top of page
ADVERTISMENT

"The Gods Are Coming Back!"




When I first heard that Chloé Zhao had been chosen to direct the MCU adaptation of The Eternals, Jack Kirby’s final major creation for the company that owed so much of its success to his inexhaustible creativity, I was thrilled, and honestly somewhat amused. Zhao — by any measure one of the finest American directors of her generation — and the measured, nuanced qualities of her films like The Rider and the Oscar-winning Nomadland are, to put it mildly, the diametric aesthetic opposite of Jack Kirby and his decades-worth of volatile, primary-colored, galvanic graphic settings of almost continuous crisis, often viewed from camera angles tilted to emphasize vertiginous diagonals, feverishly delivered across tens of thousands of pages packed with an increasing overuse of exclamation points. Where Zhao favors distance, quiet interaction, and both real-time and real-life informing her understated narratives, Kirby is literally unreal, over the top, out of this world, his panels bursting with supercharged action barely contained in the modest three-row page layouts that define the majority of his output (though he also loved creating mural-like, detail-rich two-page spreads, particularly from the 70’s onward).




Low-key vs. Loki — it was as though an Avengers installment was greenlit to be directed by John Cassavetes (or, to take a more apt, living example, and one who shares Zhao’s enthusiasm for utilizing nonfictional elements in his films, The Florida Project’s Sean Baker). Although she is a self-professed MCU fan who insisted to Variety that “Jack Kirby and his imagination, his incredible work, is really the foundation of” her film, how would Zhao’s neo-neo-realism find a way to truly do justice to that baroque, berserk, mythopoeic eruption from the multiverse known as late Kirby, published by Marvel Comics for 17 issues and one annual in the late ’70s as The Eternals?


Therein lies one perplexity — and also a few under-acknowledged resonances — of the film The Eternals. Marvel and its universe(s), amounting to nothing less the dominant mythology of our commodified era, has processed this revision of a revisionist mythology for mass consumption, triangulating and transforming both of these artists’ sensibilities into one more well-oiled global commodity, resulting in a product that is neither one thing nor the other. This is the uneasy point over which, initial box office receipts notwithstanding, the dissatisfaction with the film pivots, with critics lamenting that this MCU entry is somehow not a personal work like Zhao’s previous films, and fans decrying it as slow, long and convoluted in contrast with previous Marvel films (a broader category than what’s referred to as the “MCU”). Lost, somehow fittingly, in this binary distemper is Kirby and his original vision of The Eternals, at once forgotten and altered for this film in a manner which largely defangs and considerably diminishes the implications of his late Marvel work; largely, though not entirely.




This is not meant to be a review of The Eternals, a film I’m still wrestling with, something which has been a dependable indicator for me in the past of an underlying strength or otherwise hidden quality in an artwork I’m not recognizing or fully appreciating. This piece began life simply as a meditation on the distance traveled between Kirby’s colossal, unhinged original (with a detour into Neil Gaiman and John Romita Jr.’s memorable 2006 Eternals mini-series, from which the film also draws, not always profitably) and Zhao’s $180 million-budgeted adaptation. For all its flaws, there is a definite if erratic poise and grace that distinguishes The Eternals from every other MCU entry to date, but it remains yoked to the MCU as a brand, a genre, a practice, practically a metaphysic: forces beams coming out of everywhere, worried look, punchline. Zhao can bring all the analog, in-camera, tastefully restrained cinematic ideas she wants — and she does — yet there’s no escaping the assembly line nature of the enterprise she signed on for. But is it overreach or something else entirely when she kicks her Eternals off with the scrolling title “In the beginning…”?



 

“An age passes with Jack Kirby...I can’t call it the Marvel Age of Comics, because I don’t believe in rewarding thievery. I call it the Jack Kirby Age of Comics...it was Jack Kirby who defined the style and method of every comics artist who followed him. There is before Kirby, and after Kirby. One age does not resemble the other. The King is dead. There is no successor to that title... the Jack Kirby Age of Comics is coming to an end. It’s gone supernova and burned itself out and begun its slow, steady collapse into a black hole. We couldn’t feed off the genius of Jack Kirby forever. The King is dead, and he has no successor. We will never see his like again. No single artist will replace him. No art form can expect to be gifted with more than one talent as brilliant as his. The rest of us, we will build upon what he gave us.”

