I wasn’t all that familiar with Eternals as I never read the comics, but I was excited as soon as I heard that Chloe Zhao was announced as director and the casting news starting to pour in. I started reading a bit more about just what/who these super-beings actually are in preparation for the movie. The Eternals are powerful cosmic beings and they as well as their nemesis the Deviants are cosmic race that were created by Celestial Hosts. As far as the timeline within the MCU, the events in Eternals is set following the Blip, that is when half of earth population returns after Thanos wiped them out.
The movie begins on earth, in London specifically, where one of the Eternals Sersi (Gemma Chan) is on her way to an Oxford university lecture. She is running late and on her way up the stairs, she makes a quip to a Charles Darwin statue and calling him ‘Charlie.’ It’s a pretty casual and whimsical way to explain that these Eternal beings have lived for centuries, having survived multiple destructions and renewal of various planets in the multiverse. From 5000 BC Mesopotamia, moments after the atomic bomb went off in Hiroshima and Nagasaki to modern day London, the film jumped around multiple timelines to show how the Eternals are practically immortals and each has its own unique superpowers.
It doesn’t take long before the threats that Eternals have feared for thousands of years finally show up on earth. First there’s an earthquake where Sersi used her powers that enables her to turn matters into another form, in order to save one of the students from having a huge rock-wall fall on them. That same night, Sersi, her young compatriot Sprite (Lia McHugh) and earthly-boyfriend Dane (Kit Harrington) encounter a Deviant monster, a tall, weird-looking creature that look like they escape from a BODY WORLDS exhibit. After they survive that ordeal, Dane asks Sersi the pivotal question of WHY they never helped humans when bad things happen throughout history. Well apparently they were specifically instructed by their boss Arishem the Judge not to interfere with human conflicts unless Deviants are involved.
As if encountering Deviants weren’t weird enough, poor Sersi also has to deal with the appearance of a very-hot-looking ex-boyfriend who can fly and shoot lasers from his eyes like Superman. After a few millennia of being apart, the one who got away, aka Ikaris (Richard Madden) has also been living in England. The whole encounter between Dane and Ikaris is especially surreal given both actors were in Game of Thrones. Apparently Ikaris has been connecting with the leader of the group Ajak (Salma Hayek) and is aware the Deviants are coming, hence they need to get the old gang back together.
Most of the first act is basically just regathering of the Eternals gang… from the UK to the US to track down the super-smart Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), the super-fast Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) and the one with hypnotic powers, Druig (Barry Keoghan). Then they travel then India to find Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) who can shoot lightning bolts out of his hands. In their journey, they also find out that Thena (Angelina Jolie), who can conjure up glowing, transparent sword at will, has some mental issues. She suffers some kind of a Bipolar disorder after centuries of having her memories/identity wiped out and restored over and over, and she’s been living on an island with Gilgamesh (Don Lee) who serves as her butler/protector. Soon we learn that Thena is the key as to the Deviants’ attacks on earth and a fight ensues between the Deviants and Eternals on the island.
One thing for sure, Eternals looks and feels different from the rest of the MCU… for better for worse. Let me start with the good: the visuals are gorgeous to look at, filled with stunning landscapes shot during magic-hour (Zhao’s trademark). DP Ben Davis definitely shares her visual sensibilities and the production design team all create some mystical and ethereal look that sets itself apart.
Much has been said about the diverse cast which is the most inclusive so far from both Marvel and Disney… including a gay character in a happy marriage (complete with the first gay kiss), the first deaf superhero portrayed by a deaf actress, as well as multiple superheroes of Asian origins. In fact, there’s even an extended Bollywood song and dance scene that introduces us to the scene-stealing performance of Harish Patel as Karun, Kingo’s assistant/manager who ends up accompanying his boss as Kingo wants to make a documentary of the whole Eternals reunion. Who knew that my favorite character ends up being the one with no superpowers, but Patel is so adorable and endearing as he becomes the comic relief of the group. I suppose that’s not a good sign when a tertiary character ends up being far more memorable than the leads, which brings me to…
The not-so-good … well, I find the whole Eternals journey to be pretty devoid of thrills and suspense. Plagued with too many flashbacks that makes for a stagnant pacing that never finds its rhythm. Even when the biggest twist is revealed in the third act, it didn’t have as big an impact as I expected. The entire celestial beings seem really concerned with humanity, especially Sersi who has maintained connections with humans for centuries while living on earth. The thing is, I just don’t feel their love as the film shows them constantly bicker and fight amongst each other whenever they’re not fighting the Deviants. The humans are barely featured in the movie and when they are, it’s treated almost like an afterthought, or in the case of Dane, it’s only a ‘teaser’ to what’s to come with his character who’s described as the Black Knight in the comics.
