This feature contains spoilers for Marvel’s Eternals.
Eternals is now streaming on Disney+, and many people who missed seeing it on the big screen are finally getting a chance to check out what they might have heard is a rare misstep from Marvel Studios in the comfort of their own home. Meanwhile, others are wondering if Eternals is worth revisiting at all after struggling with it the first time.
I fall into a different category. I found Eternals pretty enjoyable and a welcome departure from your standard MCU installment, but was looking forward to seeing it again because I had a feeling that some of the film’s problems might be reduced after I’d had time to sit with its secrets, and I did indeed find that to be the case. Mostly.
There are things that still feel lackluster about Eternals and that probably won’t age as well as the contemplative beings at the center of this story, but Eternals still plays a lot better when you’ve received some key answers about the plot that were initially kept guarded. Many of the choices made both by director Chloé Zhao, her writing team of Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo, and Kaz Firpo, and those made by the characters themselves, are much easier to digest the second time around.
Running On Empty
The revelation that the Eternals are synthetic beings designed for a singular purpose is a key factor in this. They are just a means to an end; a quick revision of the Celestial plan to rid planets of apex predators using the savage Deviants. Trotted out by the powerful Celestial Arishem to eliminate the Deviants so that intelligent life can prosper and fuel the planet with enough energy to birth a new Celestial.
For centuries-old beings who have come to regard themselves as godlike proto-superheroes, that sudden info dump has gotta sting, but none of us find out this information until an hour into the movie, and we still feel unsure about Arishem’s motivations in revealing it.
The Eternals are like humanoid Roombas who only finally become aware of their purpose as their Earthbound expiration date approaches. They have been given facets of what we might call the human soul, and those facets slowly expand as they receive more input, but essentially the Eternals have just one job to complete for their Celestial boss Arishem: vacuuming up Deviants.
After cleaning up what they think is the last of the Deviants in 1521, the synthetic Eternals have nothing left to do but bumble about aimlessly, bumping into existential walls until they get further orders from Arishem via their retired leader Ajak (Salma Hayek). Our core ten characters set about trying to find their place in a Deviant-free world where they’ve been ordered not to intervene in humanity’s endless nonsense.
They adopt the human traits they find most endearing or valuable over time. Sersi (Gemma Chan) embraces her preoccupation with beauty and history, Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) discovers small pleasures in feeding his ego, the charming Druig (Barry Keoghan) finds methods of control much more soothing, and weapons and technology inventor Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) has decided to concentrate on family matters.
The essence of these synthetic beings is also explored in Eternals elsewhere, as “wear and tear” is intrinsic to Thena’s character. Suffering from a psychological condition called Mahd Wy’ry, which is basically another way of saying her memory card is corrupted, Thena (Angelina Jolie) needs to be wiped and reformatted. But her mind still contains memories from a few of the other planets that the Eternals have inhabited in addition to memories of her time on Earth. Those have all become far too precious for Thena to simply discard, but to continue to access them she must accept that a factory reset is off the table.
Ostensibly, the extended time we spend with these strange beings until they truly question whether they can break their programming and thus avoid a new Celestial hitting execute lets us experience the boredom of immortality, those questions of purpose that we are all burdened with, and the humdrum existence of waiting for a cycle to end when you don’t know if there even is an end. But because neither we nor the Eternals know how weird and messed up their whole deal is until so late in the game, their journey to personal and group agency doesn’t really feel that engaging until we revisit the story a second time.
Some of the unnatural dialogue and decision-making in Eternals is also easier to parse when you know that these are synthetic beings we’re dealing with. When Kit Harington’s Dane Whitman questions why Sersi and the Eternals didn’t intervene in Thanos’ Snap, she replies that they were ordered not to. As a human, Dane is puzzled, but the Eternals’ non-action more fully checks out when you understand what they were built and programmed for.
The casting of Bodyguard star Richard Madden as Ikaris may have seemed like an odd choice given his stoic performances in other projects, but for a superman who isn’t a man at all, he’s pretty perfect. Ikaris is the movie’s villain in as much as there is a “villain” in the circle of life, and we understand how much he has sacrificed to commit to it.
