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Eternals: A Structurally Misunderstood Masterpiece

Aaron Low explains the under-appreciated brilliance of Marvel's Eternals.

Marvel’s Eternals, the 26th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, was released to somewhat middling critical reception, despite largely positive audience scores. I think it’s a brilliant film, despite the considerable body of opinion that stands in vehement disagreement. Sorting through the mass of audience reactions and (often prevaricating) professional criticism, I’ve concluded that Eternals, largely, was structurally misunderstood.

Much has been spoken, both positively and negatively, about the film’s ‘uniqueness’, without much elaboration on what exactly makes it unique. Eternals is unique for two main reasons. Firstly, it understands the structural limitations inherent in superhero cinema, and works within them. Though superhero stories almost always essentialise to a conflict between good and evil, the audience never really doubts the hero’s eventual victory. The audience knows the villain won’t achieve world domination, or blow up the moon, or eventuate whatever nefarious goal they have. As a result, there are no real narrative stakes and the plot generally plays right into audience expectations (with a notable exception in 2018’s Infinity War). The one unknown is how the hero will ultimate prevail against seemingly insurmountable odds — how will this happen, instead of what will happen. There’s only so far a plot will stretch within these strictures without resorting to unsatisfying ex machina, so the story usually builds up to a climactic, story-making final act battle. Eternals does do this, but with a fundamental shift in focus: the narrative stakes don’t arise from any uncertainty about whether good will triumph over evil. Instead, we worry about how these relationships will fracture, how character-driven tensions escalate, and whether our favourite Eternal will make it out alive (the deaths of two main characters within the first half tell us early on that nobody is off-limits). Zhao has mentioned on multiple occasions that Eternals is, at its core, a family drama. In the shadow cast by the intimate intensity of these interpersonal conflicts, the prospect of a planet-sized robot god shattering the Earth becomes an almost unimportant backdrop, but that’s fine — it was always going to be. 

Secondly, Eternals is unique because it doesn’t seem as manifestly concerned with setting up continuity for its characters as some other MCU entries are. This seems a strange proposition; criticisms are levelled at the film for doing quite the opposite. Although there is a cliffhanger ending, and two (three?) new superheroes are introduced in its post-credits, I say this because of the how the film treats its characters. One of the biggest criticisms of the film is that its characters are underdeveloped, but it’s important first to interrogate what that might mean. A character might be underdeveloped in two main ways: (1) in a structural sense, where you can’t understand their motivations or reasonably predict how they’d act in certain plot situations, and (2) when you don’t care about the character. Underdevelopment in the first sense is simply not true; their motivations are clear for the most part, as will be explained below. It is only in the second sense that it might be true, but this must be tempered by an additional consideration: that the idea of a cinematic universe might have altered audience expectations for character development.

I’m not gonna spend any more time indoors in a hospital. No thanks.” 

This line, delivered by the character Swankie in Zhao’s earlier Oscar-winning Nomadland, tells the audience much of what we need to know about her. We recognise a woman approaching the end of her life, determined to spend the rest of it peacefully and contentedly on the road. Do we ever stop to think, what’s going to happen to her in the next one?Obviously not. We can care about and be moved by her and her story, without having to actively invest ourselves in its continuity. Take a character like the MCU’s Spider Man. Do we really know much more about his character than we do of Eternals’ central character, Sersi? We know that he’s young, kind, brave, and idolises the Avengers. When we list the traits necessary to understand the decisions he makes, it isn’t hugely more extensive than Sersi’s. The key difference between Peter Parker and Sersi is time — we simply spend more time with him and, crucially, outside the pressures of plot. We see him on vacation, at school, with friends, and therefore are able to form an image of him that we can take away from stressful plot conflicts. That’s why people write fanfictions and Tumblr head-canons about him; they feel like they know him, and become attached. It gets fans excited for his future appearances because they ideate his personality so strongly. 

