‘Eternals’ relies entirely on the strength of its established relationships – as it should

Eternals, the newest addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, came out last week. Our spoiler-filled review dives into why the MCU depends entirely on our investment in established relationships, and how this movie in particular makes that work with a fresh group of characters.

Everyone watches Marvel films, but of that everyone, I’m never too sure what percentage of people like Marvel films for the same reason I like Marvel films. I might be a bit stuck in 2014 or something, because objectively it’s clear I am not even close to being unique in my sentiments. I know that. For starters, the MCU obviously has serious transformative fandom engagement, which is a surefire sign that people of a common mind care for the same reasons that I do.

But recently, I’m feeling increasingly confident that the people making Marvel films are actually making them with similar priorities as storytellers that I hold as a viewer, rather than it just being me and a couple hundred thousand people on AO3 and Tumblr creating more meaning and value from these movies than they were ever intended to have.

I’m feeling more positive than I expected about what Marvel is doing right now, specifically because its Disney+ series and its recent Phase 4 films have proven to me that the studio does actually understand – I mean, you’d hope so, after a decade of various origin movies and team-ups – why most fans are so loyal and passionate and emotional about the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Sure, there are plenty of brilliant, superior films out there, but as cynical as some might be about the storytelling value of a Marvel movie as opposed to it being a 2 hour advertisement for toys, there’s a lot to get invested in, especially when an actor has put a decade of development into a character. It’s hard to beat that, care-wise.

Too many people, even those who really do enjoy big franchise blockbusters like this, are too happy to divide films up into kind of a set of categories: Films that Matter – things that make you think and feel, that are impactful, maybe difficult; and Films that are for Fun – movies that make your brain smooth for a sheer good time. But to me, these movies matter. Profoundly.

I’m never going to walk into another cinema with the level of investment I already have in these characters. That’s valuable currency. I don’t know about you, but when I watch one of the big climactic Avengers movies, I have come for more than fight scenes and explosions. I’ve come for the character bonds and relationships, some of which have been earned very gradually. I’ve come for a close look at the psychological impacts of the events of prior movies on these well-drawn and beloved characters. In short, the reason I love the MCU is because it is basically a serialised TV show of very long episodes, spaced very far apart, and amidst all the flashy stuff, the character work really seems to matter to everyone involved.

It’s tricky, because unlike a TV show, every Marvel movie does have to exist as a standalone, and does somewhat have to cater to the new viewers who will see it entirely out of context to any other Marvel movie. As the years have gone on, every time a Marvel movie extends trust that the viewers have seen and understood every relevant installment and doesn’t seem to care about accommodating or over-explaining to the casual crowd in certain significant moments, I’ve given a little bit of an internal cheer. I love serialized storytelling more than anything in the world, and I love getting to go to the cinema a few times a year to see the newest “episode” of one of my favorite “shows.”

So every time old mate Kevin Feige makes a choice to truly prioritise character development, quiet moments, and relationships – like how he apparently fought to keep Black Widow’s dinner table scene, where they’re all at Malina’s farm regressing into old parent/child dynamics – I get a little bit happier and a little bit more validated and a little bit more confident in feeling that maybe the angle I approach these movies from is, in fact, the angle that this huge machine of a corporation also cares about the most, or at least, knows the pay-off of pandering to.

I liked Black Widow a lot, precisely and primarily because it depended on how resonant those established relationships were. And Black Widow and Eternals both feel to me like Marvel knows precisely how much the power of the relationships they’ve portrayed matters, more than anything else, when it comes to retaining the investment and trust of their audience, now that many of the original slate of characters we’ve gotten to know and love will no longer be around.

Black Widow unravelled and deepened the history of a beloved character, Natasha, by showing us these other relationships that we never knew about before, and the facets they brought out in her. Because she cared, we cared, and the bonds were immensely impactful – it blew my expectations out of the water, actually, in how rich and familiar this family felt.

With eight decades of comics for inspiration, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is boundless, endless, with so many opportunities to expand upon characters like this and shine light in dark corners, but Eternals sees the studio place their trust in the power of the ties that bind a brand new cast of characters as they tackle an almost stand-alone story that operates on a bigger scope than any MCU movie to date.