— Excerpt from a keynote speech by Frank Miller, June 1994, four months after Jack Kirby’s death


It’s impossible to overestimate the staggering influence and tireless, startling invention of the man crowned the undisputed “King of Comics,” Jack Kirby, both in the culture at large well beyond comics and, most especially, for Marvel both as an idea and an institution. Born and raised in the Jewish tenements of the Lower East Side just over a century ago, Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg) quickly demonstrated exceptional skill as an artist, notably in the still-new comic strip format, whose first collection into anthologized book form with 1934’s Famous Funnies #1 bequeathed to the world the comic book, a form which continues to be developed even in a notionally post-print digital era nearly a century later. From the very beginning, Kirby was there and would exert a towering influence for over a half-century, often most fruitfully as a collaborator.



He and his longtime artistic and business partner Joe Simon created Captain America for Marvel’s corporate predecessor Timely Comics in 1941 — he’s seen sporting his familiar “winghead” -ed red, white and blue uniform and star-and-striped shield while knocking out Hitler on the cover of Captain America #1, published on the eve of the US entry into World War II. Simon and Kirby, as they were referred to then and now, went on to pioneer a wide range of other genres for the nascent comic book industry, notably a popular line of romance comics, a concept created whole cloth by the duo, as well as what can only be called psychological comics in the surreal series The Strange World of Your Dreams, a title one could imagine Freud reading with pleasure. They would go on to lampoon Captain America in the post-McCarthy mid-’50s with their Fighting American, as Timely’s successor Atlas Comics contemporaneously made Cap a wearisome anti-Communist foe.


In the interim, Kirby would involve himself in many separate projects throughout the ’50s, including the extraordinary sci-fi newspaper strip Sky Masters, inked by the legendary E.C. Comics artist Wally Wood, who shared Kirby’s ardor for both cosmic scenarios and busy, dial-filled spacecraft interiors. Kirby also created Challengers of the Unknown for DC Comics, another group of interstellar heroes whose adventures would influence the creation of yet another supergroup a few years later after Kirby returned to the then-named Marvel Comics in the late-50’s.


Initially drawing disposable monster tales written by longtime Marvel editor Stan Lee like “Fin Fang Foom,” Kirby and Marvel struggled within an industry eking by in a condition of near-fatal doldrums. Comics publishers were still reeling from the pernicious influence of Frederic Wertham’s anti-E.C. Comics screed Seduction of the Innocent, a scandalous 50’s bestseller which led to congressional hearings on the comics industry and, ultimately, to that industry’s own lamentable self-policing agency The Comics Code Authority, limiting the possibilities and direction of comic books for many years.




Noticing the success of DC’s Justice League of America, Lee and Kirby decided in 1961 to create a new group of superheroes, four would-be astronauts altered by cosmic rays during a failed rocket launch who went on to become the premier Marvel Silver-Age group/comic and Lee and Kirby’s enduring triumph as collaborators: The Fantastic Four. On this title and throughout his seemingly limitless work for Marvel for the rest of the decade, Kirby went to infinity and beyond, with increasingly abstract approaches to space, time and the human figure itself, while bringing insight and compassion to his characters’ capricious motivations. But the seemingly limitless self-promotion of Lee and what was effectively his family business (Marvel’s then-owner and publisher Martin Goodman was Lee’s cousin by marriage) tended to overwhelm Kirby’s essential contributions, and not just via his outlandish, vernacular Op Art graphics but his now-undeniable contributions as a plot creator and writer. 1


After Kirby moved to the West Coast, formally cutting his ties with the well-promoted “Marvel Bullpen” (in actuality, a group of tiny offices in midtown Manhattan) and working with increasing independence, Marvel remained unresponsive to his much-deserved demands for greater recognition and compensation. When offered a take-it-or-leave-it contract little different from ones he had signed before, Kirby took his marbles and ideas away from Marvel’s so-called “House of Ideas” — a house which had been built in no small measure due to his indefatigable ingenuity — over to DC Comics where he would create his “Fourth World” saga, beginning with the first of many series for which he not only drew but also wrote and edited, The New Gods.




