Kirby's Flying Ballet
With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps it was always the Eternals who had the most potential to throw a spanner in the works of the mighty Marvel machine. One of the more abstruse debates in the realms of comic book history is the exact nature of the working relationship between Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and who, if anyone, was the dominant creative talent. Both men claimed it was them, one way or another; Lee was a more flamboyant self-publicist by far, and had another quarter-century to put his side of the story after Kirby died in 1994, hence his status as the perceived Prime Mover of the Marvel Universe.
Not that this is necessarily untrue. Working together, the Lee-Kirby partnership produced the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, the X-Men, Daredevil, Black Panther and the Silver Surfer. Lee working with other artists, most notably Steve Ditko, created Spider-Man and Doctor Strange. Kirby working alone, on the other hand… well, he co-created Captain America back in the 1940s, but apart from that – Machine Man, anyone? Devil Dinosaur?
The original Eternals comic-book was the product of Kirby's mid-seventies sojourn with Marvel Comics, something he wrote and pencilled himself. Heavily influenced by (amongst other things) the 'ancient astronaut' books of Swiss hotelier and convicted tax-fraud Erich von Daniken, it was never really supposed to be a part of the larger Marvel universe, being a cosmology separate to itself. It didn't stay that way, of course, but the grafting of the Eternals characters onto the wider continuity has never quite taken: someone has a go at doing something with the Eternals every few years, which is briefly successful, but then they all get quietly forgotten about for a while, until the next revival comes along (one obscure bit of the lore is that, in the comics, Thanos is technically an Eternal; it's not entirely clear if or how the movies are going to deal with this).
Will Chloe Zhao's movie do anything to break this age-old (well, decades-old) cycle? Let us not forget that Zhao has the singular distinction of releasing a Marvel movie in the same year that her previous film (Nomadland – no, still haven't seen it) won Best Picture at the Oscars. (What was that quote about what Fred and Ginger individually brought to their partnership?)
Well, the film gets underway with the first of several big whomps of exposition to the viewer's head – delivered by roller caption, no less. It all boils down to a bunch of almost infinitely powerful aliens called the Celestials sending a slightly less infinitely powerful bunch of aliens called Eternals to Earth, to protect the developing human race from some considerably less infinitely powerful aliens called Deviants. (Lots of blazing cosmic power in the mix here, along with Kirby's gift for rather oddball nomenclature – which the film rather cheekily cocks a few snooks at.)
We get to see the Eternals arriving on Earth in 5000 BCE: there is a nicely understated raid on Kubrick as their black slab of a starship slides toward the planet out of the void of space, followed by some well-staged superhero action in the classic style as they save some primitive humans from marauding, sinewy Deviants. All this stuff in the ancient past with the Eternals introducing humanity to various innovations (agriculture, steam-power, the Mexican accent) takes place in a lyrical-pastoral-mythical mode which I found rather pleasing, to be honest.
Cue a jump forward to the present day, where Eternal Sersi (Gemma Chan), who has vast cosmic powers and never ages but still apparently can't grasp the concept of an alias, is working in London. An immense earthquake is followed by the emergence of a new strain of Deviant (whom the Eternals figured they'd killed off centuries ago, after which they went their separate ways). Her old flame Ikaris (Richard Madden) turns up to help out, and they decide it is time to get the band back together. When it turns out that one of their number has already been slain (the awkward bit of comics lore where Eternals are literally immortal and indestructible has been dispensed with for the film), the scene is set for the revelation of the truth about the Eternals' true nature and that of their mission on Earth…
So, a bit of an outlier as Marvel movies go: so much so that you can almost imagine Eternals working better as a standalone film with no ties to the rest of the franchise (in line with Jack Kirby's original concept). The links that do make it in feel more than usually contrived; Marvel seem to feel obliged to cram obscure characters into each new film at this point, to say nothing of a voice cameo by… ah, I shouldn't spoil it. (There are also a couple of references to DC Comics characters, who are apparently part of pop culture in the Marvel world. One wonders if the DC movie adaptations are any better over there.)
On the other hand, the fact the Eternals are such an obscure property – I could only have told you the names of a couple of these guys – means that the Progressive Agenda Committee have been very free to come in and give them a proper seeing to, retaining the names and (to some extent) power sets of the characters but changing ethnicities, genders, and almost everything else, regardless of Kirby's original conception or indeed whether it even makes sense on the film's own terms. But then this is the nature of modern culture, as is the appearance of a disagreeable trope, the nature of which would be another spoiler.
There are still a whole bunch of Eternals, though, which means many of them inevitably spend a lot of time in the crowd scenes just standing around in the background – one main character is completely absent throughout the climax and I honestly didn't notice he wasn't involved. Who manages to cut through? Well, Madden does okay as Ikaris, as does Salma Hayek as the matriarch Ajak; Angelina Jolie undeniably makes an impression in a rather secondary role as mentally-fragile war-goddess Thena. There's an interesting role for Kumail Nanjiani as an Eternal who's become a Bollywood star – however, as ostensible lead Sersi, Gemma Chan is amiable but essentially affectless.
And the result is… well, the film certainly has scope and a sort of visual majesty about it, even if some of its ruminations on the nature of belief and free will and destiny aren't anything like as profound as the film-makers were probably hoping for. It's all a bit like a galleon under full sail: deeply impressive and beautiful to look upon, and maybe even rather stirring, but at the same time hardly agile and not exactly what you'd call sparky fun, either. (Some might say this gives it the authentic feel of one of Jack Kirby's solo projects.) It may well be that this is the best adaptation of Eternals one could realistically hope for, but at the time of writing this is the worst-reviewed film in Marvel Studios' history ('the script is a load of hooey' is the considered opinion of one writer on a major British paper), and while I wouldn't necessarily agree with that, it's hard to think of another film in the Marvel meta-franchise which is less obviously a crowd-pleaser.
That said, a healthy crowd turned out for the first showing at my local multiplex (what can I say, I needed to get out of the house to avoid the cleaners), and the two evening showings that day were close to selling out, so it would be foolish to declare Eternals to be the death-knell of the whole Marvel project. But this will be a considerable test of the brand's ability to retain an audience, I suspect. Future plot developments may prove otherwise, but for now this looks like the least essential Marvel movie in ages.