Marvel has done a lot of origin stories, but Eternals is the first MCU film in a very long time that has depended so entirely and completely on the strength of its established relationships. It’s over a dozen lead characters that we’ve never met before, not a single one, and the whole thing hinges entirely on their chemistry, their history and their connections to one another.

This Eternals review will contain general spoilers, and then at the end, really big spoilers.

Going into Eternals having no existing attachment to anyone, I will admit that for me, it started a bit slow, but it really gets there. The movie, directed by Chloé Zhao and written by Ryan and Kaz Firpo with Zhao and Patrick Burleigh, does some great work as it explores the dynamics between a 7000-year-old, 10-person family, not to mention the handful of significant human characters who are in the know.

This is a very large cast, and while there are a number of prominent “pairs,” romantic or otherwise, I was pleasantly surprised at how many moments managed to signify an equal yet varied balance between all of the various Eternals, in all sorts of directions. I do actually feel that most, if not all, had their own unique flavor or vibe with every other person in the group – Ajak, Thena, Gilgamesh, Kingo, Phastos, Druig, Makkari, Ikaris, Sersi and Sprite.

Sprite, played by Lia McHugh, instantly captured my attention from her very first second on screen, because in her, we get your classic “I have a child’s body but my psyche is adult and profound and experienced, so I feel constantly messed up over how I have to live” character trope.

This scenario always captivates me in fiction, and has done ever since I considered the prospective mental state of the Pevensies – coming out of Narnia, where they’ve been adult kings and queens for decades, forced back into the bodies of children – but even though Eternals establishes this as an upsetting issue for Sprite almost immediately, I wasn’t sure how far Marvel would want to take it.

Turns out they take it all the damn way. I’m not going to get too sidetracked talking about this, but the 2006 Neil Gaiman run of the comics was the source of lot of the concepts and themes for this iteration of Eternals. including Sprite’s inner turmoil, and although this movie’s main plot is, to my understanding, a new and unique story, they really addressed that Sprite element more than I expected them to, with a fair amount of Gaimanesque psychology, making it one of the fundamental landing points of the film.

Barry Keoghan was fascinatingly unsettling as Druig, the Eternal whose power of mind control feels more like a curse. He’s dark, cynical yet unflinchingly good in a way that touched me deeply – he simmers with fury throughout, raging against the confines placed upon him as he’s prevented from using his powers to stop human conflicts such as the Aztec genocide. “I’ve watched humans destroy each other when I could stop it all in a heartbeat” he says at this point in the film. “Do you know what that does to someone after centuries?”

It’s an astounding performance – almost sinister, yet stoked with such an essence of righteousness and protectiveness and love. Respectful of human autonomy, but unable to bear what their choices have brought upon the world, the present day finds Druig harmoniously controlling a small cult in a remote Amazonian village, a location where a number of the film’s big turning points take place.

The true star, the most central character and our heroine, is Sersi, played by Gemma Chan, and she is so sweet that I just want to eat her up. She’s simply lovely – no other word for it – and it was wonderful to watch this gentle and kind heroine become the leader of the group, a legacy passed onto her by their mother figure, Ajak (Salma Hayak) specifically because of her empathy.

Her powers are badass – she can transform most matter into any other matter of her choosing – and she has some spectacular fight scenes, but there is something about her performance that is striking in a way I’ve never seen in a Marvel film – it’s very quiet, in the best possible way. Not coy, not demure, not unassuming. A little introverted, but certainly not weak or timid or insecure. Just quiet. Chan is subtle and refreshing and aspirational in this movie, and they better give her a sequel, stat. And while we’re at it, one for her boyfriend Dane (Kit Harington) too – but more on him later.

But there are no weak links in this group. I mean, freaking Angelina Jolie and freaking Salma Hayek, I ask you. Through Jolie’s Thena, we learn about the affliction of Mahd Wy’ry, where, Ajak explains, an Eternal’s mind fractures under the weight of their memories – when the group beats the Deviants for what they think is the last time, Thena goes a little uncontrollably crazy, held hostage by her mind, and attacks the others, and Ajak’s comfort of her in what seems like the inevitable impending tragedy of a mindwipe is just a stunning piece of fragile and tender love between these two icons.