Ikaris’ decision to blow off his long romance with Sersi, kill Ajak, and play a key role in seeing the Eternals’ mission through to the bitter end also makes sense when you understand he’s just more aligned with his task than the others, who have begun to imagine themselves as champions of humanity. When he fails to complete his assignment, Ikaris chooses to self-destruct and accept oblivion rather than carry on being Arishem’s least appreciated Deviant-cleaning machine. Even his joke about leading the Avengers becomes wildly wry on second viewing: it’s funny because he’s probably the last one you could count on to defend the Earth from any new threats.
Kingo’s decision to peace out of the Eternals’ final confrontation also remains compelling. We warm to him the most because he is cavalier and sarcastic, so it really hits home when he decides that he no longer wants any part in either Arishem’s plan or the Eternals’ rebellion. A second viewing of Eternals, knowing that Kingo is going to be the one to walk away, inspires some pretty interesting reflection on what it means to be an entertainer who isn’t programmed to be entertained.
It’s a Vampire Movie
And not just because the voice of our new Blade pops up in the post-credits scene! Though the sound of Mahershala Ali’s dulcet tones following the conclusion of Eternals makes a lot of sense in the context of Dane Whitman’s Black Knight future, and though the filmmakers have been honest about how many different characters they considered dropping in there, a quasi-cameo from Marvel’s new Daywalker feels like kismet in the context of the film’s themes.
Despite the Eternals being positioned as “Gods amongst men,” our own pop culture point of reference for immortal creatures who watch from the shadows throughout history with little purpose other than continue existing tends to be vampires, and Eternals touches on some of the same themes as other popular bloodsucker stories like Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles and Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark, along with more navel-gazing fare like Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive. How do you go about living forever, when forever can be so dull, heartbreaking, and frustrating? This has been exhaustively covered by vampire fiction.
A few of our Eternals are unsure how to best embrace immortality, and they fall into their own appropriate routines during their runtime. Some simply make the best of it, drifting until their time runs out; others try to achieve more. Even as Ikaris disconnects from humanity, Kingo uses his time to find fame in the vein of Rice’s Lestat de Lioncourt. Meanwhile, Druig becomes an exile overseeing a secret society he can manipulate.
Perhaps the most “on the nose” character of the bunch is Sprite (Lia McHugh), who has the physical appearance of a 12-year-old child but who is an old soul stuck in that physical form for what she assumes will be eternity, yearning to finally grow up much like the young Claudia in Interview with the Vampire.
Though our Eternals aren’t feeding off humanity in a literal way (Druig and Kingo’s bullshit is debatable) they have been coded as feeding off humanity culturally, and their memory banks are now chock-full of historic truths. They are in a unique position to be the kind of knowledge-bearers who were actually witness to some of our greatest triumphs and could help us learn from our worst mistakes, but we will never be their equals. Perhaps that’s for the best, as there is still an essential part of a relatable personality missing from their equation.
Let Forever Be
Given Eternals’ mixed reviews and relatively muted (well, by MCU standards) box office, we may never see a traditional sequel on the Marvel Studios slate. There are certainly plenty of ways to explore their journey in the future, but whether there will be an appetite for it remains to be seen.
It’s ironic that after ten major character introductions, an eleventh who only had a sliver of screen time stands the best chance of going on to appear in more MCU projects: Dane Whitman, who could potentially show up in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Moon Knight, Werewolf By Night or Bassam Tariq’s forthcoming Blade reboot.
Despite it looking unlikely, the Eternals are worthy of far more exploration. After Vision entered the MCU in Avengers: Age of Ultron, there seemed to be plenty of room to dive into what it means to be a benign synthetic being in the Marvel universe, and though this has been lightly probed thus far – specifically via Vision’s part in the the Sokovia Accords in Captain America: Civil War and his interactions with White Vision in WandaVision – A.I., robots, and synthezoids have always been a big part of Marvel Comics history and should absolutely form part of this expanding universe just as they have in Star Trek.
The decision to create the Eternals as synthetic beings rebelling against Celestials could even work in favor of future storytelling options since they have such a unique way of viewing the galaxy’s flaws, and could also open up broad, cosmic avenues for introducing major villains like Galactus.
Regardless, if you’ve been on the fence about revisiting Eternals, thank you for taking the time to read this. If you preferred the movie on your second watch, let me know! If you didn’t, feel free to vehemently disagree as usual. Either way, the film will no doubt continue to inspire debate amongst fans as part of the growing MCU in Phase 4 and beyond.
Marvel’s Eternals began streaming on Disney+ on January 12.