The Fourth World books are undoubtedly Kirby’s magnum opus, but they also mark the beginning of a certain hermeticism in his work that would only escalate over the course of his final decades in comics. At Marvel in the ’60s, Kirby’s pencils were inked by artists whose varied skills tempered not only the power but also the increasing grotesque qualities of Kirby’s mature work — one aspect of Kirby’s 70’s work for DC is how much that grotesquerie is unleashed. In his early penciling (and sometimes self-inking), Kirby’s characters had gracefully rendered facial features, anatomically correct hands and feet and evinced a comparative realism, relative to his peers. Come 1970, his concepts have been boiled down to electric, impressionistic but somewhat repetitive shorthand symbolisms of the human figure, cityscapes, even the universe.


Although Vince Colletta, Kirby’s popular inker on Marvel’s Thor (whose thin-lined delineation also concealed massive erasures of Kirby’s original pencils), followed him to DC and New Gods, increasingly Kirby’s art was inked by the West-Coast based Mike Royer. Over the course of time, certainly, by the time both ended up on The Eternals, Royer could be argued to have become Kirby’s definitive inker 2, but early on, he traced Kirby’s pencils to a faithful fault, with a leaden imitativeness that bordered on obsequiousness and one which unappealingly reinforced the more grotesque abstractions in Kirby’s pencils, his inks teeming with murky, hard blacks and unvaried line widths. Still, the graphic impact of Kirby’s imagination so unleashed by such creative freedom is incontestable, and there are countless instances in the 70’s DC books of delirious potency and galactic magnitude.


But then, there is the question of Jack Kirby, writer. In a consideration of Kirby’s late Marvel creations published in The Jack Kirby Collector #24, Mike Gartland and John Morrow observe, with no small understatement: “To state that Jack's writing (dialogue) was an acquired taste is not insulting…” In truth, and in similar contrast to his past work as an artist in the decades leading up the Fourth World saga, what was nimble and perceptive (again, relative to his peers) in his early comics writing hardened into an awkward, declamatory style bordering on hectoring — a primitive, clumsy, Art Brut poetry, assertive and cornball, glutted with all those exclamation points. Lee may have coasted long and disingenuously on Kirby’s ideas, and the results could tend towards a certain faux-Shakespearean pomposity, but his Marvel scripts gave Kirby’s concepts shape, ballast and substance. Though Kirby would occasionally rise to the occasion of his imaginative brilliance (fans rightly consider 1972’s New Gods #7, “The Pact,” his finest script and the best single issue of the Fourth World saga, and there are some merciless tales brought to brutally vivid life in his aborted In the Days of the Mob project which would have been DC’s first foray into magazine-sized publications), so much of it was drowned in esoteric, relentless captions and acres of tin-eared dialogue.


Fans must have agreed; while the figures remain disputed, the Fourth World books and other creations for DC (with the exception of the long-running, Planet of the Apes-swiped Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth) never met the sales levels hoped for by DC brass. They soon tried to impose their own writers and editors on Kirby, moves he resisted until he finally accepted his sometimes (and eventually permanent) nemesis Lee’s wooing and signed a three-year contract to return to Marvel in 1975. Fans were promised a brand new “New Gods” saga that eventually came to be called The Eternals — issue #1 has Ikaris in civilian garb gesturing towards an Incan statue and exclaiming: “Look to the stars! The gods are COMING BACK!


I was vaguely aware of all of this when I started collecting comics as a kid in the late 70’s, just as Kirby’s brief return to Marvel was coming to an end. I remember feeling proud to own all ten issues of Kirby’s Machine Man, about a robot with human feelings that was itself an offshoot for Kirby’s curious, unlikely Marvel adaptation of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which similarly also only resulted in ten issues. Repeating the lack of commercial success realized at DC, few of Kirby’s 70’s work for Marvel lasted more than a dozen issues — indeed, one of the only ones that did was The Eternals.




