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Paul Asay

Movie Review

Well, the Bible got the In the Beginning part right.

But according to this story, Earth (and pert near every other planet) was the work of massive alien beings known as the Celestials. Alas, the planetary crust had barely cooled before their creations were soured by nefarious deep-space creatures dubbed Deviants. Those Deviants were a ravenous bunch—so nasty and (for the most part) toothy that they threatened to devour everything the Celestials had created.

The Celestials were too busy floating in the void of space to take direct action. So clearly, some galactic police were needed to safeguard creation. So the Celestials made the Eternals—mega-powered beings with your typical super array of physics-bending talents—to protect their precious planets and fight the Deviants. And those Eternals were a speicalized bunch, given strict instructions to not muck around in planetary affairs unless a Deviant was involved.

But here’s the thing: If you’re an Eternal, you’re eventually going to run out of Deviants to fight.

That’s what happened on Earth. The planet’s collection of Eternals had done a super-great job battling their natural foes. They ignored wars and famines and all manner of woes to exterminate the planet’s Deviants. By around the year 1500 or so, there were no Deviants left.

And then things got a little depressing. A couple of Eternals wondered why, with so much time on their hands (being eternal and all), they couldn’t help the planet in other ways. One or two openly questioned their leader, Ajak. And since YouTube hadn’t been invented yet, the Eternals began to bicker a bit over how to keep themselves busy.

Ajak told them—nicely—to just take off. Their jobs were done. Why not spend a few centuries living normal lives? And so they went their own ways, each to live as he or she thought was best.

Sersi, the crew’s expert matter manipulator, wound up in London, living in a flat with fellow Eternal (and eternal 11-year-old) Sprite (because London flats are apparently that expensive). She snagged herself a boyfriend—a fellow named Dane Whitman—who had no clue that she was almost certain to outlive him. She lectured at the Natural History Museum and diddled on her phone. She looked at her life and thought, Yes, it was good.

But no one told the Earth-bound Deviants that they were supposed to be extinct.

One lovely London evening, Sersi and Sprite spot a couple of Deviants wreaking havoc on a city street and with a hankering for a little Eternal gumbo. The two fight the things, but the battle could’ve gotten out of hand had not another Eternal—Ikarus—literally flown into town at that very moment. As the strongest Eternal, Ikarus completes the Deviant beatdown and says hello to Sersi and Sprite, whom he’d not seen for 500 years or so.

But clearly, these Eternals have more on their plates than uncomfortable reunions. Where did those Deviants come from, anyway?

No, it was not good. Not good at all.

Positive Elements

The Eternals sometimes call themselves a “family,” and they do seem (for the most part) to care for one another.

And there’s no better illustration of that connection than the relationship between Gilgamesh and Thena. Both are strong warriors. But, alas, Thena is apparently going crazy—which makes her pretty dangerous. It’s something (leader Ajak tells us) that happens to many Eternals after a while. The only way to cure it is to wipe Thena’s cerebral hard drive and start fresh. But Thena doesn’t want to forget, and Ajak promises to take care of her—which he does for centuries.

Thena also says one of the movie’s more poignant lines: “When you love something, you protect it,” she says—thinking perhaps of Gilgamesh’s protective care, but also of the Eternals’ centuries of work. “It’s the most natural thing in the world.”

Turns out, to protect Earth—something that most of the Eternals have come to love—will require untold, and unexpected, sacrifices. And many of these super beings are willing to make them.

Spiritual Elements

We could spend the rest of the review unpacking Eternals’ incredibly messy spirituality. And caution: There will be some possible spoilers in this section.

The movie is telling its own myths and weaving, if you will, its own religion—one that contains elements of ancient pagan beliefs and Eastern philosophy, but that still is very much its own thing. And if we try to overlay Christianity on top of the creation/destruction myths of Eternals to see if we can find some sort of Christian meaning in it all, we’re in for some disappointment.

If we make the Celestials (especially the Celestial Prime, Arishem) analogous to God, that would make the Eternals their angels, and rebellious ones at that: Turns out, what Arishem and many of the Eternals differ on what is the right thing to do, cosmically speaking. Now, Christians know what became of angels that rebelled against their Creator … and it wasn’t good.

But perhaps the movie’s Celestials aren’t worthy of obedience. We go back to Thena’s statement that we should protect the things we love. Without getting into the details, the Celestials aren’t really about protecting their creations: Rather, those creations are a means to an end. That’s very out of character with the God that we know.

The Eternals, then, are probably more analogous to Prometheus—a Grecian god/hero that gave the gift of fire to humanity against the gods’ wishes—than Lucifer.

Eternals takes plenty of cues from Classic paganism and ancient myth. Gilgamesh takes his name from an ancient Sumerian hero. Sersi, Ikarus and Thena all stem from Greek gods and heroes, and Thena is repeatedly namechecked as the Greek goddess of war. (The names and, in some cases the abilities of Makkari, Ajak and Phastos, characters we’ve not gotten to in this review, also can be traced back to Greek story and mythology.) While one Eternal reminds another that he is not literally a god, it’s suggested that the Eternals are the basis for the myths—and devotion—that sprang up around them.

Despite all this spiritualism, the film seems to do its best to distance itself from any breath of Judaism and Christianity. We hear a snarky reference to Noah’s ark, and a character does paraphrase Scripture, saying “The truth will set them free.” And one Eternal does buzz by Rio de Jamario’s famous Christ the Redeemer statue.

