Eternals Is Ambitious, Diverse, and a Marvelous Misstep

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Eternals is easily one of Marvel Studios’ biggest films in scope and ambition, telling a story that spans 7000 years, cruising through human history and beyond the known space. While that makes it the MCU’s most intriguing film to date on a philosophical level, it is let down by a story and script that favours worldbuilding over character development.

As of late, it’s almost abundantly clear that a film starting with a wall of text that isn’t called ‘Star Wars’ may have too much work cut out for itself to live up to the mountains of lore established before the first live-action frame gets projected. However, that gets me excited as I’m reminded of entering a heightened reality, and for a film that aims to establish the grand rules of a universe that even higher beings like Thor, Loki, and maybe even the Time Variance Authority (in Loki) may not know of is a big task. So, what’s the deal here? Who are the Eternals, and where have they been? As the trailers have managed to answer that concisely, the Eternals are immortal beings who were sent to Earth by a higher life (?) form called the Celestials. Their mission? To rid the planet of the evil Deviants, apex predators at the top of the galactic food chain. The 10 leading Eternals arrive on Earth roughly seven thousand years before the ‘present day’ and while they are successful in managing to defeat the Deviants, they are stranded on the planet, waiting to be called back by Arishem, the prime Celestial who sent them on their mission.

Is that a lot to take in? Well, that was just the starters. The film hasn’t even begun yet and we’re already tapping into themes of the creation and evolution of life itself in the MCU.

Being a film that introduces higher concepts along with about a dozen characters is a lot to fit into its runtime of over two and a half hours, making it the second-longest MCU film only behind Avengers: Endgame. However, while Endgame managed to vaguely introduce the concept of the multiverse and deliver a finale filled with emotional gravitas, Eternals fails to establish a connection between the eponymous heroes strong enough for me to care about its world-ending plot. The plot kicks off with the return of the Deviants in present-day, long thought to be wiped out, pushing the now-disbanded Eternals to come together and figure out a mystery.

With Gemma Chan’s Sersi and Richard Madden’s Ikaris at the lead, we see both the glory days and the downfall of the immortal heroes through the lens of human history as the residents of the MCU know it. While almost every one of the Eternals gets enough screen time to stand on their own, it’s Sersi and Ikaris’ love story that is at the heart of the film. Each Eternal has something special to offer aside from their unique powers, with everyone except Angelina Jolie’s Thena and Salma Hayek’s Ajak, who feel grossly underutilised in the film. While the former has a side plot that connects back into the film’s core conflict, Hayek’s Ajak is only there to propel the story forward and nothing more. Lia McHugh’s Sprite and Barry Keoghan’s Druig are definite highlights, as well as Brian Tyree Henry’s Phastos, the MCU’s first openly gay character. Joining in the well representative cast is Kumail Nanjiani’s Kingo, a famed Bollywood star in the MCU (which is just as fun to see as it sounds) and Lauren Ridloff’s Makkari, the MCU’s first deaf superhero. There’s a pattern here with the talented cast coming together to be the most representative group of characters the MCU has ever seen fighting together with, or against, each other. It’s a shame then that the script relegates most of them to only spit out long exposition dumps to further flesh out the universe and lore of the Eternals, Celestials and the cosmos.

Each Eternal has their own view of humanity, with some being empathetic and others seeing them for the faulty being they are. Keoghan’s Druig is a great example who questions their mission statement, stating that staying away from human affairs may not be the best idea amidst the myriad of wars they have seen. Alternatively, Phastos comes around to caring for the species after being devastated by the effects of his meddling in the advancement of technology. There are flashbacks that constantly remind us of the scale of the film and just how important the Eternals have been to the know human history, but the sum of those parts aren’t any greater in the end.

