For most, Eternals has been shrouded in mystery. A fairly difficult task for a Marvel film these days. Firstly, the characters and stories have already been explored (to some degree) in the comic or elsewhere. Secondly, being Marvel/Disney the marketing machine has been at work building anticipation for the latest film and the dozen or so to follow long before we mere mortals could even comprehend.
We Marvel fans have been prepping for the arrival of these ‘new’ heroes for an eternity. Well they are finally here and I have to say… manage your expectations. With the impressive talent behind the camera and the stellar cast in front, which includes some big Hollywood names and a list of respected but relatively lesser known actors, it is hard not to be hyped for the latest addition to the Marvel canvas.
That cast consists of marquee names such as Angelina Jolie and Salma Hayek. We are also treated to some of my personal favorites Kumail Nanjiani (Lovebirds), Brian Tyree Henry (Widows), Don Lee (Train to Busan), Barry Koeghan (The Killing of a Sacred Deer). But wait, that’s not everyone. Then there are some rising stars like Lauren Ridloff (Sound of Metal) and Lia McHugh. Wait, there are even more familiar faces now venturing into the MCU, Kit Harington, Richard Madden and Gemma Chan (of Game of Thrones and Crazy Rich Asians, respectively). And that’s just part of the cast.
This expansive list presents one the biggest challenges to Marvel when taking on the story of the Eternals. There are ten new, major characters, none of whom have the household recognition of your bigger Avengers (i.e. Captain America, The Hulk, Spider-Man.) A team of ten new heroes with an untapped backstory all that needed to be covered in under three hours. It sounds like both a blessing and a curse. Plenty of story to tell but it will require a master storyteller.
Who better to helm than a recent four time Academy Award nominee and two time winner like Chloé Zhao (Nomadland, The Rider)? Her previous efforts pointed a lens on the lives of the often forgotten people of this nation. She not only directed the film, but also took the head seat at the table in the writers room. The task here was to do the same here to do the same with a group of immortal aliens who unknowingly live among us. There are some parallels there. So not a complete stretch, but if you have seen her previous work Zhao would probably not be your first pick. Still, does winning Oscars and telling deeply human stories make her the ideal fit for heading a Marvel film? I’ll get to that eventually.
Let me give a basic rundown of the story of Eternals – this will be easy. There’s a lot to cover, but I will keep it as brief as possible. And, since these are new characters to most, I will attempt to be even more spoiler free as usual. The story begins with the crash course introduction to the Eternals in action as they protect the humans from some beastly creatures. Lots of lasers and flashing beams of light from a group of nameless entities in superhero uniforms. The group, the Eternals, are immortals created by the Celestials, massive cosmic beings who are as old (or older) than the universe. The Celestials have tasked them for the last 7,000 years with the responsibility of guarding earth from the Deviants whose sole purpose is to wipe out humanity. They devious ones have returned after being thought to have been long ago defeated,
The Eternals team is comprised of ten members, each having their own distinct superpower. Ajak (Hayek) is the leader can heal others, Druig (Keoghan) controls minds, Kingo (Nanjiani) makes power balls with his hands (in a rather slow manner, I must say), Gilgamesh (Lee, aka Ma Dong-seok) is a fierce fighter who appears to feel no pain, Phastos (Henry) is a master inventor, Sersi (Chan) can transform inanimate objects, Sprite (McHugh) conducts mind-bending optical illusions, Thena (Jolie) is another warrior, maybe the fiercest, Ikaris (Madden) is essentially a Superman (or maybe a blander Homelander from The Boys) – he can fly and has shoots laser from his eyes, Makkari (Ridloff) is super fast, The Flash-level fast. Surprisingly for all the build-up, Individually they do not come across all that powerful (with the exception of Druig’s mind control) but together they… hmmm, for all the build up, they still do not come across as all too powerful.
Wow! That was a lot of work for some character introductions.
After all the typing required for this extended intro section, I became convinced that I need to state something earlier in this review than I was planning. Based on the character introductions alone, it is obvious where the problem lies: there is too much to fit into one film, even if it is nearly three hours in length. Approaching it as a film that needs to cover so much ground is a misstep. The Eternals would have been much better made if it was a 10-episode Disney+ series that allowed the proper time to embrace some of the elements that Zhao and Disney were trying for, the human side of non-humans.
Instead what we are given is an abbreviated flawed film that attempts to not only introduce numerous characters who are pivotal in the MCU story moving forward, but hopes to provide emotional weight for each. By biting off too much (a complaint I had with another recent, flawed Marvel entry, Black Widow) Eternals runs into serious pacing issues, lacks necessary character development although it hints at meaningful ones, and is often lost in a sea of cosmic exposition. The epic scope keeps us hopping over the universe across space, time and setting, any attempt to tell all aspects of their story. WWII Japan, Mesopotamia, Babylon, modern-London, Alaska, Spain are just some of the destinations in this superhero film turned travelogue. We are here, there, and everywhere…. even on set for a Bollywood film that is one of the few locations that really impresses in both style and character substance.
Zhao was brought in for a reason and though we see hints throughout it is obvious that this was never a perfect match. She does deliver hints of an intimate superhero film grounded in more realism. All of which would be very welcome if it was more interesting. We also find some of her trademark use of natural light and long takes that capture the beautiful settings in a way we have not seen before in this cinematic universe. But in the end, what we are left with is an uneven entry that struggles to take flight and never soars.
This is a tale of two films. Any praise that can be distributed can most likely be countered with some criticism. Beautiful visuals are quickly forgotten every time the Deviants are on screen in all of their CGI glory. It is monotonous and generic, reducing the action to mindless visual noise in the least interesting of settings. Even while the film’s climactic fight scene works better than any of the Deviant battles, it is nothing we have not seen before.