For whatever reason, I never read the comics at the time — perhaps a disinterest in mythology generally when I was younger and the theme swiped from Erich von Däniken’s pop-science bestseller Chariots of the Gods?, which proposed that the Incas and other indigenous peoples had extraterrestrial help building their remarkable cities, temples and graven sculptures, didn’t move me. But there was also the matter of Kirby himself. With a return to his co-creations, Captain America and Black Panther, that were similarly buried in endless exposition and goofy, if visionary ideas (I own a t-shirt emblazoned with the cover for Kirby’s Black Panther #2 from 1977, showing the Wakandan king battling “The Six Million Year Man”), I would read Kirby’s own impassioned, eccentric editorials in his final Marvel books with the affection one might have for a beloved, slightly daft grandfather, but also with a certain resistance to their hokeyness. In any case, I had to wait over forty years until writing this piece to finally read The Eternals’ seventeen issues and annual — truth told, I’m sorry I waited this long. Although it takes a few issues to achieve its tone and footing, there are passages in Kirby’s Eternals that rank with his best, most expansively imagined books. It’s a shame it was shut down before it could fully achieve its conceptual promise, one little advanced by the film — with some very notable exceptions.


 


“Superheroes are, essentially by definition, idiotic confections intended for children, and the fact that I can’t escape them as an adult so far this millennium makes my blood boil. I did my time as a kid loving X-Men and Spider-Man and The Avengers and Jack Kirby specials (and E.C. reprints and even Warren mags like Creepy and Eerie), and heaven knows I do not begrudge the American early-adolescent his or her time in the shade with comic books, or their afternoons in matinees watching Batman or Iron Man or whatever. But it’s gotten to the point that superheroes comprise the substantial percentage of movie options we have now, in one form or another, and to avoid them as a grown-up you’d have to avoid cinema. What’s more, adults are flocking, adult reviewers are treating the movies seriously, the filmmakers themselves apparently believe they’re making coherent and profound statements.”

—Michael Atkinson, “Throwing Down,” from his long-defunct blog Zero for Conduct, 7/8/2008


One of my biggest issues with the MCU generally is that it’s too much Lee and not enough Kirby. The wisecracking banter, interpersonal bickering and emotional turbulence — the soap-operatic elements Lee introduced into the staid world of superheroes — are all in evidence but, brilliant as its digital effects often are, little of the awe-struck existential wonder or sheer interdimensional audacity of Kirby’s artwork and concepts. And when so much screen time is taken up by, say, the collection of six Infinity Stones, the overriding concern isn’t art or catharsis: it’s math. But we’ll get to Thanos in a moment.


There is a part of me that will always say “Amen” to former Village Voice film critic Atkinson’s screed excerpted above, and, with just the first Iron Man film to go by, he hardly knew what he was in for, MCU-wise. But I also wonder if the familiarity with the comics and characters of the Marvel Universe (in this respect, I include the 20th Century Fox X-Men and Fantastic Four films not considered a part of that otherwise self-contained Cinematic Universe) also helped smooth acceptance and an understanding of those characters’ own convoluted backstories on a mass-cultural level more readily than some Marvel fans are prepared to do for The Eternals.




Zhao, along with her fellow writers Patrick Burleigh and the brothers Ryan and Kaz Firpo (the latter two are also credited with the “screen story”), clearly went long and deep into various Eternals comics and not just the issues created by Kirby and Gaiman/JR Jr. — the character of Phastos, for example, portrayed by Brian Tyree Henry in the film, was first introduced almost a decade after Kirby’s initial run in a mini-series written by Peter B. Gillis and drawn by Marvel stalwart Sal Buscema I haven’t read. I further wonder if the writers’ collective familiarity with this alternate Marvel universe, a familiarity largely unshared by even diehard Marvel fans, encouraged them to make too many changes that simply don’t translate in the transition from Kirby’s original to Zhao’s film. Tinkering with myths, even changing characters’ race, gender, and sexual orientation, are certainly not what I’m intending to critique here — similar tinkering, after all, gave us Kirby’s Ikaris, Sersi, Makkari, etc. But moving so far from the original work’s more-than-sturdy base concepts results in narrative arcs that strain credulity and no longer carry the potency of the original. Spoiler alerts abound from this point forward.


