Thursday, November 18, 2021

Eternals

The opening caption makes it clear what we have let ourselves in for. Kirby gets a credit; but this is not an adaptation of Kirby's comic book. 

Jack Kirby's Eternals were a divergent species of homo-sapiens, the result of genetic tampering by the cosmically cosmic Celestials. Chloe Zhoa's Eternals are immortal aliens, placed on earth to protect mankind from the Deviants. (Unless they are not. Would the opening text lie to us?) The comic book Deviants were a third human species who lived in a city and had spaceships. The movie Deviants are bestial monsters, part Godzilla and part velociraptor. The original Arishem was the Celestial judge, jury and executioner, returned to earth to check up on his experiment and wipe it out if things were not going according to plan. This Arishem is the chief Celestial, from whom the Eternals take their orders; the God of the gods.

I think this works to the movie's advantage. Even die-hard Kirby-heads can treat the film as its own thing, without preconceptions.

Neil Gaiman felt that the Eternals compared unfavourably with other late period Kirby Koncepts: when he was called on to revamp the book, he latched on to the idea of a small group of immortals living secretly among the human race. American, you might almost say, gods. (Living, come to think of it, Endless lives.) It is this idea that the film also fixates on. A family who have been estranged and out of touch for thousands of years, gradually coming together because of something portentously called The Emergence. 

Ikaris is played by Robb Stark with a Scottish accent: perhaps the elevator pitch was "Kind of like Highlander meets Game of Thrones but with Superheroes."

Once or twice an element from the original comic peeps its head into the film. Kirby's male Ajak (clad in ridiculous, supposedly South American armour) is the one Eternal who communicated with the Space Gods during their last visit, running a Van Daniken mission control out of an Inca Temple. This female Ajak is the leader of the team, and communes with Arishem by means of a ball of wibbly-wobbly light that lives in her chest. Druig, in the comic an Eternal bad-guy with more than a passing resemblance to Loki, remains broadly unsympathetic to the rest of the team. Sprite is a butch, too-cool-for-schoolgirl rather than a snook-cocking Dennis the Menace figure: but the idea that an eleven year old kid is still and eleven year old kid even if they are also a six thousand year old immortal remains firmly in place. (I think it was Gaiman who gender-swapped Sprite; she's certainly female in the current Kieron Gillen version.)

Kirby really liked the idea of gestalt entities -- the Forever People can merge into a single superhero called Infinity Man and the original Eternals merged into the Unimind. In the comic the Unimind is literally a gigantic brain (that floats up to the Celestials spaceship); here it is a wibbly wobbly light-show emanating from the Eternals' heads. A lot of the Eternals' mysticism involve wibbly wobbling glowing symbols, possibly suggested by the insignia on comic-book Arishem's thumb. They appear on the characters' bodies; on the landscape around them and in the air. When Phastos wants to help the human race create steam engines or ploughs or atom bombs, he builds wibbly wobbly glowing models in the air. (This isn't quite as cosmic as it is meant to seem: Tony Stark and the crew of Star Trek: Discovery use pretty much the same interface.) If we can cope with gods called Celestials, immortals called Eternals and an event called The Emergence, I am not quite sure why it was necessary to draw our attention to "Unimind" being quite a silly name.

The film covers quite a lot of ground. In just under three hours it has to introduce us to a dozen major characters, two-thousand years of earth history and the True Nature of the Universe. I think it largely pulls it off: the characters are broadly drawn, with some surprises and twists, and are engaging and mostly likeable. We kind of care from the outset that the nice museum lecturer (Sersi) who hangs out with the nice kid (Sprite) and is dating the nice human (Dane Whitman) are being menaced by CGI aliens in Camden Town; and we are kind of pleased when the smoulderingly hunky Ikaris comes and helps them -- even if we haven't quite worked out where all this fits into the grand narrative. (Have Americans heard of Camden Town, or is it just some place in Europe?) 

I think that even non-comic book fans will cotton on to the fact that someone with as silly a name as Dane Whitman and who is played by you-know-nothing Jon Snow is not going to turn out to merely be the main character's love interest. Sure enough, there is a brief reference to The Ebony Blade and an obligatory tantalising post-cred. (SPOILER: He's going to become an Arthurian-themed superhero called the Black Knight. Which will be confusing if his movie comes out in the same week as Moon Knight.)

Stan Lee used to say that superheroes were the modern equivalent of ancient mythology. The Eternals (like the New Gods) made that idea explicit and the film embraces the idea. We start with some pretty standard super-heroic daring-do in the present day, and flashback to ancient Babylon, medieval Europe and Hiroshima. In the foreground, a millennia-long family soap opera -- the casting of actors from Game of Thrones can't be a coincidence. In the middle distance, a huge, super-heroic race to save the world. And in the background, the Celestials, the World Forge, the Emergence and a gigantic, cosmic, fib. 

