Eternals gives us plenty to gripe about. Its dialogue is stilted, its diversity is painfully performative, and Bill Skarsgård is wasted on a villain no one can (or wants to) remember. Worst of all, it has the nerve to play at philosophy, eager to present cosmic level stakes, but never willing to question our place in the universe. For all its fancy talk and sombre tones, Eternals happily takes the easy way out, heedlessly pushing humanity’s importance, unthinking in the selfishness and hubris it promotes.
The Nonsense in Question
Sent by deities known as the Celestials, the Eternals arrive at ancient Mesopotamia to eradicate the Deviants—primordial beasts with a penchant for murder. As they fend off the monsters Earth would have surely succumbed to, our heroes grow increasingly fond of humanity. Soon enough, they are one with the people. They help plant their crops, build their cities, and raise their children, feeling for themselves the very texture of human life. But when wars ravage societies, the almighty Eternals turn a blind eye. The Celestial Arishem has warned them that undue meddling could warp humanity’s growth. They have no choice but to grit their teeth, and accept our suffering to be the cost of something greater. This obedience vanishes when they learn the Celestials’ truth.
At this point of my synopsis, someone who has yet to watch the film might guess that the Celestials were evil all along, that there was never a greater purpose to begin with. One might assume that the Eternals discover that they have been nothing more than puppets of a selfish ploy, leading them to wage war against their creators, justifiably furious. While that would be a good guess, it would also be assuming that the movie has a sensible narrative.
What’s actually revealed is that the Celestials have long been on a mission to propagate life throughout the universe. For that to happen, Earth must come to its predetermined end as the Celestial Tiamut, lying dormant at the planet’s core, emerges and embarks on its mission to nurture life across the stars. The Celestials move with a noble purpose, and unlike Thanos the Mad Titan, they express neither pleasure nor remorse towards Earth’s fate—its destruction is simply the next step of an endless cosmic project.
But for whatever reason, the Eternals decry their masters’ plan. However content they may have been to sit back and watch children be raped, butchered, and skewered, they cannot possibly allow Earth to implode in a painless split second for the continuation of life across the cosmos.
It’s… dumb. I don’t know how else to say it. The film paints the universe as a “constant exchange of energy”, the flow of which should stop for no one, but refuses to develop this idea with the humility it deserves. It automatically places humanity above this exchange, exempts it from its obligation to all of existence, and demands the natural cycle of life to come to a screeching halt for a speck of blue in what is to be understood as a kaleidoscope of color. Accepting Earth’s smallness and seeing beyond ourselves is never treated as an option, which is why Ikaris—a champion of humility—is depicted as the antagonist, doomed to defeat.
The Tragedy of Ikaris
Seven days before Tiamut’s emergence, the Prime Eternal Ajak tells Ikaris—the only other Eternal aware of the truth—that the Celestials must be stopped. Earth is simply too important.
Ikaris nods, but realizes what must be done. Unwavering in his devotion to a higher purpose, he shortly kills Ajak, but much like his creators, finds not even a semblance of comfort in her death. Instead, he fires lasers from his eyes in a fit of grief, and weeps over her corpse as he fights tooth and nail against a wave of emotions, cursing fate for having made him an Eternal.
The movie would have done well to highlight Ikaris’s inner struggle, and his resolve to persevere. Unlike his friends, he doesn’t have the gall to believe he is in a position to deny billions, if not trillions, the privilege of life; he is a servant of the greater good. Ikaris is willing to sever his earthly attachments, however painful, because duty calls.
This conviction is on full display when he tells his fellow Eternals, “You won’t succeed against me. And I will kill every one of you if I have to,” after which he looks sternly at Sersi, whose hands he held just moments before. It’s badass—the strength born from humility to renounce all that you love for an end larger than yourself. But this single most stirring aspect of the film amounts to expectedly little.
At the story’s climax, after eliminating Druig and breaking free of Phastos’s trap, Ikaris comes face to face with Sersi, his former lover. He steadies himself and sets his eyes ablaze—then stops. In the heat of battle, he remembers every tender moment they’ve shared since the days of Babylon, and the flames in his eyes are doused out by tears. In a lapse of judgment, he surrenders himself to emotion and joins the rest of the Eternals in forming the Uni-Mind, with which they freeze Tiamut as it begins to emerge.
When the battle is over, Ikaris looks around, sees Tiamut submerged in the ocean, and realizes what he’s done. Choking back tears, Ikaris tells Sersi, “I’m sorry.” Having stood against the greater good of the universe, he can no longer bear to live with himself. He flies off into space, then turns around to take one last look at Earth—the only home he’s known and his greatest mistake—before diving into the sun. This time he does not falter; he embraces the flames, and burns away.