Despite the amazingly-diverse cast, I’m really underwhelmed by most of them. Richard Madden in particular, is devoid of charm as the Superman-like Ikaris (there are even DC references that would likely amuse or irritate comic-book fans). I’ve enjoyed Madden’s work in other projects, but here he is as wooden as a marble statue of Michelangelo’s David, which makes it impossible for me to care about Ikaris’ journey nor his centuries-spanning romance with Sersi. The first ‘love scene’ in the MCU sadly lacks any real heat that it makes the chaste kiss between Captain America and Peggy looks scorching. It’s just so awkwardly-staged and the cheesy dialog between them makes it even worse.
Gemma Chan wowed me in Crazy Rich Asians, but despite some heartfelt moments, she didn’t fare that much better compared to Madden. Brian Tyree Henry is a reliable actor and as the first LGBTQ character in the MCU, he’s got a few memorable moments, but it’s not exactly his best work. Pakistani-American Kumail Nanjiani is inspired casting as a Bollywood star and he got super jacked to portray the first South Asian superhero. I think his physique got way more attention even though he didn’t get to do much acting-wise in the movie other than delivering a few amusing one-liners.
I think out of the entire Eternals, Lauren Ridloff is the one who appeals to me the most, so I’m glad she got quite a bit to do in the movie. The two more veteran actors, Jolie and Hayek, don’t really get much screen time and their characters just aren’t that interesting. In fact, I find Jolie’s Thena quite aggravating and I remember just spacing out during all her fight scenes with both the Eternals and Deviants.
At the end of the day, I just wasn’t as engaged as I simply didn’t care for any of these characters. Despite being portrayed as saviors of humanity who care about us mere mortals, the filmmakers seem to forget to give us a reason to care for any of them. I mean, it’s not the first time Marvel gave us a film filled with a bunch of superheroes. After watching this, I gained even more appreciation for the Russo brothers for their astounding work in The Avengers movies, especially Endgame which takes a large group of seemingly-unrelatable super beings and make me care for their journey. But to be fair, many of the Avengers had the benefit of being introduced separately in their own films. Perhaps is we were suddenly watching The Avengers before we see the standalone Captain America, Iron Man, The Hulk and Thor movies, the movie might not be as effective.
As with any heroic tale, it also helps to have a formidable villain and the Deviants just didn’t seem all that menacing despite their grotesque appearance. Arishem, who actually decides whether a planet’s civilization should live or die, is supposed to be this ominous, powerful being, but it’s hard to take him seriously when he looks like a child’s toy made of of LEGOs. For the most part, what we get to see are equally-powerful creatures fight each other in low-stakes battles that feel overblown and pointless. The philosophical themes it grapples with, particularly its ‘woke’ message of challenging the status quo and one’s purpose in life, seem timely for today’s audience. That is when it isn’t buried under its overlong CGI-laden action scenes. The score by Ramin Djawadi was good when I listened to it before I saw the film, but now I can’t even tell you what it sounds like in the movie.
I know there’ll be endless articles in the coming weeks dissecting just what could possibly go wrong with Eternals when you’ve got an Oscar-winning directo who also had a hand in writing the script along with Patrick Burleigh and Ryan Firpo. I remember reading how her pitch was apparently the best Kevin Feige has ever heard, and the Marvel Studios honcho has always got good instinct since he first oversaw MCU franchise in 2007. He has trusted filmmakers with less-than stellar experience handling films with such a sprawling, ambitious scope, but that just goes to show that what looks good on paper doesn’t always translate to the final product, which applies to directors as well as stars. It also means that good representation alone does not automatically begets a good movie
Now, I wouldn’t say Eternals is a bad movie per-se, it’s just an immensely underwhelming one. I suppose after 25 films, the MCU is allowed to have one bad apple. I never thought it would be THIS one however, but I’m curious where Phase Four will go from here. I can’t help wondering if Eternals might have worked better as a Disney+ series given the complexity of the multiverse and the world of Celestials, but as it stands now, it’s far from being marvelous.