On the other hand, we don’t see Swankie action figures (because it’d just be a figure of some lady, but also) because we’re not interested in creating our own story for her. In the same way, you can care about Sersi or Thena as they appear in the film, without really caring about them outside of it. Does the Eternals treat its characters in a strategic way for their future involvement in the larger cinematic universe? Maybe not. But, are its characters really ‘underdeveloped’? I really don’t think so.

Some of the film’s more unspecifically harsh critics denigrate its plot as being ‘a mess’. Personally, I find this is a confounding criticism. The plot was dense, but not any more so than the other instalments in the franchise. Still a superhero story, the plot does essentialise to ‘good guy vs bad guy’, but even this it does differently. The CGI deviants are the film’s bait-and-switch villain. The movie actually telegraphs this quite plainly: at first, the precipitating event is thought to be the return of the deviants, as when Ajak is supposedly killed by one. Towards the end, we realise that Ikaris was actually the one responsible. Again, we see these nominal superhero plot elements — the deviants, the emergence — retreating into the background, while the fracturing family dynamic takes centre stage. Ikaris is the ‘true’ villain of the story, if only to fulfil the standard good vs evil dichotomy, but this crude good-versus-evil reductionism does gloss over the real complexity and nuance of the conflict somewhat.

Really, the conflict is character-driven. None of the characters have the scene-stealing charisma of Tony Stark or Stephen Strange, but these larger-than-life personalities are not what Zhao is interested in capturing. Most audiences aren’t arrogant, sarcastic, billionaire geniuses. Zhao’s eye is drawn to normal, almost boring people, because most boring people are, in truth, not that boring. She isn’t concerned with the Eternals as myth, at least not in the present day. When they first arrived in Mesopotamia, they were treated as gods, bathed in golden light and wide-angled shots acknowledging their power and stature. As we move to the present day, the camera follows them close-up, at eye level. They wear unremarkable, casual clothes. They speak of their involvement in myth in a comically dissonant, prosaic way: Kingo talks about Thor following him around as a boy but now not returning his calls. Thena plays with Excalibur while Sprite reminds her that she was once the object of Arthur’s crush. Zhao invites us to observe them as our equals, because, once again, this is chiefly a story about human relationships, only set against a cosmic backdrop.

The main characters for the most part have clear motivations, and their arcs make sense. We can reasonably predict what might sway them to one side or the other on the question of whether to stop the emergence. For instance, Sersi has the strongest connection to humanity and the biggest stake in stopping the emergence. Ikaris is the soldier with no connections to humanity who puts the mission above all else. Kingo loves humanity but not in a strongly personal way, and considers the moral hypothetical of denying life to future civilisations, and stays out of the conflict. Sprite resents humanity because she could never be a part of it, but comes to blame Arishem for her predicament. Phastos doesn’t have a connection to humanity as a whole but is motivated by individual attachments to his husband and his son. Druig loves humanity as a whole, or at least the idea of it, and always wanted to stop them from killing each other. Gilgamesh and Thena don’t have very strong connections to humanity because they’ve secluded themselves away from it, but understand what it means to protect what you love. Makkari is the only character whose motivations aren’t quite clear, but what is clear is her connection to Druig. Each character has a reason for their involvement in the story, and suggestions that the main characters were inadequately dealt with seem misplaced.

In all fairness, I’m sure there are good reasons to dislike Eternals or to think it’s a bad movie, but it’s important to be clear on why you dislike it, just as it’s important to recognise that ‘I don’t like it’ and ‘this is bad’ are quite different statements. Intuition, especially of art, is a powerful tool of judgment, but can sometimes lead to inconsistent criticisms. Our intuitions can be swayed, often unconsciously, by circumstantial factors; we judge based on what we know. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it can be fun for audiences and helpful for critics to sort through their intuitions to concretise specific judgments. But really, all this is just to say: go watch Eternals. It’s great.

Image Credit: Marvel Studios/Facebook

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