From the moment it was announced that celebrated independent filmmaker Chloé Zhao (now the Academy’s reigning Best Director) was attached to direct a Marvel movie, fans have known that they were in for a weird one. How would such a naturalistic, humanist cinematic voice blend with that of a computer-polished, franchise-driven movie synthesizer? At the very least, we imagined, this should be interesting. Bafflingly, the result is a film that challenges the old adage that an ambitious failure is superior to a moderate success. Chloé Zhao strives to make Eternals both a crowd-pleasing Marvel movie and a work worthy of her talent and prestige, but ends up with a product that is neither particularly entertaining nor fulfilling.
Angelina Jolie’s Immortality Finally Explained
Gemma Chan (Crazy Rich Asians) leads an ensemble cast as Sersi, one of ten super-powered Eternals sent to Earth in the year 5000 BC. Over the course of human history, the Eternals spend time in different ancient cities, protecting them from alien beasties called Deviants and becoming immortalized in their mythologies. Hence their recognizable names and powers: the sword-wielding warrior Thena (Angelina Jolie), the super-strong Gilgamesh (South Korean star Don Lee), the fleet-footed Makkari (Lauren Ridloff, The Walking Dead), etcetera. Their leader, Ajak (Salma Hayek), hands down orders from Arishem (voice actor David Kaye), a godly Celestial who demands that they not interfere in any Earthly conflict except those involving the Deviants. Hence, they’ve sat out the World Wars as well as the Infinity Wars.
The Eternals defeated what they thought to be the last Deviant way back in the sixth century and have just been killing time ever since, awaiting orders from Arishem to return to their home planet of Olympia. The once inseparable family has scattered, even Sersi and Ikaris (Richard Madden, Game of Thrones), who were a couple for millennia. In the present day, Sersi lives among humans in London, even dating a mortal man (Madden’s Thrones brother Kit Harrington, because Sersi’s got a type, I guess). The sudden return of the Deviants prompts the Eternals to reunite and complete their mission, which turns out to be far more grave than they’d been led to believe.
At 157 minutes, Eternals is not the longest film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Avengers: Endgame is 24 minutes longer), but it sure feels that way . Assembling the team takes about two hours, as the Eternals are spread across seven locations around the globe. Each pit-stop is essentially its own little episode, sometimes paired with a flashback expanding on the family’s long history. Zhao makes a clear effort to give each member their own motivations and set of dynamics with the rest of the ensemble, but since there are so many of them, this takes forever to do. The relationships between the characters don’t grow over the course of the film, they merely accumulate. The journey of our supposed lead, Sersi, is smothered beneath them, and by the time Eternals reaches its climax, so is my interest.
Just Add Marvel
Marvel movies are notorious for their Joss Whedon-inspired sense of humor, which usually consists of quipping about the action or comic book concepts rather than actually creating funny situations. Nowhere is this issue more glaring than in Eternals, whose sober sci-fi family drama tone is jarringly interrupted by goofy banter. The problem goes beyond vain, wisecracking Eternal Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani, now the world’s most ripped former video game podcaster) — other characters occasionally throw around quips, too, for seemingly no reason other than that there are usually jokes in these movies so we should probably do some jokes every couple of minutes. It’s not that the jokes are bad (they’re not great, either), it’s that they feel completely stapled on. Eternals seems at peace with how heavy it is, up until each moment it isn’t. It’s indicative of the film’s fatal flaw, which is that it doesn’t fully commit to being a departure from your typical Marvel movie.