One unfortunate change Zhao and her writers made to the Kirby Eternals is concealing and ultimately altering the nature of the various species who make up the story. In the film, the Eternals are a hard-to-kill race of super beings who, we find out much later, were created by the apparently almighty Celestials, protecting humanity and other species by destroying the Deviants, referred to by the prime Celestial Arishem as, “my mistakes.”




In the beginning, a.k.a. The Eternals #1, Kirby makes it clear: The Eternals, The Deviants, and humanity itself are all the Earth-born, directly-connected creations of the Celestials, the multiple results of never-explained experiments on early ape-like creatures (an idea not far removed from 2001: A Space Odyssey, which the film echoes in, to take one example, The Eternals’ Monolith-shaped interplanetary vehicle, the Domo). In the comics, the Eternals could not be killed and lived on Earth atop the mountain Olympia inaccessible to humans, where the film makes them denizens of the planet Olympia which we never see (for good (read: bad) reason) in the film.


Far from being the screeching, dragon-like bundles of CGI-ed sinews besieging our heroes in the film, the Kirby Deviants were chaos incarnate, instability rendered as a sentient species, and his misshapen creations are all imaginatively realized. The Deviants had previously enslaved humanity and ruled over ancient Lemuria, before it fell into the sea like Atlantis (or, for that matter, Icarus). Their hidden undersea kingdom produced even more monstrous creatures known as mutates and, led by their oddly noble warlord Kro, the Deviants planned an attack on the unsuspecting Earth as the Celestials began to appear on Earth again after centuries of absence.




Kirby’s Celestials, moreover, remained silent, their ultimate purpose unknown. This inscrutability, coupled with names redolent of the Old Testament, draws upon Kirby’s own Judaism and the conviction in Jewish mystic traditions of the unknowability of God. As in the film, only the Eternal Ajak can communicate with them and, for someone who threw in everything including the kitchen sink into his stories, it’s telling that Kirby left these encounters mostly off-camera, further reinforcing their untranslatability. In the film, conversely, Ajak plaintively pleads for humanity and the Eternals while standing in the enormous palm of Arishem’s British-accented immensity. Kirby’s Ajak was a male dressed in Incan headdress raiment — in the film, Ajak is rendered as a matriarchal Prime Eternal, portrayed by Salma Hayek. In Kirby’s work, the Prime Eternal is the red-tressed Zuras, his Eternalization of Zeus, a character entirely missing from the film.


There are compelling narrative rationales for making this relationship between species less direct. In the film, the Deviants also challenge humanity and Celestiality, while the parasitic development of Kro, hissing with contempt that both he and the Eternals are “Arishem’s children,” gives rise to the possibility of new narrative directions for the Deviants which could be further explored. But the eventual reveal that the Eternals are not Olympian gods after all but mere recloned robots with repeatedly erased memories goes a long way towards precluding identification with them and also lamentably imparts both the species and the film with the shopworn flavor of the later seasons of Westworld.




It’s resourceful to turn the Eternals’ absence to date from the MCU and from human affairs into a quickly dispatched plot device, as the Eternals have forsworn not to interfere in human affairs, while such horrors as the conquistadors’ pillage of Mesoamerica in the 16th century and the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima result in horrified misgivings by some of the Eternals. Druig, tartly portrayed in the film by Barry Keoghan and generally treated as Ikaris’ villainous cousin by Kirby and Gaiman, refers to the downfall of the Incas in the 1500s as “genocide.”3


When Hayek’s Ajak briefly recounts the dire conclusion to Avengers: Infinity War, tying in the film ever so obliquely to Thanos and his deeds, the implications are many, extending well beyond the MCU. Kirby’s 70’s work for Marvel, including his work on established characters, were all deliberately unconnected from the continuity of the line’s other books. Gartland and Morrow suggest that “what Jack wanted, to put it frankly, was to be left alone to write and edit his own stories, and have no collaborators (in the storytelling sense) or tie-ins with other titles done by other people. (This shows how strongly Jack was determined to never again fall victim to losing credit for his concepts or creations—the hundreds of characters and/or ideas he gave Marvel in the '60s and was sometimes acknowledged for.)”


