How ETERNALS (Likely Unwittingly) Mirrored The Emotional Pain Of Struggling Parents
Eternals touched on a lot of interesting themes about identity and responsibility. It also (probably unwittingly) mirrored the psychological effects of parental depression. Here's how.
Eternals had a fascinating premise: What if superheroes had walked among us from the very beginning? And what if those same heroes were forced to live for millennia, watching humanity at its best, but mostly, at its worst? The film was a peculiar experience for this writer. As with any movie, there were enjoyable things about it, and some that needed work. However, there was something about Eternals that resonated with me. Yet, for the next few hours after my first viewing, I couldn't quite put my finger on what that was.
Then, it hit me: Being familiar with individuals that had been deeply affected by the challenges of parenthood, I realized that the Eternals had (likely unwittingly) served as a metaphor for the tribulations of parenting, and the psychological effects that (in some instances) come with raising a child. Such connection may feel tenuous, but as simplistic as it may sound, it came down to the Eternals cast's facial expressions.
A Look Worth a Thousand Words
Having arrived on Earth believing they were meant to protect humanity, the Eternals grew to love us. But following a brief period of bliss, our heroes witnessed humans destroying each other over money, power, and many other unjustifiable factors. As a result, most of the Eternals became apathetic — their tiredness evidenced by their expressions, and most strikingly, by their eyes.
That look and emotional trajectory were what had stuck with me after watching the film, because those traits closely resembled the ones exhibited by a couple I know. These individuals have a child, now in their teens. From ages 10 to 13, the child experienced behavioral issues (tantrums, aggressiveness, distancing from family, etc.). Throughout that time, their parents, whom I had known as lively and in-the-moment individuals, had a very different look on their faces: Tired, apathetic and overall uninterested. Even their voices morphed into almost-lifeless and monotonous sounds — a result of dealing with their child's behavior for a long period of time.
To properly illustrate their struggle as parents, these two individuals were kind enough to speak to me for this article on the condition of anonymity. Discussing their mood change, they explained it mainly developed from the fact that being happy usually didn't feel like an option for them. They were depressed, and they channeled that depression into total seriousness — bordering on sternness — given that it seemed as if trouble was lurking around every corner:
"It was tough, [...] and there was something funny about [the situation]. I love [their child] with all my heart, and it was that love that made me feel wrecked when [they] misbehaved or hurt me or [their partner] in one way or another. You keep your hands up, waiting for the next fight, the next tantrum, the next whatever. [...] So, yeah, I was just kinda serious all the time. Lifeless, I guess. Everyone always assumed I was bored, or angry, but no. I was just terrified of what my kid would do next, or [...] say next. It's tough, and really unhealthy over time."
The crux of their struggle was disillusionment, as they described:
"I guess "disappointed" is one way to describe how we felt. We were disappointed in [their child]. That probably sounds horrible, but we were caught in a nasty cycle. We talked to [the child], tried our best to be there for [them], but no matter how much we tried, it was like nothing helped. [They were] rude and aggressive constantly. [...] We essentially didn't know how to be happy again."
The Eternals, in their own larger-than-life way, experienced a similar process to become the disillusioned gods they evolved into. For someone like this writer, who knew people that struggled with depression stemming from parental responsibilities, the characters' tired expressions gave Eternals added layers of realism and complexity. Many of the heroes felt hopeless, and most of them struggled to find happiness after experiencing the wrongs committed by those they had been sworn to protect and ultimately came to love.
This was (arguably) most notably explored through Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), who at one point broke down after realizing the technological advancements he had facilitated for humanity had been used to kill. Admittedly, not all of the Eternals experienced the same disillusionment. After all, characters like Kingo and Makkari seemed much livelier (on the surface, at least) than their brethren. Yet, it could be argued that such difference in personality makes the comparison between Eternals and parenting more poignant, as it's a reminder of the fact that people deal with pain in different ways.
Makkari and Kingo had remained relatively joyful due to a conscious effort. It was clear that their years of existence had taken a toll on them, but they channeled their sadness differently than their fellow heroes. It's the same situation with parents. Not everyone with a child experiencing behavioral issues will react in the same manner. Parents have different coping mechanisms, and in the case of Eternals, the film seemed to be most prominently reflecting (again, probably accidentally) the experience of individuals that relay their parental struggles through visual and emotional cues, like the couple this article focuses on.
The Start of Something New
Luckily, similar to what happened to the Eternals at the end of their film, the situation ultimately improved for the subjects of this piece. Their child's behavior slowly got better and they were able to find new ways to connect with each other. It was a challenging process, as they recalled, but one that was worth going through. Now, after having the parallels between Eternals and their own lives pointed out to them, Chloé Zhao's superhero film is one of the couple's most memorable movie-watching experiences:
"When [this writer] compared Eternals to what we'd gone through, I didn't believe it. So I watched the film and, honestly, it touched me, because I ended up getting that exact same thing about their looks and attitudes. Maybe I was just projecting, but I felt it was there. It's kind of our special movie now. It makes me think back to the struggles with [their child] and go, 'Wow. How did we ever get through all of that?' [...] I don't even like superhero [movies] that much. But seeing that bit of, I guess, synergy between the [Eternals'] reaction to [suffering] and ours to the issues with my kid was uplifting, and made me feel... acknowledged. Even if it wasn't [the movie's] intention."
While mirroring the emotional state of distressed parents was likely not the intention of Zhao or the film's cast, the fact that a detail as small as facial expressions and attitude cues resonated with the subjects of this interview is a testament to the power of comic book movies (and films in general), and how the events depicted in them — however grand they may be — have the potential to connect with viewers in ways we wouldn't usually expect.
Eternals is available to stream on Disney+.