The stakes of the films are perhaps the biggest ever presented in a Marvel film. Which left me wondering, why I felt indifferent. That is when I knew there was a problem. Maybe it was these less than engaging super-powers that were at fault. Something seemed off throughout. Is it possible that after 7000 years of existence these immortal beings have not played around with their powers enough to have mastered them. Or at the very least knowing the extent of their capabilities and limitations.
In some scenes the rules for their powers seem to bend. How can someone with the ability to instantly turn a massive bus into rose petals not have developed a way to use that power to its fullest ability. This applies not only for one, but all the Eternals. Obstacles are presented for the sake of creating obstacles, leaving powers and stakes that carry little weight. I just kept thinking, The Avengers could kick their butts. The unevenness in their powers is just one of the head scratchers that will certainly be questioned after viewers wrap their heads around it all. There is also an issue of scale – that is all I will say. (I may need to rewatch before giving my verdict on the potential flaw, but if I am right, it seems like a wee bit ginormous oversight.)
Most of the performances are strong enough for what there is to work with, but all feel abbreviated. Not only are you splitting time with ten major characters – there often stretches where characters are cast aside, sent off across the globe. Overall, Nanjiani’s Kingo fares the best, he brings his usual charm and comic delivery. Chan is also terrific, even if her romance is a yawner at best. Henry, Ridloff and Lee also land with a punch. Harish Patel is my surprise MVP as Kingo’s sidekick, Karun, he delivers the most human emotion of the entire film along with several laughs. Hayek does not have much to do here in a rather dry performance. Although Jolie has a little more to work with, it is not enough and most of it comes in the way of some fight scenes.
Ultimately, the characters do not venture deep into new territory and are rather thin. Surface level development with a line or two providing everything else we need to know. They are more or less ideas of characters that can be summed up easily, only teasing the complexities that had me ready for more. Their perspectives on the events of the past and humanity as a whole are summarized rather than explored. 7000 years of moral quandaries are sidelined for numbing battle scenes. Luckily there are some moments of humor which inject levity even if at a much lesser volume than any recent MCU films. Nanjiani and Patel are a pleasure to watch on that front.
When they are not fighting forgettable CGI monsters they are delivering endless exposition. At times it feels more like the characters are reading from the Eternals wikipedia page rather than expressing anything more emotionally connected. Don’t get me wrong, glimpses of humanity in the immortals do occur, but are lost in the mix. There is so much to examine.
Does it all make sense? I honestly do not know. A lot is thrown at us and much of it left me questioning. There is even an excuse as to why the Eternals never interfered with human events, for example The Snap in Infinity War that wiped out half of all life in the universe. Seems like a time they may have wanted to jump in and lend a hand. Again, a line of dialogue or two ‘explains’ it all and we are supposed to be content. “Okay, we’re good, Eternals!” Or wait… maybe not. The more I thought about many of the details, the more it bugged me. I will not go into detail now, but I will say that if the Eternals are 1000s of years old they seem pretty complacent and lack a natural curiosity. Question something immortal task force – be it your powers or even bigger aspects of your situations. Make an effort.
The film does make some positive moves for a Marvel film, actual LGBTQ characters who don’t feel like an afterthought and a very diverse cast are some things to praise. If only they were better developed and in a better Marvel film, but hey, it’s progress.
Eternals not a complete loss in the least. It is a disappointment. I would have much rather have explored the strengths, but it left me so confused about what did not work I had to, for my sanity, had to look closer at where it went wrong. The good news. I am interested in where the story goes – the ending sets up a promising next chapter. But, unless the storytelling improves, I cannot say I will be as excited in another chapter.
What was delivered here was a hedged bet, a half Marvel and a half Zhao film that succeeds at being neither. Either Zhao needed to pull back and deliver a more typical Marvel film or double down and give us the total Zhao experience – the one hinted at during the family moments just before we are jettisoned away to a different setting, time, or character. Her best shines through in the cinematography (working with Marvel veteran DP Ben Davis) which is downright beautiful at times.
There seems to be a lesson here: different does not equal better. Eternals explores new territory, but never commits. Feige and Co. boast as if it reinvents the wheel – while, in reality, it really doesn’t. After 20+ Marvel films/series that have a cohesive vibe both in story and style. This film feels more like an odd second cousin than a real part of the MCU family. Strip away any knowledge you have of the Jack Kirby comic and the Marvel logo/references and you may mistake it as part of the DCEU (something oddly referenced several times in the film).
In a dream scenario Disney would neither scrap this or continue as if nothing’s wrong. The film so badly wants to be something bigger than it ever accomplishes delivering. Galactic threats, a massive cast, religious undertones, locations, locations, locations, romance, family moments… and still I was left wanting more. Not once during the 157-minute runtime did I get the Marvel ‘feels” – which is very rare for a Marvel film which are almost always a thrilling and fun experience. The best move, no matter how unlikely it is, would be to follow this up with a Disney+ series, that dices up this film and weaves it throughout 10 episodes, each of which explores a different Eternal’s journey over the millennia. That is really what these characters deserve and I am all for it. Just announce the start date.
Go see Eternals – just do so with managed expectations. No matter how they handled the or move forward with the characters they are here to stay. Get acquainted as much as you can before zooming off to the next location.
Eternals opens exclusively in theaters on November 5th.
Trying to feel fresh, Eternals feels stale; weighed down by endless exposition and a lack of meaningful character development these superheroes fail to fly.