Instead, the story seems to lean more into Hinduism: Two characters get married in what appears to be a Hindu ceremony, while a funeral rite is presided over by an Indian mortal. And the themes of the cycle of creation and destruction—big themes in Hinduism (and other faith systems)—undergirds much of the film.

Obviously, a lot of the powers we see here resemble magic.

Sexual Content

The only currently married couple we meet here is a same-sex couple—Phastos and his human mate who are raising a son in Chicago.We see the two share a lingering goodbye kiss and hear a great deal about how much they love each other. Both are clearly dutiful fathers. Though Marvel has had other nods to LGBT characters, this is the first gay relationship that the MCU has depicted onscreen.

We have a few other couples to make note of here, too. Sersi and Ikarus are the most notable. They, too, got hitched (in the afore-mentioned Hindu ceremony) But that comes literally centuries after the two have sex for the first time—which, in a first for a Marvel movie, we see on screen. It’s not R-rated, of course, but we do see them partly disrobe and lay down on some rock/sand as the camera films them from the shoulders up, engaged in a bit of movement.

While Ikarus and Sersi didn’t officially divorce, Ikarus did mysteriously take off for 500 years—enough, you would think, for a common-law divorce—and Sersi found a new lover in Dane Whitman. The couple kisses and flirts as well, and Dane’s put off by the fact that Sersi refuses to move in with him.

Two other Eternals (Makkari and Druig) appear to be a couple, too, and we see them engaged in flirty behavior. Sprite, who’s eternally 11, has a crush on another Eternal, and she’s pretty frurstrated that her “age” makes it impossible for her to be with him. She’s an illusionist, and she turns herself into a young adult woman at a nightclub to flirt with an unsuspecting mortal.

Women sometimes dress in ever-so-slightly revealing garb, and most of the Eternals’ outfits are skin tight.

Violent Content

The movie has plenty of the violence we’d expect in superhero flicks, so I won’t belabor that too much.

But this is an important note: Despite their moniker, a few Eternals die here. One particularly bright Deviant can suck the life literally out of them (through a bevy of organic tubes he stabs into them), leaving them lifeless, discolored corpses. Another is apparently immolated. Most of the Eternals are beaten mercilessly, too—punched and kicked and punched and stabbed and thrown and punched some more.

The Deviants die far more gorily. One has its head sliced off, splattering goopy black blood over his adversary. Another gets cut into pieces. A third is turned into a tree. They’re shot and stabbed and sometimes partly vaporized, though one has the ability to heal itself.

Meanwhile, mere mortals like you and me deal with violence, too. One man is eaten alive by a Deviant, and several others are wildly imperiled. But often their biggest threat comes from each other. The Eternals watch as Spanish Conquistadors gun down Aztec warriors in the latter’s capital city, Tenochtitlan. (Only a bit of mind control from an Eternal stops the carnage.) An Eternal kneels at the center of Hiroshima, post-A-bomb, looks at the devastation and rails that humankind isn’t worth saving.

A global earthquake rattles a museum classroom filled with children. (Sersi saves one girl from a falling stone by turning it to dust.) A massive disturbance causes the ground to wave like the ocean and for the ocean to roil like a storm on Jupiter. We see images of entire planets exploding from the inside. We hear references to “the Blip,” which took out half the population of the universe.

Crude or Profane Language

Three s-words and a handful of other profanities, including “a–” and “h—.” God’s name is misused about four times.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Sersi, Dane and Sprite hang out in a nightclub where many folks are drinking beer and other alcoholic beverages. Sprite masquerades as a young woman. But when the man she’s with tries to touch her hand and finds that it’s an illusion, she tells him that he’s just had too much to drink.

Gilgamesh serves an alcoholic beverage to his friends that he says was fermented in his own spit. When someone mentions the worldwide earthquake, he recalls it. “I thought I was drunk,” he says.

[Spoiler Warning] In a post-credits scene, a drunken troll named Pip makes an appearance.

Other Negative Elements

There’s plenty of duplicity at work here, but I’ll leave it at that.

Conclusion

Perhaps it’s fitting that the whole plot of the Eternals revolves around imperfect creators. This particular cinematic creation is far, far, far from perfect itself.

Aesthetically, it’s a rare misfire from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Directed by Chloé Zhao, fresh off her well-deserved Oscar for Nomadland, Eternals nevertheless suffers from too many characters, too many villains and too many complicated plot points. Audiences must soldier through a great deal of narrative exposition to get to the (admittedly cool) action sequences—which are then, in turn, followed up by still more narrative exposition.

Last time I checked, superhero movies are supposed to be fun. This film is pretty to look at and sometimes visually spectacular—but it’s also often rather humorless, dense and dull. If I was to rank movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’d say that this and Thor: The Dark World bring up the MCU rear.

But Thor: The Dark World, at least didn’t have Thor and Jane having sex on screen. And while the Dark World certainly boasted its own non-Christian elements (Thor’s title, after all, is the “god of thunder”), it knew not to take its mythos too seriously.

Eternals, meanwhile, cherry-picks elements from a bevy of faiths and stirs them up in a big pot of nothingness, offering us a bargain-bin full of gods but no divinity, no transcendence, no meaning at all. At the core of all its pained theology lie truths that would seem banal in humanistic sing-along songs for second graders. Follow your heart. Love will find a way.

Eternals focuses on characters that, as the name suggests, never really die. (Well, mostly.) But this movie? I can hope it disappears quickly and is forgotten, even in the MCU canon.

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Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.