Thena is ultimately allowed to keep her memories – though the truth of Mahd Wy’ry gets darker as more is revealed about the Eternals’ purpose. Thena at her most powerful is every bit the ethereal goddess her character inspired, and her struggle with control, while looked over affectionaley by Don Lee’s Gilgamesh, is quite a sensitive allusion to mental illness, specifically PTSD, but it never feels like a Jekyll and Hyde situation. It’s all Thena, the great warrior.

Lee is a powerhouse playing against her as well, and he actually has the one single-beat moment that made me the most emotional in the entire movie – his keening facial expression as grief sets in, when he learns that Ajak is dead. If I ever watch this movie with someone else and they choose that moment to laugh at the fact that he drops his pie, there will be hell to pay.

Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) was an infectiously fun and scene-stealing presence in every scene he takes part in, and via him, we get one of the film’s important human relationships – his valet Karun (Harish Patel), who has worked with him for 50 years, knows the entire truth about his identity, and accompanies him into danger for the rest of the trip. Kingo, who has used the last century to become a Bollywood star, is opinionated and emotionally intelligent, and his friendship with Sprite and friction with Druig are real highlights of the inter-Eternal relationship dynamics, which, in a way, remind me a bit of Sense8 cluster, in terms of the organic cocktail of a familial, sibling-reminiscent environment that also has space for romantic connections as well.

Conversely Phastos, like Sersi, has found love with a normal human man – one who, unlike Dane, seems to know the truth about the Eternals – and he and his husband even have a child, which adds stakes much closer to home for him when it comes to family loyalty and the preservation of humanity. His feelings about this hit all the harder when we see the moment that broke him, and watching Bryan Tyree Henry crumble in the face of what his technological guidance had helped humanity achieve is definitely one of the stand-out moments of the movie. I must reiterate – while watching Eternals, I really kept getting surprised anew by how much they did manage to give to each and every character, in terms of a well-drawn inner life and a point of view to empathise with.

Lauren Ridloff’s Makkari is probably the most under-served, plot-wise, of the group – not least because much of the middle hour of the movie involves a world tour in which the Eternals get the gang back together and she’s the very last of the group to be found – but her cool Flash-like powers, sparkling attitude, and potent chemistry with Keoghan, not to mention the constant incorporation of sign language as standard between the Eternals and the implication of her Deafness as a normal, even necessary, part of her incredibly powerful make-up, make her a stand-out character that I want to see a lot more from the next time we meet this group.

The structure that Zhao crafted helped a lot with many of the questions I had about this movie going in, including: Who are these people? Why are their names so similar to various fantasy and mythology beings? Isn’t Thanos an Eternal? Why didn’t these guys show up before now?

Flashbacks follow the Eternals’ 7000 years on Earth, from the moment they arrived in prehistoric Mesopotamia with the mission protect humans from the Deviants – monsters who prey on intelligent life – through the ways that humanity has remembered them over centuries as figures of myth and legend (particularly the Greeks – Ikaris/Icarus, Thena/Athena, Sersi/Circe, but also Gilgamesh, the super-strong Eternal who in the comics, was the basis of every supernaturally powered human legend, like Hercules, Atlas, Samson and Beowulf) helped along by their very own storyteller, Sprite.

A powerful element is an ongoing return to the subtle assistance they’ve lent humanity to allow them to develop and advance in various ways, particularly guided by Phastos, the craftsman and inventor who inspired lore about the god Hephaestus, though Eternals weirdly gives you a lot of specific and wordy exposition about some things while not giving any about others – like spelling out some of what their individual powers are, that’s more of a show don’t tell situation.

But all in all, it’s a relatively easy climb to the movie’s big picture, and we learn how the Eternals finally got rid of all the Deviants and have split up, many trying to live normal lives for the past 500 years or so, waiting until they’re all called home to Olympia.

It cannot be stated enough how zoomed out the lens is for characters like the Eternals and especially their leaders, the Celestials, compared to anything about the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we know it so far. To hark back to Gaiman again, there is a bit of his Endless to them – not the same sort of role to play, not by any means, but I mean, the names are almost synonymous. This is a group of bigger, older beings than any deity, any power known so far, responsible for influencing the growth and preservation of all forms of intelligent life, ever. For extra context, the movie makes a little quip about remembering Thor as a tiny kid – the Gods of Asgard have nothing on the Eternals in terms of sheer ancient universe-influencing scope.