Kirby’s Eternals were, in this respect, the ultimate outsiders at Marvel, with appearances by agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and, most absurdly of all, by a “cosmic-powered Hulk” robot offered up by Kirby under duress from the demands of the increasingly corporate Marvel management. I’m already awaiting the shock from audiences of the planned film of Kirby’s New Gods when they notice the uncanny resemblance between that film’s villain Darkseid and Marvel’s Thanos, the latter a character stolen almost entirely from Kirby by his creator, Jim Starlin (Marvel editor Roy Thomas allegedly encouraged him, saying, “If you’re going to steal, steal from the best”). That Thanos, i.e. warmed-over Kirby, is the remotest of MCU hooks for The Eternals adaptation of a comic that resolutely strove to stand apart is the most cutting of ironies for a Kirby fan.



As suggested earlier, the film swings like a pendulum between Zhao’s careful pacing, reserved tone and available-light natural splendor in long shot and close up, and the MCU’s trademark chortle-and-boom. I dream of a cut that dispenses entirely with the witless jokey asides that let the air out of the film far too often —that, sadly, includes most of the talented Kumail Nanjiani’s reportedly self-written gags as the multi-generational Bollywood star Kingo. It’s apparently inconceivable that a race of millennia-old super-beings can’t help but indulge in asinine banter like rejects from a Kevin Smith film.




Zhao’s rectitude falling short of Kirby’s explosive multi directionality is most fully embodied in Gemma Chan’s reserved Sersi, conceived by Kirby and Gaiman as a very different, prankish life of the party. This is not a woman you could imagine turning anyone into pigs, continuing a pervasive trend in the film of severing the characters from the mythological origins Kirby attempted a new twist on while also directly referencing. Chan’s performance is all simmer and, while sensitive and intelligent, somewhat undercooked for the proceedings. You can’t say that about Richard Madden’s impassioned performance as Ikaris, all Scottish-brogued, broad-shouldered charisma. Angelina Jolie’s warrior Thena (whose implied past dalliance with Kro was one of several intriguing twists never fully explored in the Kirby books) splits the difference in her own charismatic performance, calm and rage-maddened in equal measure.


Going “meta” on ancient source material is, of course, the high-modernist aesthetic imperative par excellence, with both Kirby’s Eternals and Joyce’s Ulysses sharing surprising affinities that extend beyond their mutual Greek mythological origins. But like the first line from Genesis at the film’s opening — or not long after that, its use of the dramatic Pink Floyd instrumental from Dark Side of the Moon "On the Run" leading into “Time” — the re-use of iconic material often evaporates from The Eternals. But there are also certain provocative undercurrents throughout that exert their own gravitational pull.


 

“Our Lord and Maker made a mess of things, sir. A fine mess.”

— Theo Angelopoulos and Tonino Guerra, Ulysses’ Gaze


“I accept you, but I don't accept the choice that you've made.”

“It's not a choice, Jill. God made me this way.”

“Then I reject God.”

Mr. Show


I confess I didn’t buy the virtuous Ikaris’ homicidal turning on Ajak in deference to Arishem’s will in the film. In the comics The Eternals respect and don’t question their servitude (with the notable exception of the devious, malevolent Druig, vastly different from his critical but benevolent disposition in the film). Given the depth of his love for Sersi and otherwise dedicated protection of humanity, he seems an unlikely ultra-orthodox defender of the Celestials own creation myth.


But The Eternals emerges in an era of inexplicable fundamentalisms upsetting the course of so much in the world — if anything, such zeal is overfamiliar if not the kind of behavior we hope from our heroes. And the disappointment with the film generally seems to reflect the post-pandemic frustrations that currently rattle the nation and the world, infrastructure bills and climate accords that don’t go far enough, the politicization of COVID and vaccinations, deepening divides no amount of dopey badinage will ever heal. For good and ill, The Eternals is very much a movie of its time.


