“It is forbidden for you to interfere in human history,” Jor-El says, and to the limited extent that means anything, he’s sincere about it. In Superman: The Movie, we’re supposed to admire the crystal palaces of Krypton, but the point of the film is the development of Superman’s connection to everyday life on Earth. Sure, there’s a galaxy-spanning backstory in there, but ultimately, the thing that’s really important is Earth, and real people. And then there’s Eternals, the new Marvel Studios movie that has kind of a different take on that question.
In this blog, I’m telling the story of how blockbuster superhero movies developed into a dominant cultural force, starting in 1978 with Superman and moving on chronologically from there. So far, I’m about an hour into the first movie, and there’s a long way to go. But out in the real world, that history is still going on, so when a new movie is released, I take a look at what’s happening in popcorn world, and what it has to do with the movie I’m currently writing about. Last month, I wrote about the Spider-Man spinoff Venom: Let There Be Carnage, and this weekend, the latest movie is Marvel Studios’ Eternals.
Honestly, I can’t think of a movie more appropriate for this treatment, because Eternals asserts that all of history was influenced by a set of gorgeous extraterrestrial cover models, who are responsible for every good idea in human civilization, specifically including Superman. Apparently, I’ve been writing about these people all along.
Eternals is the story of a bunch of beautiful rich people from outer space who came to Earth at the dawn of humankind, for an extended adventure vacation. These immortal one-percenters have been walking calmly through the world for thousands of years, untouched and untouchable, gently inspiring human civilization to do things that we probably would have figured out anyway, like how to make tools, and build cities.
We see flashbacks to several points in human history — Mesopotamia in 7000 BC, ancient Babylon around 1900 BC, the Gupta empire circa 400 AD — where the pretty people smile at the human peasants, who feed them native foods and involve them in picturesque folk dances. But we’re supposed to take their word for the “advancing human civilization” aspect, because these characters don’t seem very engaged with whatever quaint little settlement that they’re visiting at any given time. They half-heartedly participate in a bit of local culture, but human history is mostly just a backdrop for them to go and have outdoor sex next to.
The movie has a complicated backstory that it doesn’t really explain very well. The idea is that there’s a race of enormous and powerful creatures called Celestials, who have been “seeding” life on planets across the universe. It’s not super clear whether that means they’re literally dumping a load of alien prokaryotes into the primal ooze that evolve into multicellular life, or if they’re just fucking a planet and leaving a baby Celestial inside it, which is the part of the premise that they really focus on.
As I understand it, back in pre-history, the Celestials created a set of angry tentacle monsters called Deviants, in order to kill off all the mean apex predators, so that mammals could take over and evolve into intelligent human life. We see what I believe is a scene of Deviants killing dinosaurs, because they want the mammals to take over and turn into intelligent apes. The Celestials consider the potential for intelligence in reptiles as an obstacle to their ultimate goal of bringing movie stars into the world.
It’s all rather irritating, if you actually know anything about Charles Darwin, who gets a little salute at the beginning of the film and is then utterly misrepresented. It turns out natural selection was actually just space monsters with an agenda, in a not very intelligent twist on intelligent design.
Anyway, at some point the Deviants started killing the humans too, so the Celestials sent the Eternals to come in and kill the Deviants, inspiring all kinds of mythological stories of gods and monsters.
The Eternals are basically a metaphor for gentrification, where the rich people come in to a neighborhood, vaguely charmed by the local culture, and then rearrange things according to the way that they prefer it, with yoga studios and cupcake shops. There are a lot of main characters in Eternals and I didn’t catch everybody’s name, but I’m pretty sure that one of them is called Starbucks.
Eternals is based on a 1976 Marvel series created by Jack Kirby, who everyone agrees was a genius and co-created the modern comic book as we know it.
Kirby became justifiably famous in the 1960s, because of his partnership with Stan Lee. With Kirby as the artist and Lee as the writer, the pair co-created most of the early Marvel Comics successes, including the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, the X-Men, the Avengers, Iron Man and Thor. Kirby’s bold style and deep understanding of graphic storytelling forever changed the way that blah blah blah. That’s how people talk when they write about Kirby, which apparently I can keep up for about half a paragraph before I start hating myself.
Anyway, Kirby was very important in 1960s comics, and he had a falling out with Lee because he thought Lee was taking all the credit from the work that they’d done together. So Kirby left Marvel in 1970, and he started working at DC, where they promised that he could do anything he wanted.
At DC, he created a big complicated science-fiction franchise called “Jack Kirby’s Fourth World,” which involved cosmic battles between enormously powerful mythological aliens. In 1971, DC introduced three Fourth World titles — The New Gods, The Forever People and Mister Miracle — where a large cast of god-like magicians messed around with mysterious technology like Mother Boxes and the Anti-Life Equation. On the whole, comics readers found it confusing and unappealing, so the titles were all cancelled after a year and a half.