It’s time for some slightly bigger Eternals spoilers – be cautious, though some of this is in the trailer.

The twist of Eternals relies on this scope, and it’s delivered well, in a way that will reward the rewatch, particularly because it all happens in stages. First of all, you, as the audience, get caught up to speed about why the Eternals are on Earth and what their situation is. Then gradually, after Ajak dies and Sersi – now able to communicate with the god-like Celestial Arishem in Ajak’s place – gains more insight to an even bigger picture truth, you and the rest of the characters experience the dawning realisation, not without some sense of horror and disgust, that their role as influential guardians of humanity over time was meant as a sort of farming of human consciousness.

The Earth is basically a giant egg, waiting to hatch a new cosmic being – a new Celestial – who will go on to create new suns, bringing about more billions of new life forms and new worlds than Earth could ever hold. Celestials only develop the power to hatch from a planet after a prolonged period of drawing energy from the progress of the world’s intelligent life.

This is the Emergence, as seen in the Eternals trailer, and inconveniently, it will obliterate the entire world. Our heroes discover that what they thought they were fighting for is in fact a lie, and they’ve been wiped and reset to forget the part they played in past planetary destruction. Even their memories of growing up in their home world Olympia were lies – it doesn’t exist. They are, as one character describes, kind of like fancy robots.

“We thought we were the good guys. Turns out we’re the bad guys.” This concept is, again, a powerful trope for me, one that doesn’t get old, but what sets Eternals apart is the extra-complicated ethics of it. This isn’t Natasha Romanov realising she’s accidentally been aiding HYDRA via SHIELD. It isn’t even Castiel in season 4 of Supernatural realising that Heaven’s endgame is to bring about the Apocalypse, not stop it.

It’s so much bigger than that, so much more amoral – not immoral, mind you – or perhaps, no, it is a case of moral rights and wrongs, but on a scale that is just so much bigger than any of us could fathom. It’s certainly a scale that the current heroes of the MCU have no clue lurks beneath their understanding of their world, and it makes Thanos’s little snap look like a minor inconvenience.

It’s a true trolley problem scenario regarding the future of sentient life in the universe, and there simply isn’t a right answer. Eternals is yet another outing to what I’ve mentally dubbed the Doctor Who school of thought – you know, “this planet, Earth, is extra special among all the life in the universe” – and watching the characters grapple with this, debate perspectives – Sersi’s “Every time innocent lives have been sacrificed for the greater good, it turns out to be a mistake,” vs Kingo’s “What right do we have to stop the birth of a Celestial and prevent the existence of future billions” – without anyone having nasty or self-serving irons in the fire is truly one of the most interesting things Marvel has done in ages. It’s a true heroic struggle.

And then, after all of that, you get the twist within the twist.

This is the most blatantly spoilery part of the Eternals review, so if you haven’t seen the movie, turn around now. Seriously.

The idea that one of the Eternals was going to turn on the group felt inevitable, but what the movie actually did was shocking, in a way that impressed the hell out of me.

Richard Madden as Ikaris was meant to be Eternals’ biggest star, the strongest, the most powerful, the most righteous. Much was made, going in, of his millennias-old romance with Sersi, before Chan was even cast. When news first broke about Eternals – and I was there in 2019 at their SDCC panel, when the casting was officially announced – this was basically billed as Richard Madden’s movie. He was their Superman. And that’s the role Ikaris does play, for most of the movie, even if Sersi is both our main point of view character and the new chosen leader of the group.

Late in the film, there’s a moment where it becomes clear that Ikaris is going to go against Sersi in terms of trying to save Earth. To her, preserving humanity matters more than the grand cosmic plan. To him, his faith in the Celestials is so strong that he cannot allow anything to stand in the way of the birth of a new Celestial.

But it’s more than just a fork in the road for their beliefs, or a difference of opinion. It’s bigger than that. When the group learned the truth about the Emergence, that makes you rewind and replay the whole film in your mind to incorporate the new context, right back to Ajak getting warned not to let the group get too attached to this planet.

