Eternals Is a Parable of Middle Management

SPOILERS for the 2021 Marvel movie Eternals

Now that I’ve noted what Eternals is not, it’s worth spending some time on what it is. Eternals is a story about the gods of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And about the gods of those gods. And I can’t help but see it as a parable about organizations with layers of management, and how quickly those layers can become disconnected and unaligned. Maybe I’ve just been a middle manager who has gone through one too many reorgs or acquisitions, but hear me out.

In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the godlike Celestials charge the somewhat-godlike Eternals with protecting the nascent humans of Earth from an extraterrestrial predator species, the Deviants. The Eternals are not to interfere in any other conflict. But the Eternals live among the humans, and develop sympathy for them. They roll up their sleeves and work with humans, romance them, and build families with them. They chafe against the injunction against protecting humanity against its worst instincts, and are sometimes horrified by what their non-interference AND their interference produces over the span of millennia. In either case, they become emotionally invested. That is, except the leaders among the Eternals, who commune with the Celestials. These upper rung managers know what the Celestials are doing, and know that it’s best not to get too attached.

The Celestials have their own reasons for doing what they do. Cosmic reasons, beyond the scope of mortal lives, beyond the concerns over a given planet. They operate at the universal level, and while their goal is to cultivate and expand life and light, well, sometimes you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet. In this case, the egg is the Earth itself, and the omelet is a new Celestial. If the Eternals are the gods of mythology–subject to human emotion and foibles, the Celestials are gods of cosmic horror. Enormous, inscrutable, alien beings who consider humans little more than resources.

By the end of Eternals, middle management has staged a coup and stopped the Emergence–the birth of a new Celestial who will destroy the planet and feast on its life energy. But Arishem, the Celestial CEO, brings the engineers of that coup into his office. He’ll allow the planet to be spared for the moment, but he will sift through the Eternals’ memories for a last performance review to judge humankind’s worthiness to continue existing. And that is where the cosmic horror really kicks in. Can we know by what criteria these alien space gods will deem a species worthy?

The Eternals, as middle managers in the cosmic org structure, occupy a strange and lonely space. They have more of an affinity with their charges, humankind, than they do with their Celestial bosses. But they are separate, immortal, and unable to live fully as humans or gods. Their role is to develop and nurture humans–to encourage their success. They come to love humanity. But they are sheep dogs guarding the farmer’s flock; or farmhands on a meat ranch. The species the Eternals nurture are intended for slaughter. The term “human resources” is altogether apt.

We see all sorts of management styles among the Eternals Druig is the command-and-control manager. Phastos is the engineering manager who’d much rather be an engineer. Sersi is “mom.” Ikrais is the consummate company man. Ajak is the enlightened manager who suspects the entire system is flawed, but needs to act carefully. And then there’s the Deviant, Kro, the fired employee whose hatred of the Celestials should give him common cause with Ajak, but whose bitterness and envy prevents any kind of cooperation.

With Eternals, the MCU has created a creation myth of giant forms and eons-spanning purpose. It has put humanity on a collision course with its creators. It has also created some interesting connections with the rest of the MCU.

Eternals recontextualizes the Infinity War. With the mid-credits revelation of Thanos’s brother Eros, an Eternal of Titan, we see Thanos’s Malthusian philosophy in a new light. His world of Titan became a dead, shattered ruin not because overpopulation had depleted its resources. Titan died because it reached its critical mass of life to hatch a Celestial. Thanos was right. By removing half the life of every planet, he stalled Emergences that would have destroyed them.

Eternals solves the mystery of Shang-Chi’s Ten Rings. In Shang-Chi’s mid-credits scene, Wong, Captain Marvel, and Bruce Banner puzzle over the Ten Rings, an artifact of unknown origin and cosmic power. They look like the same rings of Celestial technology used by the Eternals to create the Uni-Mind, which allowed them to commune with each other and the Celestials. Just as Wenwu communed with the Dweller In Darkness through his rings.

Eternals sets up a new cosmic team. At the end of the movie, Thena, Makkari, and Druig have left Earth to search for the Eternals of other worlds. Their goal is to spread the truth about what the Celestials are doing, so the truth will set all Eternals free. The first beings they encounter are Eros/Starfox and Pip the Troll. Eros is an Eternal of Titan, and brother of Thanos. He also knows how to find Arishem, to rescue Sersi, Phastos, and Kingo. But with Shang-Chi having mastered a Celestial weapon, there’s a chance he and Wong could join in. And then we have Dane Whitman.

Dane Whitman has a “complicated family history” that involves a sword covered with some kind of living, oily black substance. In the comics, Whitman is a descendent of Black Knights, and the sword is the Ebony Blade, mentioned in passing alongside Excalibur by the Eternals. The Ebony Blade is a powerful but cursed weapon, and we can hear ominous whispering when its case is opened. And in the post-credits scene, a voice asks Dane if he’s sure he wants to touch it. The voice sounds like Nick Fury, but director Chloe Zhao confirmed it’s Mahershala Ali as the vampire hunter, Blade. If Dane Whitman thinks the Ebony Blade can help him take on a Celestial, then the MCU may be conflating it with another sword, All-Black the Necrosword, capable of beheading a Celestial (remember Knowhere in Guardians of the Galaxy?) and wielded by Knull, god of the void, and progenitor of the Klyntar symbiotes, like Venom.

There’s a lot going on in those credits scenes.


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