Kirby returned to Marvel in 1976 and created a new space-god saga called The Eternals, which also lasted a year and a half before it collapsed under its own thunderous weight. A year and a half appears to be the maximum amount of patience that people have for Jack Kirby’s cosmic material.
Basically, Kirby really liked to draw big complicated machines and buildings and costumes with lots of intricate, far-out detail, against an outer-space backdrop full of speed lines and crackly starstuff. So once he became famous enough to call his own shots, he created comics based around what he wanted to draw, because at that point everyone agreed that he was a celebrity, and nobody wanted to say no to him, until the sales dropped through the floor, which they inevitably did.
Personally, I can appreciate this Kirby style, in kind of an abstract it’s-likeable-but-not-loveable sense. I’m a big fan of visual surprise, and Kirby’s work is definitely interesting to look at, and it doesn’t look like anything else. The sets, props and character designs of Marvel’s 2017 Thor: Ragnarok are explicitly an homage to Kirby’s style, and they’re an absolute joy to look at. But Thor: Ragnarok also pays attention to engaging the audience with humor and likeable characters and a plot that makes sense, which Kirby’s cosmic work on the whole does not.
The ideas that Kirby was playing with — that Celestials seeded life on Earth, and then used the Eternals to guide human civilization — come from Erich von Däniken’s 1968 book Chariots of the Gods? Unsolved Mysteries of the Past, a classic piece of crackpottery that was immensely popular in the 1970s and is unfortunately still with us today, layered into the complicated conspiracy theories that currently take up such a horrifyingly large percentage of the American mental landscape.
Von Däniken’s view is that people are pretty stupid, which at the moment I can’t say I fully disagree with, and therefore all of our most impressive collective achievements must have come from somewhere beyond our own human imagination and skill. The pyramids, Stonehenge, the moai on Easter Island, the Nazca Lines in Peru — all the cool-looking stuff that was invented by people who didn’t write their names at the bottom — must have been built by ancient astronauts from another planet, who were smarter and more advanced than we are. Or, at least, smarter than the mostly Black and brown people who couldn’t have discovered engineering principles on their own, and must have copied off a superior civilization’s test paper.
It’s a deeply stupid and insulting idea, which basically asserts that humans only started inventing stuff on our own once the white people took charge.
That’s the worldview that informs Eternals, which posits that Hollywood movie stars from 2021 represent the apex of human civilization, and they’ve been nudging the rest of us along to catch up with their predetermined definition of success.
And I’m sorry to admit this, but I would probably be happy to go along with that, if they were funnier and did more interesting things. Criticizing the narrative of the dominant hegemony is enjoyable and it makes me feel good about myself, but I’d be happy to give all that up if they showed me some hot people making wisecracks and moving the plot along.
As we’ve discussed, the three steps to making an audience like your characters is to make a friend, make a joke and make something happen. Having a friend demonstrates that the character has value in the world of the story, making a joke indicates that they recognize that it’s their job to entertain us, and making the plot move along is just basic courtesy on their part.
In Eternals, the main cast are a big group of co-workers who apparently all like each other to some degree, so that’s not a problem. There’s one funny character — Kingo, played by Kumail Nanjiani, who comes along with his own very funny comedy sidekick, and between the two of them, they make life worth living for the 157 minutes you spend in your seat.
But the thing that I object to in this movie is that they assume no responsibility whatever for the plot points. In the flashbacks, the characters are supposed to be inspiring massive cultural change, but all we see are the moments when they’re interacting with each other against a Mesopotamian landscape, or crouching in the ashes of Hiroshima.
About halfway through the film, one of the characters is summoned into the presence of the main Celestial, a big shiny shouty thing made entirely of space plankton, who delivers an unmotivated lecture that reveals that everything the characters thought about themselves and their mission is completely backwards. This plot twist is delivered by helicopter, with no involvement from the main characters. They don’t find any clues, and they don’t discuss any evidence. Nobody has an insight, or makes a decision. They just have little dinner parties until it’s time for the big reveal to unveil itself.
There’s also a murder mystery in the film, which is kept pretty low in the mix; they don’t spend any time thinking about it, beyond their initial snap assessment. They don’t even know it’s a mystery. The plotline just solves itself after a while, with the murderer suddenly volunteering all the relevant data because they need a plot point at the end of act two.
So ultimately, the movie feels empty. It’s just rich people from space who drift through history, taking credit for everything. They don’t really seem to care about humans at all; humanity is just the MacGuffin that they’re squabbling over.
Coming up in Superman: The Movie, the god-alien is going to help a little girl get her cat down from a tree, and he does it because, in that moment, he really cares. Superman catches missiles and redirects mighty rivers, but when he happens to find a cat in trouble, he takes a minute to help. He actively engages with the humans around him, not as an undifferentiated cultural mass, but as individual people who deserve respect and attention.
But the placement of your cats is entirely up to you, as far as the Eternals are concerned. That issue falls squarely into the category of your problem.
How Gene Hackman lost his mustache,
and kept his hair
1.46: Criminal Minds
— Danny Horn