But, horribly, Eternals asks you to replay the movie’s events once again, to newly understand the next level of truth:

Ikaris, via Ajak, has known about the Emergence since around 500 BC. It seems to be why he left Sersi. Worse, Ikaris was the one who killed Ajak, because she, having long carried the curse of knowledge from Arishem, came to the realisation that she wanted the group to stop the Emergence as soon as she knew it was imminent.

Ikaris found some Deviants that were shaken loose from ice when the Emergence first began, let them kill Ajak, and set them loose to distract his family until it was too late to stop the Emergence. The entire period of the present-day film that he’s spent with the group has been a treacherous lie in service of what he still believes to be the greater good. Ajak having known all this time feels like a burden we can empathise with her about. Ikaris… not so much. And then he tries to kill them all in order to stop them from stopping the Emergence.

The thing is, he feels really bad about it. As I mentioned, the ethics of it are incredibly difficult. But we’re obviously meant to root for not letting the world be destroyed, and not betraying your thousand-year wife and entire family, and I honestly think it’s the most irredeemable thing that a Marvel movie has ever allowed a lead character – like, the person presented to the world as the movie’s male lead and biggest hero – to do.

It’s shocking in its magnitude. There is no softening it, and after seeming very sad and sorry and eventually, after lending his power to the Unimind to help Sersi stop the Emergence, Ikaris – like the legend that grew up around him – flies into the sun, presumably killing himself. To my understanding, this is not a comics plot line – there is a story in which the Eternals all commit suicide after learning a similar truth, but the betrayal thing is entirely unique to the movie – and while it felt incredibly right to me, it was also very daring. I simply just would not have expected a Marvel movie to go there.

And the thing is, I was also really grateful to find out that we weren’t meant to be rooting for Ikaris and Sersi, because the whole movie I was definitely rooting for Dane. I wasn’t super aware of Kit Harington getting cast in this film, and once I was, I can’t admit to knowing the wider Marvel comics well enough to have gone in knowing that Dane Whitman’s name means something, that he potentially has his own huge part to play.

The whole movie I was sort of sitting there like “wow, the innocent, seemingly ineffectual human boyfriend is SO much more appealing a character to me than Ikaris, but how can he compete with the 5000-year old star crossed lovers story that I was promised the movie was about?”

I adored his characterisation, honestly – I felt immediately curious about his spin on Sersi’s life as he knows it, like the fact that she lives with a precocious 12 year old, and his suspicions that she may be a wizard like Doctor Strange. He may seem like a normal guy, but he lives in a world with established fantastical elements, like superheroes and aliens and the Blip, and the way he takes the news about Sersi’s real truth is incredibly balanced and incredibly attractive.

I might be a bit biased, but no one in their right mind would take Robb Stark over Jon Snow, but I was so truly charmed by Dane that I felt immense relief to see Sersi go back to him. I’d been braced for the whole Cosmic Consuming Love thing with Ikaris to leave him in the dust, and learning that Dane has an important history of his own that is yet to come into play was a real unexpected treat. Sersi keeps in touch with him throughout the present day adventures, she doesn’t romantically reconnect with Ikaris before his betrayal kills any chance that she might have been swayed back to him, and she reunites with Dane at the end, where he’s ready to reveal a secret of his own to her – see the end credits for more details.

But back to Ikaris. I also think there’s a high likelihood that he isn’t actually going to be permanently dead, but – and I’m not saying this because I hated him or anything, I don’t – if he is, I’m okay with it, because quite simply, it’s a really strong story. I just found it so interesting that this movie really pushed boundaries in this way.

One thing I’ve always loved about Marvel Comics is their capacity for shades of grey. The characters that make up the various iterations of the Avengers tend to lean heroic, in the traditional sense – though still with plenty of interesting nuance there. They are proper superheroes, and the MCU has kept itself quite safe and shiny in that department. But stories about groups like the Inhumans, Thunderbolts, even much of the drama of the X-Men, lives in a much murkier and more complicated place, and I am absolutely thrilled to see the MCU taking bold strides in that direction with Eternals. If this is the kind of stuff they’re willing to do, it’s going to make for much more interesting, unpredictable, complicated stories in the future. I really hope they continue to fly this close to the sun.