Arishem the Celestial looms large in Eternals in more ways than one. But who is this big, big, big, big robot space god? What’s his plan for Earth? And why the hell does Marvel Comics have robot space gods anyway?
Like most of the stylish but truly inexplicable things in American comics, it can be traced back to the work of Jack Kirby. But Eternals has its own take on Celestials, the ineffable cosmic creators of the Marvel Comics universe.
[Ed. note: This piece contains spoilers for Eternals.]
Eternals’ Celestial is Arishem the Judge
Arishem, the Prime Celestial, looms large in Eternals as the movie’s primary antagonist — or at least the being to whom the main cast is subject to. He’s big, he’s powerful on a scale heretofore unseen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and he created the Eternals and the Deviants.
The Celestials of the MCU are creator beings, capable of building entire galaxies from scratch, and they are sized to match, measuring their height in miles. Sometime long ago, the Celestials created the Eternals as tools to manage the growth of sentient life on individual planets while the Celestials were away doing Celestial stuff.
Once an Eternal-guarded planet boasts enough sentient lifeforms on it, those lifeforms fuel the birth of a new Celestial from the planet’s core, and die. Then an older Celestial returns, collects that planet’s Eternals, wipes their memories, and ships them to a new assignment.
The characters of Eternals, Sersi, Ikaris, Kingo, and the rest, were assigned to help humanity grow on Earth, though most of them were unaware that it was really to prepare for the birth of the Celestial Tiamut. After much ethical wrestling, Sersi’s faction was able to halt Tiamut’s ascension and save life on Earth — and Arishem was not too happy about it, promising to return to Earth later to judge forever whether humanity’s potential was really more valuable than one galaxy-building Celestial’s.
Have there been Celestials in the MCU before?
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has dabbled in the idea of Celestials before, primarily in the two Guardians of the Galaxy movies. In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1, a large chunk of the action takes place in Knowhere, a mining station constructed inside the skull of a dead Celestial.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 muddied the Marvel Cinematic Universe waters on what a Celestial is, converting Ego the Living Planet (not a Celestial in the comics) into one of their number.
What are Celestials like in Marvel Comics?
In the pages of his Eternals series, Kirby created the Marvel Comics concept of giant metal space gods who created intelligent life on thousands of planets, and occasionally come back millions of years later to judge and destroy sentient populations. No two are the same, but they’re all brilliantly colored, vaguely human-shaped, miles tall, and completely unknowable — even to their servants, the Eternals.
Kirby’s visual influence on comics is so complete that it can seem invisible, in the way you can’t technically see the air around you. Of all comic book movies so far (because Kirby also made big contributions to the aesthetics of the DC universe), Thor: Ragnarok is probably the movie that draws the most directly from his aesthetic of kaleidoscope colors, intricate patterns of bars and circles, and characters in truly bizarre headgear.
But with its big, weird megazord space gods, Eternals has hewed much closer to Jack Kirby’s original designs, though some things are different. Compared to the Celestials of the Marvel Comics, for example, Arishem is practically chatty. In the comics, not even the mind of an Eternal can process the speech of a Celestial without harm.
Kirby’s Eternals — and one might argue, every Eternals title since — did not catch on. But the Celestials did, appearing again and again in Marvel Comics whenever a completely ineffable planetary threat was needed anywhere in the universe. They are a faceless, voice-less, alienating presence, a cosmic metaphor for the implacability of natural disaster; and usually show up on a planet to judge whether its inhabitants are ready to have their energies absorbed or needed more time to cook.
That’s the role that Eternals promises for future appearances of Arishem: Judgment day at the hands of Clifford the Big, Red Robot.