During the entirety of the run time, I was intrigued. Intrigued, but not entertained all the way through. That doesn’t mean I crave jokes every 10 seconds, far from it. But when the film’s central conflict is about an immortal group of heroes arguing over choosing humanity over the cosmic implications of literal God-like beings’ wrath, I don’t think asking for a more fleshed out emotional connection to said humanity is unwarranted. “When you love something, you protect it,” says Thena in the film, but I never get the sense that the Eternals really love humanity. Sure, they care. They’ve seen the advancements the civilisation has made with and without their help. There are moments in the film where that love comes across as quite endearing, like Phastos’ leaving his family to reunite with the Eternals, or Sprite contemplating whether her physical child-like form is a curse in a world where people are allowed to grow old and die. But those moments are few and far between. One moment sees Phastos’s adoptive child points to Ikaris claiming “That’s Superman!” only for the latter to hit back with “I don’t wear a cape.” Cheeky as that reference may be, establishing the world of DC to exist within the MCU, therein lies a great difference between the approach taken towards these heroes. While Superman has been in a rocky relationship with the movie-going audience lately, he has always had the trust of the people of Earth.

The Eternals are revealed to have been behind the creation of many myths throughout history, but at no point do they seem to live to those myths. That’s not to say that the action isn’t there or that they don’t perform miraculous feats of strength and heroism. The action here reminds me of the superheroes found in the DC universe, and that’s a compliment. While there are moments of extreme wonder found in those setpieces, there is a missing element. That appears to be an underwhelming visual fidelity with the CGI presentation at odds with the otherwise naturally shot film, which makes the deviants look extremely dated. That ramps up in the final act which, in typical Marvel fashion, is full of CGI shenanigans, except this time the imagery looks and feels…not bad, but not good either. The final act of the film puts the relationship between the Eternals to test, forming the crux of the emotional conflict within the group that gets teased throughout the film as we learn more about the tensions between the various members of the group.

The direction here feels stiff, which is odd for Oscar winner Chloe Zhao who was praised to high heaven with her previous ‘Nomadland’. There are enough moments here to make the film stand on its own, separate from the MCU, but there are some sequences (specifically action sequences) that felt studio driven. The film looks beautiful, with awe-inspiring vistas that don’t seem to be a result of green-screen trickery, but it’s the writing that really lets everything down. Zhao shared the screenplay and story duties with Ryan and Kaz Firpo aided by Patrick Burleigh, who all collectively have yet to make their mark in the world of cinema. The Firmo cousins are known for multiple short films which, while I believe may be perfectly alright, aren’t widely known. Burleigh on the other hand previously worked on Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway and Marvel’s own Ant-Man and The Wasp as an additional writer. That explains quite a lot of the film’s shortcomings with its screenplay, which perhaps was rushed once Zhao was brought on to the project.

A special mention needs to be given to Kit Harington’s Dane Whitman who despite his small but entertaining role here should make for quite a big impact whose ramifications will have to wait for another day to be seen in the MCU. The same can be said for the film’s somewhat abrupt ending, which invites the possibility of a sequel being made, one which hopefully focuses more on the drama over establishing the rules of the universe for almost two hours. There’s room for another very special mention to Harish Patel, whose surprisingly prolonged presence on-screen warmed my heart for reasons I would rather not divulge in fear of spoilers.

If I had to describe my feelings about the film in just one sentence, it would be this – Eternals is a slow-moving galactic train where every stop is called exposition city, which is its biggest problem. There are enough crazy ideas and universe-building concepts that make everything up until this point feel trite in comparison, but the reason why most of the previous films worked is that we cared about the characters and wanted to see them triumph in their seemingly “smaller” battles. Here, I wanted to see the Eternals win because hey, we’re losing the planet if they don’t!

Check out IGN US’ video review of Eternals below!

Of course, like any other Marvel film before it, Eternals has a couple of post-credits scenes which tease some pretty big things to come, potentially leading up to the next Endgame level saga. Whether we see any of that come to fruition any time soon is left up to the creatives over at Marvel to decide in the face of the film’s heavily mixed reception. However, if we’ve learned anything from Marvel’s previous missteps, it’s that Kevin Feige and his team always learn from their mistakes and come back stronger (just look at Thor), and I can’t wait to see which exciting direction they take the Eternals in next.

Eternals releases on November 5, 2021 in theaters worldwide.


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