The shifts in gender, ability, and other foundations of identity in the film are certain to infuriate a certain reactionary mindset — but, again, Kirby created The Eternals as a revised look at Greek and other mythologies. That process is productively expanded by the film while also serving as an implicit critique of Kirby’s white, heteronormative heroic conceptions. It redounds to the film and the MCU to enlarge Kirby’s mythological retconning as it does.




And it truly is Zhao’s film — those quieter moments convey a warmth, patience and charm that makes The Eternals truly feel like no other recent big-budgeted film I can think of, and which not all its fatuous digressions can eradicate. But those moments are fleeting, vaporous, subject to incessant force beams and japes. The only way it could completely succeed is by not being an MCU film: namely, be what it’s not. Katie Rife’s lament for The AV Club — “Why does Marvel keep hiring world-class directors if it won’t trust them?” — can be answered, sort of like the plot to Avengers: Infinity War, with more math. Nine figures worth.


I’m reminded of the famous heroin-chic Latin phrase of dubious provenance tattooed on Jolie’s lower abdomen: “Quod me nutrit, me destruit” (“What nourishes me, destroys me”). The symbiosis between Kirby and his writing, Kirby and Marvel, Zhao and Kirby, Zhao and the MCU and all amongst each other constitutes a pulsating, Gordian knot at the heart of The Eternals, one that will not be unraveled, but, perhaps in time, may be the reason audiences come to ultimately treasure the film, or appreciate it precisely for its difference from everything else around it — even from itself. All quite fascinating, but you could be forgiven for understanding why Marvel wouldn’t view two and a half hours of poorly received contradiction as sequel fodder.


However, the film does contain one new, truly original aspect, the main one I still wrestle with. By jettisoning the Prime Eternal Zuras in favor of a female Ajak, Zhao and her writers also discard the vengeful, murderous, rapist lore surrounding Zeus (if not the problematic remainder of Greek mythology). But have they actually relocated him in the person of Arishem? The Prime Celestial is not the enigmatic being of unfathomable motivation as in the Kirby books, but a vengeful lord who denounces betrayal and whose judgment is promised, though unlikely to be delivered exactly as the writers originally intended.


Creating a race of robots to do his bidding and corral his “mistake” is a bleak, mordant conception of God, all too evocative an era notable for its deficit of hope — what does it say about The Eternals or ourselves when confronted with a concept of original sin that resides not in ourselves or other beings, but in God?



 

1. Anyone who doubts Kirby’s inestimable contributions to practically every single Marvel story he penciled should pick up any issue of one of the best comics zines ever published, the remarkable Jack Kirby Collector, published by TwoMorrows Press. Every tabloid-sized issue reproduces dozens of pages from Kirby’s original pencils, complete with clear instructions in the captions usually for Lee of what’s happening in each panel and the emotions where not actual dialogue the characters are articulating. In cinematic terms, Lee may have been the superior dialogue man of the two, but during this Marvel Era of comics, the undeniable auteur is Jack Kirby.


2. Marvel partisans and the occasional Hudson Valley-based comics fan might insist that honor should go to Kirby’s longtime FF inker, the lifelong Saugerties resident Joe Sinnott, who passed away last year at 93. Sinnott’s distinctive illustrative flourish also made him the definitive Silver-Age Marvel inker.


3. The New Yorker’s Richard Brody, in his dismissive review of the film, notes that “genocide” is a term that was first coined in 1942 by the historian Raphaël Lemkin.

 

James Keepnews


James is a musician, writer, and multimedia artist. James’ writing has appeared in Chronogram, Pacific Sun Magazine, New Haven Advocate, and other publications. You can check out his previous pieces for Story Screen: “There’s Nothing Out There!” — George A. Romero’s 'Lost' PSA-For-Hire "The Amusement Park," “’Have a Nice Apocalypse’ —The Resolute Irresolution of Southland Tales,” and “Archives and Morals: Jean-Luc Godard and the Boundless Provocations of The Image Book.”

 BUT WAIT, THERE'S MORE: 

     COMMENTS:     

bottom of page