Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.
My favorite Greek myth when I was a kid was the story of Cupid and Psyche. I had a worn copy of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology that opened easily to that section because I read it so many times. A frail, tragic, beautiful human woman marries a terrible invisible monster who, despite her fear, treats her like a queen. She lives in wedded bliss with him until her visiting sisters, jealous, convince her to do the one thing her husband told her she must never do: look upon him while he is sleeping. Psyche succumbs to her sisters’ taunting (and her own curiosity) and discovers that her husband is not in fact a terrible monster, but the most desirous of all the gods—Cupid, the god of love himself. But when hot wax from Psyche’s candle drips on Cupid’s arm, he awakens and flees to his mother, Venus, who sequesters her son and takes revenge on Psyche by putting her through horrible tasks. Finally, Cupid heals from his burn and rescues his love, and they live happily ever after.
In the myth of Cupid and Psyche, you cheer for Psyche—you relate to Psyche, with all her human foibles, curiosity, weaknesses, and pain. Cupid is out-of-touch and (literally) out of reach. Venus is mighty and cruel. But Psyche is a compelling anchor in a story that has a lot to say about love, trust, commitment, and hope. The supernatural elements are fun, but humanity gives the story its heart and its lasting impact.
I’ve been thinking about Cupid and Psyche ever since I went to see Marvel’s Eternals. Although this film (the 26th entry in the mega-franchise) is not the first MCU offering to deal with mythological story matter, it is the first one since The Incredible Hulk (2008) to leave me feeling less than satisfied. I think the answer lies in what it is I usually love about mythological stories, and what I didn’t see in Marvel’s Eternals: the human element.
Eternals is essentially a story that begins with a creation myth and progresses from there. It sets out to make itself very big, but in doing so, it forgets that it also needs to reach the very small people sitting in the movie theaters. How does a mythological megastory do that? The same way myths and massive stories of globe-shaping events have always done it: keeping it grounded in humanity. But every time Eternals introduces humans we might or could care very much about, it leaves them behind to focus instead on one (or all, or some combination) of its ten, lofty, supernatural main characters, sweeping long shots of beautiful scenery, CGI fights with Deviant monsters, SPACE GIANTS, or generic historical events. There are very few human characters or reasons to love humans in this movie at all.
So why are the Eternals fighting to save the Earth? Or are they even doing that? Well, this story is a doozy.
Thousands of years ago, ten beings known as Eternals were sent to the cradle of civilization in Mesopotamia by a giant space being called a Celestial (Arishem the Judge, voiced by David Kaye). Their purpose on Earth was to battle monsters called the Deviants until they were all destroyed, and also to help humanity progress, thrive, and evolve—without directly interfering unless Deviants were involved.
Over the course of its two and a half hour runtime, the story jumps back and forth between arbitrary points of Earth’s history—depending on what the plot demands and what feels at times like directorial whimsy. In modern-day London, we learn that one of the Eternals, Sersi (Gemma Chan), is now dating a man named Dane Whitman (Kit Herrington), a thoroughly lovable, intriguing, and promising human character! But any chance of grounding the story in Dane’s plot—or in a Dane-and-Sersi thru subplot—is ruined when Sersi and Dane (and a second Eternal named Sprite) are attacked by a Deviant and subsequently rescued by Ikaris (Richard Madden), yet a third. Surprise! The Deviants are still around. Wait, when did the Eternals think they had that problem sorted? Cue time jump.
Dane gets left behind—both figuratively and literally—as Sersi, Ikaris, and Sprite begin to reassemble their team. And their memories… 7,000 years-worth of them. The Eternals have all been living separate lives doing their own things for undetermined amounts of time since they apparently split off at different points in the past, having long believed all the Deviants were destroyed.
Anyhow, now it’s inexplicably hard to bring them back together (even though it’s the age of the smartphone, and it seems like they should be in a group-text or something…). This reassembling takes an enormous amount of screentime while achieving little more than making us wish that the movie had been told linearly with only a couple of choice flashbacks. Somewhere in the mess of time jumps, we learn that the Prime Eternal Ajak (Salma Hayek) has been killed, and (surprise) the Eternals were sent to Earth to protect humans so the human population could prosper… Because there is a Celestial seed inside Earth. And Celestial seeds need life-sources like humans to grow, and this Celestial is about to emerge, destroying the Earth, but having the potential to create thousands of new Earths.
