Film media tends to put emphasis on critique, but there’s so much more to an art form than its faults. Here, Alondra kicks off our new series The Beauty Of… by celebrating what Marvel Studio’s Eternals (2021) has to offer. Warning: spoilers lie ahead!
Marvel Studios’ Eternals (2021), directed by Chloe Zhao, tells the story of a team of immortal beings sent by Celestials to nurture the development and protect humans from a dangerous species called Deviants. As one of Marvel’s most ambiguous films to date, Eternals (2021) has received mixed reviews for its plot and screenwriting. This is understandable as the company tried to introduce and explain the complicated history of the ten-member team in the span of a single movie. It’s like trying to film The Avengers (2012) without having Iron Man (2008), Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), and Thor (2011), in the back pocket of the audiences’ minds. It was, however, visually stunning.
Coming into the theater, I expected a convoluted plot, but what captivated me in film wasn’t the front-facing narration of its screenplay, but the subtle modality of storytelling through its visual effects and cinematography.
Let’s start first with the ingenuity in animation and background seen with the Deviants. The film introduces Deviants as apex predators, consuming all life on the planets they inhabit—humans in this case. Simplistically, they represent an invasive species that inhibit the growth of the human race. So how do you control an invasive species? By introducing an apex predator more powerful to control their population. Which is exactly what the Celestials did by sending down the Eternals. As Sersi stated to her class in the film “one thing that sets apex predators apart is that there are no other animals in their habitat strong enough to hunt them down”.
Visually, the evolutionary biology references in this film are well executed. Not only were the animations of the Deviants magnificent, but many stylistic choices were clearly intentional. In our first view of the creatures attempting to hunt human settlers, they are designed to look like prehistoric animals. As the plot and time in the narrative progresses their animation changes, representing their evolution. In present time, they are animated to look like lions, leopards, jaguars, etc—the apex predators of our time. Finally, once they “adapted” by consuming some of the Eternal’s powers, they begin to speak and mimic humans. It’s a subtle way of representing Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and thus the survival of the fittest.
Past Marvel films such as Captain Marvel (2019) and The Avengers (2012) animated their alien species as they were designed in their comics. However, The Eternals cleverly modified their appearance to enhance the story. Similar design tactics can be seen in Thor: Ragnarök (2017) as the filmmakers ensured the costume design of characters, and the animations of its aliens aligned with the stories of Norse mythology.
Furthermore, the Celestials themselves are animated with similarly intentional choices. When I first saw the Celestials in the film’s trailer, I thought to myself “they look like broken planets”. Turns out, that’s exactly what they are. Celestials are first dormant, incubated over time in the cores of planets. They use the energy of the planet’s population, humans in Earth’s case, to bring about their birth during an event the film calls The Emergence. In an apocalyptic, Mount Vesuvius destroys Pompeii fashion, the Emergence causes volcanic eruptions and the planet breaks apart. Here, history is again subtly woven into the film. This heat radiated by Earth’s dormant Celestial is what leads to the return of the Deviants, Deviants who fell victim to the Ice Age and were thus thought to be extinct.
One thing in particular I tend to find comical in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that despite how bizarre or formidable a character’s power or world may be, they are still governed by laws of science. The key to fighting the Deviants wasn’t a mystical ritual, strange rock/gem, or a batch of radioactive toxic waste, but the Law of Conservation. The Law of Conservation states that energy cannot be created or destroyed. In the film, Sersi has the power of molecular and atomic manipulation. In other words, she can change states of matter, rearrange their components, and create it into something new. During the middle of the film, she finds out she has the power to do this to Deviants, converting its energy and configuration into a tree. In the end using this same method of energy conversion to ultimately prevent the emergence of a new celestial from Earth’s core.
Eternals (2021) historical references are both well placed and celebratory of the development of the human race; from their arrival and conflicts in the ancient human civilization of Mesopotamia and Tenochtitlán, to Gilgamesh, Thena, Ikaris, and Kingo influencing the stories of Greek mythology and Bollywood film. The film also refuses to shy away from humanity’s faults—particularly regarding the use of technology in war— lamenting the use of the atomic bomb during World War 2, and in a more comedic sense the prevalence of the iPhone.
Ultimately, Marvel Studios—and even other associated properties—intrinsically weaves science into their films, whether it’s with genetics in X-Men, expressing time-travel theories in Avengers Endgame, or mechanical/electrical engineering in Iron Man. Moreover they ensure their stories are relevant with the times. Shown through the development of humans in Eternals all the way back to Iron Man, originally told in the comics in the context of The Vietnam War to the War in Afghanistan in the films.
Walking into The Eternals, I had no idea who they were, what a Deviant is, or a Celestial but it’s the way Marvel grounds their fantastical realm in reality through science and history that help make their films exceptional. Despite The Eternals lack luster dialogue and plot tropes, it excelled in regards to its the subtle nuances through film locations, character backgrounds, and animations