Never Stood a Chance
So our hero goes out in a blaze of glory. The film affords him that much. It doesn’t change the fact that Ikaris, by virtue of being labeled the villain, never stood a chance. The humility he represents was destined to be overwhelmed by the heroes’ hubris, at the vanguard of which are Sersi and Ajak, wielding the narrative that the human race is simply, inherently, incomparably special.
Sersi delivers her nonsense in a roundabout way. Her most cogent point against the Celestials is that “whenever innocent lives are sacrificed for the greater good, it turns out to be a mistake,” but this contradicts her reason for the Eternals’ distance from human conflict: “If we’d protected humanity from everything for 7,000 years, you’d never have had the chance to develop in the way you were meant to.”
What Sersi is saying is that the Celestials’ plan is morally unconscionable, but it was A-OK for her to twiddle her thumbs as humanity, for 7,000 years, continued to mutilate itself. It’s no problem if billions of humans—innocent or not—must suffer for the greater good of their race. But for the sake of the universe? No way. The Eternals value sacrifice only to the extent that it might serve humanity.
Yet no one knows why. They sit in a candle-lit room with their brows furrowed, mumbling to themselves, “There has to be another way!” but not a single character attempts to justify why exactly humanity should be afforded such privilege. That is, until the total thoughtlessness of the film is confirmed by Sersi when she exclaims, “Come on, we’re not going to let everyone on Earth die, right?” She says this with such vigor, as if our value is self-evident, beyond and and all reasoning. Who cares if its our turn to go, if our end will provide fresh soil for new galaxies to flourish? We deserve to upset the cosmic balance because we’re us. Three cheers for humanity! Hip hip hooray!
Ajak extends Sersi’s logic (or lack thereof) when she explains, “I have seen them fight and lie and kill, but I have also seem them laugh and love. I have seen them dream and create. This planet and these people… have changed me. The cost of Arishem’s design, it’s not worth it. Not this time.”
She says this as she looks far into the horizon, her eyes shimmering in awe of the human race. Her heart swells as she muses on our ability to laugh, love, dream and create—an ability only shared by monkeys and every other mildly intelligent species. Or perhaps she is celebrating our propensity for evil, because it is our struggle for kindness that is so remarkable. Our moral duality and the painstaking process it entails, our Herculean journey towards a better world. Such is the human experience.
A beautiful thought. Also a twisted tautology.
By emphasizing the beauty in imperfection, Ajak glorifies our moral failures on the basis that they serve as a testament to our humanity. Our sins are romanticized as growing pains in light of the fact that we also happen to laugh and love. Whatever we do, however many children are plucked from playgrounds to be stripped of their organs, we’re forever lovable because it is our struggle for goodness that makes us human. There is grace in our failings. According to Ajak, it’s okay—even preferable—that we remain despicable so long as we laugh, love, dream and create. How else could we be human, the greatest thing to be? Humanity is peerlessly wonderful because we struggle, and we struggle so we can be human.
There’s a reason why Marvel won’t let go of this narrative, and it’s because it tells us exactly what we like to hear: Don’t change—you’re perfect no matter what. You’re precious because you’re you.
Or: Don’t think so hard, buddy! How else are you going to enjoy the movie?
Duty, humility, resolve, sacrifice, justice, all the things in life beyond the reach of monkeys are cast aside by the film in fear of the implication that we are not as important as we like to believe. Rather, the movie demands we ignore it all. It lost! Ikaris was crushed by the righteous heroes who shielded the undeniable importance of Earth. We vanquished Ikaris and his stupid, stupid sense of duty, cultivated by a solemn respect for ideals and goals he reluctantly accepted to be larger than himself. Sacrifice? For others? Hah! Shut up.
Eternals wants to enjoy the trappings of a philosophical story whilst shirking deeper thought. It poses genuinely provocative questions which invite us to consider the universe as a cycle of give-and-take, but rejects any answer that suggests humanity should submit itself to the sheer greatness of this design. Instead, it offers an answer of its own: “No.”
Afraid that the humility Ikaris embodies will be less than conducive to pushing merchandise and a mindless cinematic experience, the film dooms him to be remembered as the “bad guy” when his figurine alone should be flying off the shelves at every mall it is sold. The film should have children inspired by his resolve, reenacting his bravest moments on the playground, telling their fellow make-believe Eternals, “I will kill everyone of you if I have to.”
But, of course, the film would rather praise thoughtlessness, selfishness, arrogance—the inability to see beyond oneself. Sersi and Ajak’s stubbornness in protecting what is only important to them is lauded as the way of the hero, and anyone that says otherwise is a heretic villain.
With staggering confidence, Eternals promotes the narrative that we should have no obligation towards anything but ourselves, not because there is something invaluable about what we do, or because we are undeniably vital to our surroundings, but simply because we are what we are, whatever that may be. To question this means you’re the bad guy. You entertain the impossible. You fly too close to the sun.