And I’m getting away from myself a bit, but I do think the silliness of the plot adds to the overarching problem: it was just too hard to care about any of it. It was all too meta, too strange, too… overwrought. With the exception of Dane Whitman (who could have saved this film!) not even the humans who flit into and out of the story react with realistic emotions to the revelations about Deviants and the news that the world is about to literally explode. Mostly, I think, because there isn’t enough time for them to do so. The plot demands that the Eternals move on—keep moving to the next thing—the next time jump, flashback, outer space sequence, reunion, Deviant attack, you name it. Who has time for these silly humans and their little emotions, anyhow?
It’s a movie that purports to be about human exceptionalism, but doesn’t give us anything exceptional about humans to cheer for. Ajak, who for most of the story is the only Eternal who knows the truth of their mission, comes to question their “prime directive” of increasing the human population only to have it be destroyed. There’s something different about Earth that changes Ajak’s mind—that makes her not want to destroy our planet like she has helped the Celestials do to any number of similar planets in the galaxy over and over again. While those of us watching the movie are human and hopefully resonate with her change of heart, there’s nothing particularly compelling on the screen or in the script to show us why Ajak (or Sersi or any of the rest) would come to feel that way.
Instead Eternals shows the many ways humans are inhumane to each other. War, war, and more war is a repeating theme of the story—are humans good for anything other than war? Their war-lust drives the Eternal Druig (Barry Keoghan) to take over their minds and lead a remnant of Aztecs into the woods to escape the fall of Tenochtitlan. What could have led to an interesting discussion about the necessity of free will for humanity falls flat as an Eternal reaches a breaking point, throws a hissy fit, and violates part of the Eternals’ prime directive. Well, oh well, I guess! Ajak calls it cool, and everyone goes their separate ways.
Where humans are involved, the story again and again treats them more like sheep who need heavy handling and directed evolutionary progress than like the exceptional beings the Eternals claim them to be. And I found that this treatment undercut what would otherwise have been an effective story. The Eternals move through the narrative like small gods, supposedly not interfering with human history except to nudge progress here and there and kill the odd Deviant. But unlike the best myths from our actual histories, Marvel’s metamyth shies away from engaging in any compelling way with the big themes it raises. Themes like free will, self-determination, personhood, and destiny. The whole set-up of trading the Earth for the birth of a Celestial (and thus potentially thousands more Earths) was like a giant Trolley Problem, but it wasn’t meaningfully explored—there was a Big Boss Fight Scene to get to, after all, and the clock was ticking.
Eternals just never quite lands the ship (if you will forgive the analogy). It doesn’t fulfill what it sets out to do. I’m left with too many feelings of, “Why didn’t they just…?” and an overarching sense that the story only kind of slots into the metanarrative of the MCU. It’s a story where simple plot elements are inexplicably difficult for the cast of supposedly super-powerful characters to complete, and difficult things are inexplicably easy for them, and that’s the sort of story math that bothers me, at the end of the day.
But most grievous, especially given the mythological nature of the story, is the lack of the human element. It’s the human element that grounds the myth of Cupid and Psyche. Psyche is lovably human, and through her, you love Cupid, too. With ten Eternals, we needed a human along for the ride to help us love them—and for them to personally love and protect as they worked on the enormous task of saving the world. Eternal Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) brings along his human valet, but there’s no real affection in their work relationship, and none of the other Eternals knows who the valet is, really. Despite that, my husband commented, on leaving the theater, that the most emotion he felt in the film was when the valet thanked the Eternals for their service to the Earth. Ten main characters, but one minor character delivers the most emotional moment simply because he’s the human with the most screen time.
There is no beating heart to Eternals, and nothing that tethers it to the greater MCU aside from a lot (lot) of exposition explaining connections between characters and events. Exposition that you may or may not be able to trust because sometimes the Celestials are unreliable narrators. And you’re trying to hold all this exposition in your head while watching the ten protagonists leap to and fro across time and space in a nonlinear story progression that is bound to leave you feeling whiplashed at some point or another, because you were just getting settled in a scene and you have no idea why you are now in Ancient Babylon—in a spaceship, inventing the steam engine. Or something.
But what all the problems really come down to is that all of it would be forgivable if we’d just been given someone to cheer for, someone to empathize with, someone on the screen who was like us and along for the ride. In myths, the gods and goddesses were never just like us, and that’s why we couldn’t relate to them. All myths need humans, or at least a god made human, someone to put on flesh and walk among us, to be human like us in every way. But now I’m in danger of Jesus-juking this thing and diverging into a discussion on the One True Myth, so I should probably call this review a day.