[SPOILERS] [SPOILERS] [SPOILERS] [SPOILERS] [SPOILERS] [SPOILERS] [SPOILERS] 

There are three big twists.

The First Big Twist is that the opening text did indeed lie. The Eternals are not immortal space aliens after all, but robots, programmed by Arishem to believe that they are gods. This is, interestingly, also the set-up for Jack Katz' mighty First Kingdom: the gods of his post-holocaust earth are amnesiac cyborgs from a super-advanced civilisation. Katz and Kirby mutually influenced each other: it would be interesting to know if Zhoa was aware of Katz. When an Eternal is destroyed, Arishem will absorb, or at any rate file away, their memories. Science-based karma and reincarnation recalls Lord of Light, Roger Zelazny's science fictional reworking of the Hindu myths, which (as everyone knows) Kirby wanted to turn into a theme-park.

The Second Big Revelation  is that the Earth is a gigantic egg incubating a new Celestial. Any day now it is going to hatch, and the planet and everyone on it will be destroyed. This derives, not from Kirby, but from an (I believe) still non-canonical alternate Marvel History called Universe X. It strongly calls to mind John Byrne's philosophical reinvention of Galactus: Reed Richards discovered that, at some level, the universe needs there to be a giant in purple shorts who eats planets. Like Galactus, Arishem has to destroy planets because it is in his nature; periodic world-destroying Emergences have to happen so that the Celestials can carry on travelling round the universe creating new life. In the comic, the Eternals are very much on-side with the Celestials, and spend most of their time trying to prevent reckless humans and deviants from attacking them and triggering the final judgement fifty years early. We don't know how Jack would have continued his epic if he had been allowed to complete it: maybe he was building towards a split in the Eternals' ranks. The plot of the film -- that when the chips are down, the Eternals turn against their godlike masters and side with the mortals -- has obviously Promethean overtones. (Ikaris, incidentally, lives up to his name, which he never does in the comic.) But it also feels very much like Kirby's original vision of the Silver Surfer; the herald turning against his world-destroying master because he sees the value of humans.

I am not sure if it is a breach of etiquette to reveal that the opening text has been misleading you. I suppose it is a bit like finding out that God has been lying to you all along, which is what happens to Sersi and the others. The revelation shakes up the family dynamic in the second half of the movie. The Eternals think that they have been protecting the human race; their job is actually to ensure that it is destroyed. The family splits: some of them think their duty is to the Celestials and the Universe, some that they can't simply let the whole human race be wiped out. I can't help thinking that the Big Reveal could have been done more subtly than with a five minute info-dump from the Voice of God, albeit accompanied by the biggest and most Kirbyesque display of floaty wibbly wobbly lights in the movie. 

Like the first Thor movie, like Black Panther and Shang Chi, and perhaps most closely like the X-Men, Eternals creates a new dynasty of superheroes with its own rationale, its own backstory, and its own internal politics and infighting. But it is in a lot of ways still a pretty traditional comic book adventure. When Ikaris flies into space and sees the world behind him, it is hard not to think of the Christopher Reeve incarnation of Superman. 

It is distinctly odd that Phastos's little boy thinks that Ikaris is Superman, rather than, say, Iron Man or Captain America, and that he wonders why he doesn't have a cape. We know that the next wave of Marvel Movies are going to involve revelations about the multiverse and parallel universes: is it at all possible that we are being prepared for the idea that the Eternals takes place outside of mainstream continuity? 

It would make a lot of sense. The revelations about the Celestials are so vast and all-encompassing that they make the rest of the Marvel Universe look small and insignificant by comparison. Immortal cyborg gods called Gilgamesh are a poor fit for a setting which already contains Thor and Thanos. Either the entire setting is going to have to be reinvented from the ground up, or else the other superhero movies will have to pretend that Eternals never happened.

So, yes: the movie has, in fact, got more in common with the comic book than might appear at first glance. 


2 comments:

Eric Hamlin said...

The concluding line is perfect.
For all the jawing about "continuity" Marvel people do, the only real, true, verifiable explanation for everything is always the one that's being presented to you at the moment. If that happens to come in "He-Dazzler 8085AD," it still supersedes everything that's come before. They've only ever been marginally more integrated than the ever more infinite crises of DC.
I do love Kirby's "Eternals." And by "love", I mean I sit in front of it and stare at the pictures and bathe in its general conceptual aura, and not read it.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I know what you mean, and am not sure what I would think of it if I didn't have the memory of my eleven year old self reading it in the year of Star Wars and Tom Baker. But I reread it recently and I think it stands up, if you can get past Kirby's dialogue. I hope to write something about it here before too long.