Review: ETERNALS, A Rare, Altogether Disappointing Stumble for Marvel
After 25 pop culture-redefining films in almost a decade-and-a-half, the Marvel/Disney-Industrial Complex was bound to stumble.
It already has at least three or four times (Avengers: Age of Ultron, Thor: The Dark World, Iron Man II), but those were minor in scope or effect in comparison to the latest addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), Eternals. The previous stumbles in the MCU were sequels to incredibly popular entries, not origin stories, largely coasting on their relative goodwill engendered by their critically and commercially successful predecessors.
Eternals, the first to introduce Jack “King” Kirby’s singular ‘70s creations to the big or small screen, attempts to do the exact opposite: Introduce a completely new series with completely new characters to audiences weaned on increasingly familiar, increasingly tired superhero tropes and conventions.
Almost immediately, the missteps begin accumulating and never stop until the final, sequel-ready moments. Eternals opens with an overlong, text-heavy crawl, followed by a flaccid action sequence set seven thousand years ago on an unnamed seashore. Led by Ajak (Salma Hayek), the near-immortal, semi-invulnerable Eternals of the title defend a fishing village of hirsute, prehistoric men, women, and children from an unmotivated attack by nondescript CGI beasties, Deviants, who, along with the Eternals, were created by Celestials, gigantic, interstellar-dwelling god-aliens as old (or even older) than the Big Bang. (We’ve met Celestials before, first in Guardians of the Galaxy on Knowhere, a space/mining station carved out of a dead Celestial’s head, and in the middling sequel, with Peter Quill’s Kurt Russell-lookalike father).
To hear the Celestials tell it, the Deviants were a categorical error, aberrations and possibly abominations, who wreak havoc across worlds, devouring flora and mostly fauna, thus necessitating the creation of the Eternals, guardians of, if not the galaxy, then individual worlds. In a bit of necessary, if illogical, exposition, the Celestials expressly prohibited the Eternals from interfering in human conflicts or wars except where the Deviants were involved, thus explaining why the Eternals, present on Earth for millennia, remained on the sidelines for the MCU’s previous 25 entries. They can and have, however, influence scientific and technological progress, but even there, they limit that influence to whatever a specific culture or civilization can accept at any particular time (or something).
After multiple exhausting trips back and forth across different time periouds, with each backward trip in time meant to fill in backstories and character details, but often stopping any forward story momentum dead in its tracks, Eternals finally settles on its present-day story where the Eternals, living apart in centuries-long retirement, are forced to reunite when the long-dormant Deviant threat literally resurfaces in London, attacking Sersi (Gemma Chan), a super-being who can manipulate inanimate matter, while she’s on a date with her current boyfriend, Dane Whitman (Kit Harington, Game of Thrones). For no apparent reason, Sprite (Lia McHugh), a pint-sized Eternal with the dubious power of creating visual and aural illusions, accompanies them on their date.
Cue second, unengaging, murkily shot and edited action scene, elevated somewhat by the appearance of Ikaris (Richard Madden, Game of Thrones), Sersi’s on-again, off-again lover and Eternal (he’s basically Superman without the cape or the icy breath). Ikaris warns Sersi and Sprite that the Deviants have evolved, not only in hunting Eternals over humans, but in their ability to heal from practically any injury inflicted by the Eternals.
With a world to save again, Sersi puts her relationship with Dane on possibly permanent hold. That, in turn, turns Eternals (the Movie) into a painstakingly slow, globe-trotting, reunion tour and ride trip filled with awkward moments, clumsy dialogue exchanges, and multiple group hugs before the inevitable Deviant/world-shaking threat moves back into the foreground.
The remaining Eternals, Ajak (Salma Hayek), team leader/healer, and conduit to the Celestials, Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), a wealthy Bollywood star with the ability to shot cosmic power blasts from his hands and fingers, Gilgamesh (Ma Dong-Seok), a super-powered puncher, Thena (Angelina Jolie), a warrior who can form energy weapons (presumably from her mind), Druig (Barry Keoghan), a mind manipulator/controller, Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), and finally, Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), a super speedster, eventually join the fight, sometimes enthusiastically, sometime less than enthusiastically. While Kingo enjoys his wealthy, status, and privilege a tad too much, Druig, for example, has retreated from a world he can’t change without violating the Celestials prime directive. Gilgamesh has spent centuries as caretaker to the volatile, possibly mad Thena.
Much, maybe too much, has been made of Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), the first openly LGBTQ Marvel character. When we meet Phastos in the present-day, he’s living a middle-class, middle-aged life as a husband and father in a suburban enclave, but soon enough, he’s kissing his husband (insert audible gasp here) and son good-bye to fight the good (CGI) fight.
Along the way, the Eternals play catch-up (a lot can happen in five centuries even for near immortals), discuss weighty subjects like free will vs. predestination, great power/great responsibility, and the value of human lives (individually and collectively) with the self-seriousness of first-year college students atttending a Philosophy 101 class.
Picking a future Oscar winner in co-screenwriter and director Chloé Zhao (Nomadland, The Rider, Songs My Brother Told Me) to helm Eternals seemed like a typical boss move on Marvel-Disney’s part. Marvel/Disney has been known for plucking indie filmmakers, if not from obscurity, then from modest budgets, to direct individual entries in the MCU, but for every Ryan Coogler and Black Panther, a superhero film that straddled the line between corporate product and sincere, artistic statement, there’s a Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck and Captain Marvel, a perfectly serviceable entry that reflected practically nothing of the co-directors' previous work, aesthetically or thematically.
Unfortunately, Eternals falls into the second category. Despite the much publicized decision to film Eternals in real-world, outdoor settings rather than a green-screened soundstage or Zhao’s favored magic hour (twilight) shooting style, CGI remains a wearying constant, especially when the Deviants, in all of their unimaginative non-glory, rear their heads and the Eternals —or rather their under-rendered, poorly compensated CGI stunt doubles — are forced to fend them off in another protracted been-there, seen-that battle over the fate of humanity and/or the world.
With barely sketched-in, standard-issue superhero characters, an over-reliance on dialogue-as-exposition to world-build and platitudes for faux-profundity to over-highlight specific ideas or themes, there’s sadly little to recommend Eternals except an unsurprisingly talented cast giving their next-level best to bring some life to their characters. Even the attempts to connect the Eternals to the MCU seem forced and contrived.
Without them, almost no one in the audience would know or even care that these group of newly introduced characters are and will be part of the MCU going forward. We might not have a choice, though. Shortly before one of the usual buttons/mid- or post-credit scenes, we’re informed that the “Eternals Will Return.”
Eternals opens in theaters today (Friday, November 5). Visit the official site for more information.
- Chloé Zhao
- Chloé Zhao
- Patrick Burleigh
- Ryan Firpo
- Gemma Chan
- Richard Madden
- Kumail Nanjiani