A studio on a continued hot streak. A critically acclaimed director. A large, talented cast? Eternals, a movie about a gang of ancient cosmic superheroes, seems to tick all the predictably safe cheat sheets that Marvel Studios has mastered. ***Over two and a half hours later***…Ok, let’s examine what happened here.
After Avengers: End Game wrapped up 10 years of storytelling and many of the established big Marvel names subsequently stepped aside, the company has had to fill its slate with new material rather than endless sequels.
Putting aside comic book fans, even the most ardent MCU viewer will have to go into the Eternals cold, considering it makes virtually no reference to anything that has come before it.
Given greater freedom than the usual Marvel directors for hire, Chloé Zhao (Nomadland) has no interest in CGI heavy introductions, yet when it comes to setting up the tone surely opting to slowly fade in expositional text is taking 5 leaps backwards.
The new characters are plentiful, but primarily Eternals is led by Sersi (Gemma Chan), along with Ikaris (Richard Madden), Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani, The Lovebirds), and Thena (Angelina Jolie). There’s more, and they all come with their own superpowers.
Their mission is to visit planets and wipe out the apex predator Deviants, all whilst hiding in the shadows. That’s the surface level plot, at least. With a racially inclusive cast plus the first openly gay MCU character to appear on screen (Phastos, played by Brian Tyree Henry), Eternals shifts through centuries of human evolution with the all-encompassing Eternals often questioning how involved they should get.
The vast timescale involved for such long-living characters stretches the boundaries of reasonable character development, which causes problems for the film. Zhao’s take on an ever-living cast had the opportunity to play as a character piece (much like Logan did), examining how the weight of experience can affect anyone, super powered or not.
At times the movie does address such a topic, although this is almost entirely focussed on Thena succumbing to ‘Mahd Wy'ry’ (dementia under the weight of memories).
Within themselves, the Eternals just carry on ad infinitum. A romance between Sersi and Ikaris that lasts centuries is drained of any passion, something which a bizarrely nondescript sex scene does nothing to help.
Other long held attractions also fall short when the ever-living mooch about for all time doing nothing about their feelings. If it wasn’t for the very human touch of Gemma Chan (plying the same radiation of kindness as from, ironically, Humans) and the comedy chops of Nanjiani and Don Lee’s strongarm Gilgamesh, Eternals would struggle to find any connection at all.
Even if the character work is lacking, what Zhao does bring to the table is beautiful cinematography often lacking in Marvel movies. With large amounts of filming on location, Zhao imbues the movie with a sweeping vastness that evokes the kind of detachment her cast battle with.
Humans come and humans go, but the yawning and ancient landscapes remain. Eternals is frequently a gorgeous movie for the eyes whilst the mind wanders in search of something to latch onto.
Is Eternals Worth Watching?
Each movie serves a storytelling purpose. It is hard to put a finger on what Eternals is trying to do. It certainly isn’t a bombastic superhero movie, despite a smattering of visually striking and well edited battle scenes. It isn’t a deep character examination piece, nor a rumination of the weight of passing time.
Considering the lack of importance given to the large, mutated, and supposedly villainous Deviants we can hardly consider the struggle to save humanity to be paramount, especially considering that once the cast believes them all wiped out, they just simply hang about with nothing better to do for hundreds of years. Eternals is more easily defined by what it isn’t rather than what it is.
Part of the problem may be the overbearing weight of superhero movies themselves. The whole concept of shooting cosmic energy out of your eyes is irrecoverably terrifying after characters such as Homelander in The Boys, and when a dark satire like Invincible shows the blood soaked cost of overwhelming strength.
Zhao struggles to find the relatable in-point between the characters and her audience around which all other things can pivot. Eternals has an intriguing plot of betrayal, existence, and global doom, yet while drifting connectionless through the aeons, such inevitability happens only to other people.
Words by Mike Record