Apart from their obvious love of a stupendously over the top action finales and stakes so epic the fate of the world repeatedly hangs in the balance, the one thing you can say about a Marvel Studios film is they have a strong moral centre.
There is right and there is wrong, and while the studio has dabbled in moral and ethical ambiguities at times, a marked shift from the black and white certainty of the era in which the comic books were created mid-twentieth century – though a scant decade or so later, the Sixties and Seventies saw the rise and rise of cynicism about old near-Biblical ideas of bad and good, a trend which has only accelerated since – it has largely stuck to the idea of clearly demarcated good and evil.
That is until the arrival of Eternals, although when this expansively ambitious film opens, one that spans thousands of years and the entire cosmos and the full breadth of life, death and creation, you could be forgiven for thinking its business as usual, morality-wise.
In this creation tale that owes a great deal to both the Biblical idea of good and evil, angels and demons, and a central all-powerful creator figure, and to ancient Greek, Roman and Babylonian deity myths, it is seems fairly clear that there are demonstrably good cops and bad cops and never the twain shall meet except on the field of bloody and incessant planet-wide battle.
Eternals centres on the arrival of ten godlike beings, known, you will not be surprised as “Eternals” – Ajak (Salma Hayek), Sersi (Gemma Chan), Ikaris (Richard Madden), Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), Sprite (Lia McHugh), Phastos (Bryan Tyree Henry), Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), Druig (Barry Keoghan), Gilgamesh (Don Lee), and Thena (Angelina Jolie) – in 5000 B.C. where they are charged by a Celestial known as Arimesh (voiced by David Kaye) with protecting the evolving people of Earth from fearsome galactic predators known as Deviants.
Looking for all the world, or should that be the galaxy, like they are Avant Garde wire steel wire sculptures sprung murderously to life, the Deviants are BAD, the Eternals are GOOD, and its seems, from a moral point of view, that is that.
But of course a film helmed by Chloé Zhao, who gave us the nuanced, thoughtful, narratively loose-ended delight that is Nomadland, was never going to be content to simply keep everyone in their expected lanes, and as Eternals moves resonantly on, it starts to become abundantly clear that there’s a whole lot more going on that meets the obvious good versus evil eye.
Much of moral complexity has to do that with the fact after 7000 years on planet Earth, where they have acted as shepherds helping to guide humanity to its great destiny as a species – their involvement was selective, limited to intervening only where Deviants were an active threat which meant we were largely left alone to fight, play, love – a number of them have become quite enamoured of us.
It’s no longer a simply mission of standing guard dispassionately over us, especially since the 1500s when the final Deviants but the dust and all the Eternals had to do was go their separate ways and wait for Arishem to bring them back to their home planet of Olympia.
In a clever piece of postmodern storytelling, the Eternals have given rise to all manner of myths and legends, the result of living among people and interacting with them, key players in the rise and fall of civilisations even though they never actually actively intervened in their growth and death.
But are they here and why does Arishem care so much about what happens to us as a species, and importantly, will any of the Eternals be called upon to do a Jesus and make the ultimate sacrifice for our collective wellbeing?
Perhaps but much of Eternals is spent not so much on a grand plan for humanity’s salvation, though that is clearly in play in some form, but rather on showing us how tightly knit and close like family this group of ten all-powerful beings is and how, stranded on a planet far from home, they must reply on each other for emotional support, friendship and care.
In fact what stamps Eternals as something rather special is its emphasis, courtesy of screenwriter cousins Ryan and Kaz Firpo, on characterisation over action, emotional weightiness over whizbang spectacle.
That’s not to say that Eternals, which celebrates racial, cultural and sexual diversity openly and without apology (we even get the first clearly gay superhero figure which is most welcome), isn’t without some of the usual Marvel blockbuster trappings.
There are some titanic battles, especially in the final all-consuming final act, and they are impressive indeed, easily matching anything that’s come before them in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU); but what stands out in Eternals is that, far more than the majority of its predecessors, the action is driven by its fully-realised characters who are given time in the sprawling but mostly well-used 157 minute running time to allow the audience to get to know them.
More than that, we are also party to how these distinct characters bond and relate to each other, a familial closeness that, like any other family, is wondrously close and uplifting and destructively dysfunctional.
It’s the film’s willingness to take its time with exposition and character reveals that gives so much resonance and meaning to the action which comes later; true most of the other MCU’s instalments do invest in character but Eternals goes much, much further, giving real substance and affecting vivacity to the action scenes.
Eternals also does an exemplary job of setting up the MCU films that will inevitably follow, not simply by putting in place the building blocks, both narrative and character-wise, for a direct sequel which is all but a given, especially once you take in the middle and end-credits scenes – yes, there are two of them so don’t race out of the cinema too quickly – but by reshaping the whole idea of Earth and how it came to be and who is out there playing with its destiny.
Suddenly, the MCU is playing on an even bigger tapestry than before – yes even bigger than Thanos and his quick-snapping fingers – and it gives the interlinked movies a much bigger narrative pool in which to play which is going to make Phase 4 of the MCU the biggest, boldest and most impressive yet.
If Eternals is any guide, and we can only hope it is, it may also be the most emotionally resonant too, if the MCU continues to cleaves tight to the character first approach of this deeply immersive film which knows that big and mighty things happen all the time in the world but that they only really mean something if humanity is front and centre, and remains as the driver, not the observer, of any big twists and turns.