Kirby and the Eternals

When Jack Kirby created the Eternals in 1976, they were a bizarre, non-traditional superhero concept.

When he returned to Marvel Comics in the 1970s following a stint at DC Comics, he continued his exploration of the concept of gods and men previously elaborated on in “Tales of Asgard” and “The Fourth World” at Marvel and DC, respectively. Elements of “Tales of Asgard” and “The Fourth World” made their way into the Thor films and “Zack Snyder’s Justice League,” respectively.

Kirby’s original 20-issue series depicts a team of heroes with somewhat familiar names created as an offshoot of humanity millions of years ago by thousand-foot-tall space gods called the Celestials.

Throughout the run, Kirby depicts his heroes as the heroes of mankind’s myths. Ikaris, played by Richard Madden, the leader of the Eternals is the basis for the tragic Greek hero Icarus; Makkari, played by Lauren Ridloff, the team’s speedster, is the Greek god Mercury; Sersi, played by Gemma Chan, is the mythical Circe.

The list goes on, each character with their own Kirby-ized spelling of a mythical figure from across various cultures.

Kirby’s story depicts his interpretation of the original superheroes or myths that guided humanity as they protected mankind from the Eternal’s counterparts in the shadows, the Deviants.

As a Jewish artist, Kirby was always infatuated with the idea of belief and the concept of religion.

Religion and belief permeated the team from their first issue, brandishing the tagline "When God’s Walk the Earth!”. This motif remained at the core of the series and team for the rest of their sporadic publication history spanning nearly five decades, including the 2021 film.

The original stories that Kirby wrote, drew and edited himself were vast, colorful, thought-provoking and clunky at times; Kirby wasn’t exactly known for his scripts, more his earth-shattering ideas of gods and monsters.

They were a special concept that probably could have only come from the imaginative mind of the co-creator of the X-Men, Fantastic Four and Captain America.

But they were never best-sellers. Even to the most die-hard comic book fan, the response to seeing the Eternals appear in a crossover or an ad was always a timid “oh, them.” Even novelist Neil Gaiman’s reintroduction of the team is considered a cult classic, still too high a concept for many readers.

Similar to how Marvel allowed James Gunn to make his own depiction of the obscure Guardians of the Galaxy, Chloé Zhao’s “Eternals” takes one of Marvel’s most impenetrable concepts and makes an ambitious, beautiful and entertaining film, unlike anything Marvel has showcased before.

There are some things in this film that I never thought I would ever see in a Marvel film. I tend to say that very time a new MCU flick or show comes out, but it is especially true in this film.

As soon as the massive Celestials appear onscreen, it’s clear what kind of movie this is: a mythic one. The immense alien gods with expressionless faces and a literal otherworldly presence rips the Kirby concept right off the page and represents the spirit of their creator’s art.

Zhao, who co-wrote and directed this film, makes it clear that this isn’t your typical superhero movie in her characters and settings. This movie bounces between ancient Babylon, contemporary London and deep space, with 7,000 years between some scenes and it doesn’t feel like there is much lost in the transitions.

Zhao’s direction and shot composition during sequences portraying the past creates a sense of history as we watch characters that do not age interact with humans from various civilizations and times.

The film takes the concept of eternal beings guiding humanity and puts Zhao's spin on it, depicting their influence through subtlety rather than Kirby’s blunt instrument of saying that Noah and his ark were machinations of the Eternals.

Still, the film does carry Kirby’s trademark need to express exposition in a clunky way. To some, this is the trademark of poor writing, but such dense and vast material sometimes precludes itself to a little explaining, especially keeping in line with its source material’s form.

Kirby’s concept is altered slightly, doing away with the Eternals and the Deviants being offshoots of humanity, but the soul of Kirby’s writing and concept is kept intact here.

Unlike previous MCU films that take a round-robin approach to storytelling, with characters feeding in and out of franchises, this film doesn’t feature a single character we’ve seen before. We only get the scant reference to Iron Man, Thor and Thanos.

The film, for the most part, trades its traditional Marvel easter eggs for references and sly nods to the various myths these characters inspired, without beating audiences over the head with it like in Kirby’s original comics.

This film juggles 10 titular Eternals, with the aforementioned Sersi and Ikaris serving as the primary crux and emotional fulcrum of the film.

But some characters don’t get the treatment that Chan and Madden’s characters receive.

This cast is star-studded, with the aforementioned Chan, Madden and Ridloff being joined by Angelina Jolie, Don Lee, Kumail Nanjiani, Barry Keoghan, Brian Tyree Henry, Lia McHugh, Salma Hayek and Kit Harrington.

This cast has many firsts for the MCU, including Ridloff as the first deaf-superhero both on and off-screen, Henry depicting the first openly gay superhero and the cast as a whole representing a racially diverse team of heroes with actors of Asian, East-Asian and Latinx descent rounding out the cast.

Even with a runtime of two-and-a-half hours, not everyone in this spectacular cast, including an Oscar-nominee, gets enough screentime.

Lee’s Gilgamesh and Henry’s Phastos in particular delivered great performances but were absent for large chunks of the movie. Due to the nature of the plot, some characters leave the film for large stretches and when they return, we are left asking where they were.

And some of the characters we do follow along the way are not given too much development or motivation outside of maybe Sersi, Ikaris and McHugh’s Sprite. Even then, the flashbacks and exposition do a lot of the heavy lifting on the development front.

Marvel’s work with ensembles has always been their strong suit, but this film does succumb to the typical problem ensemble movies have of forgetting some of that ensemble.

This film’s villain, without spoilers, is not very necessary for the plot and maybe could have been removed to allow for more character moments, which are plentiful but so well-executed that more would only strengthen the film’s cohesiveness.

While this film is a departure from the typical Marvel formula with a non-traditional set of characters and concepts, it does carry the typical humor of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, to its detriment at times. Some of the comedic relief in this film doesn’t need to be there, especially as it undercuts emotional beats.

But one thing Zhao does well is creating certain moments that are just quiet. There are moments where we see characters interacting, asking deep questions about humanity and contemplating their role in the universe, something you would be hard-pressed to find in the likes “Ant-Man” or “Thor: The Dark World.” It’s more thematically rich than most Marvel films, with the possible exception of “Avengers: Infinity War,” “Iron Man” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.”

On a final note, the presence of more physical sets and real locations shows here. The bright and vibrant visuals of the Eternals costumes and powers are interesting visually, but when the lighting of a scene is natural, with characters acting within rock formations and ancient buildings, the beauty of this film shows.

It’s nowhere near the Oscar-caliber work Zhao made with “Nomadland,” but it’s one of the most visually interesting, thematically rich and high concept Marvel movies.

This film, like the comics from Kirby, is very dense and maybe could have been two films. There’s a lot here to work with and sometimes things aren’t able to breathe. But when they are, this beautifully shot and acted film is a real treat from Marvel but it lacks some elements of greatness some of their Disney Plus shows have.

Maybe I’m biased here but seeing Kirby’s work translated with such tact and care brought a smile to my face. As a superfan of the King of Comics, I sure was emotional seeing “Based on the Marvel Comics by JACK KIRBY” appear at the film’s end.

At the end of the day, “Eternals” is a successful tribute to one of Kirby’s most imaginative creations at the House of Ideas.

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