the celestial explains to Sersi that all physical energy within the universe is cyclical—a cycle of creation and destruction—so to do we come to learn that love is an energy that goes through the same cycles; a love that takes form in our loved ones and their actions, but don’t die. Instead, that love, that energy lives within us and it is our job to carry that on as best we can. Eternals is a lesson in humanity, one that I think you’re taught time and time again in your lifetime, and yet every time it always comes when it’s needed.