Even for Merry Marvel Marching Society diehards, The Eternals is a deep cut. The first series was written and drawn by Jack Kirby in the 1970s, after he returned to Marvel from a spell at DC where his Fourth World saga was begun and yet cancelled. That Eternals was sort of a way of continuing in Fourth World/New Gods vein, though it was also another stab at the hidden-race-of-alien-cum-Gods premise Kirby explored with the Inhumans (initially in Fantastic Four) and arguably the Marvel version of Thor and Norse mythology. Since the series was cancelled, there have been attempts to reboot it – an arc in Thor and a Neil Gaiman miniseries, among others – but the characters have always been thin, and their misspelled classical names are too easy to get mixed up with many other similar comics creations in and out of Marvel. Kirby was attempting an epic in the spirit of 2001 (he did the comics spinoff of that) and Eric von Daniken about extraterrestrial influence on the development of human history and myth. Marvel subsumed that into an epic about the tangled origins of life in their own copyrighted, superhero-populated universe … which, in Chloe Zhao’s film, now shifts into new terrain for their cinematic universe. We’ll forget that Inhumans TV series, okay?
The film takes the premise of immortal aliens with superpowers – positioned as the deep inspiration for all subsequent superheroes – who have been around on Earth for millennia at the behest of the godlike Celestials, fighting with the gruesome Deviants. But it uses later developments that add a sinister undertone to the noble mission. This splits the group, so that flying, lasereyed Ikaris (Richard Madden) – explicitly compared to Superman – becomes a big bad, which would be more of a shock if a) anyone ever cared about him as a character and b) there weren’t a bunch of evil Superman analogues whizzing about in The Boys, Injustice, Brightburn and others. Our protagonist is Sersi (Gemma Chan, bumped up from supporting baddie in Captain Marvel to another role), Ikaris’ ex, who is currently involved with mere human Dane Whitman (Kit Harington) – a running joke is that she doesn’t pay attention to the hints dropped throughout that he’s got his own Black Knight issues coming down the pike – and committed to saving people rather than to the Celestials’ own callous mission.
Characters who barely registered on the page (even as Kirby designs) are fleshed out, some more successfully than others. Thena (Angelina Jolie), a Wonder Woman analogue, suffers from the Kirby-sounding ‘madweary’ which is early onset dementia for immortals, a tendency to go berserker and attack allies at the worst times. Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) is a Bollywood dynasty who has been mistaken at time for a vampire and plays up the hero image, also bringing welcome humour to one of the MCU’s heavier loads. Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) is black, gay, conscience-stricken since Hiroshima (he’s responsible for nudging human technology along) and suburban. Sprite (Lia McHugh) has been a tween forever and is starting to get fed up with it, with explicit Tinkerbell references. Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) is a hearing-impaired speedster. Gilgamesh (Don Lee) is a handy powerhouse, who mostly demonstrates the Korean star’s international potential. Druig (Barry Keoghan), Kirby’s mind-controlling Evil Eternal, made more interestingly wrong-headed but right-hearted, while CGI Deviant Kro (Bill Skarsgard) is transformed from complicated menace to virtual prop. Ajak (Salma Hayek) lingers as a possible resurectee for a sequel. Many of the characters are sex or race-switched, which even Comicsgaters haven’t complained about because – again – it’s kind of hard to get worked up about Ajak, Kingo or Makkari, who’ve so far barely registered as silly names.
It has a Highlander feel in its mix of historical flashbacks to impressive locales – including the Hanging Gardens of Babylon – and a modern-day getting-the-band-back-together, there-can-be-only-one set of reunions, arguments and zap-happy tussles. For those who complain that the MCU films have a formula (more or less set by Iron Man), here’s something fresh and different on a grand scale – at a pinch, it follows the heroes-pitted-against-each-other format of Captain America Civil War – but it’s somehow less satisfying. Despite high-powered creatives, an interesting and properly diverse cast, some stunning set-pieces, and an epoch-spanning storyline, it has the same not-quite-there feel that all the comics iterations of the Eternals have had. Written into prehistory as the supposed inspiration for all heroes who have come after, the Eternals ought to be more vivid than their successors – but stubbornly they aren’t. In the MCU tradition of blowing up familiar bits of the UK, this does feature a nice super-battle in Camden Lock.