The action in Eternals isn’t terrible, either, but where some blockbusters suffer from being a series of setpieces stitched together with perfunctory dialog and character scenes, Eternals has the opposite problem. The action doesn’t really drive the story at all — the journey to reunite the family is occasionally interrupted by Deviant attacks, or flashbacks to Deviant attacks. The characters are not actively hunting nor running from the Deviants, they’re just attacked while going about their business, so there’s no sense of anticipation or fulfillment surrounding each fight. The battle scenes are, at least, sufficiently different from the last few Marvel flicks, since most of them involve humanoids fighting cool animalistic creatures rather than anonymous armies or supervillain doppelgängers, but far too much of the action is performed by Ikaris, whose powers are almost identical to Superman’s. We’ve plenty of that from the distinguished competition. Jolie’s Thena gets the coolest action spots, but they are few and far between. Sersi, a matter transmuter whose powers have the most potential to be visually interesting, is saddled with a crisis of confidence and doesn’t get to show off much.
Uneven as it is, Eternals still feels like its own film most of the time, which is why its periodic injections of Marvel universe-building are particularly off-putting. It’s refreshing that this is the first Marvel Studios movie in five years not to feature any characters from their previous films, but it makes their attempts to set up storylines for future MCU installments all the more transparent. Kit Harrington’s character apparently spends most of the movie on a subplot that we don’t see, teasing the acquisition of his own superhero identity. The film ends with a sequel hook that feels like it should be a post-credit scene, and a post-credit scene that feels like it’s from an entirely different movie. The musical score also reflects the film’s dichotomy, atmospheric throughout most of the film and then suddenly kicking into “Hell Yeah!” crunching guitar mode during the final battle. Meanwhile, the visuals still call for a quieter kind of awe. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a singer-songwriter going into a ballad and then asking you to “MAKE SOME FUCKIN NOOOOISE!”
Oh, the Humanity!
The core conflict of Eternals comes down to whether or not it’s worthwhile for immortal gods to make sacrifices for the survival of the human race. I don’t think it’s giving away much to say that the heroes decide we deserve to live, but Eternals doesn’t actually do a very good job of selling that idea. Eternals is a story about gods, not people, and there are very few humans in the film. Even in flashbacks to Sersi enjoying the company of humans across millennia, we are nameless peons. The humans who get names in the film are Sersi’s boyfriend Dane, Kingo’s valet Karun (Harish Patel, Hulu’s Four Weddings and a Funeral), and the husband and son of Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry, Atlanta), all of whom are completely passive characters whose lives have been blessed by their proximity to the Eternals.
While they’re honor-bound not to interfere in human conflicts, the Eternals are apparently permitted to influence our evolution in other ways that lean into the irksome “ancient aliens” theory. (This double-standard is explained in the text.) Phastos has apparently guided humanity’s technological advancements for millennia, introducing us to leaps forward like the plow, the steam engine, and possibly the splitting of the atom. Sprite (Lia McHugh, The Lodge) has woven the escapades of the Eternals into human mythology across time. Both our science and our culture are really products of their brilliance — the only things we see humanity do on their own is kill each other. This underscores the unfortunate (and I’m sure entirely unintentional) implication that we are nothing without them. A tender scene of Phastos with his loving human family is touching and welcome, but it doesn’t necessarily translate to compassion. The inattention to humans makes the Eternals’ decision to save us feel more like a resolution to protect what’s theirs. That rings very hollow to me.
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And Now, Some Faint Praise
Thanks to Zhao’s preference for location shooting over greenscreens and sound stages, Eternals integrates visual effects more naturally than its close siblings Shang-Chi and Black Widow, where characters often look obviously pasted into scenes or replaced with digital doubles altogether. No doubt that’s been done here, too, but it’s less obvious, as it should be. In fact, all of the effects look better here than in other recent Marvel products, and I suspect that this is another benefit of not burdening VFX artists with building all of the sets and costumes as well as creatures and super-powers. I also think the movie is pretty good-looking in general. I’m not averse to a low-chroma color palette in a comic book movie — in fact, I think it makes the film’s few contrasting moments of full Jack Kirby-inspired bombast pop hard. The Eternals have been on Earth for millennia and look like they belong here, a part of our mundane little world even in their superhero armor. Their Celestial overlords, on the other hand, feel completely otherworldly, part of a weird colorful cosmic domain that even the Eternals barely understand themselves.
The thing is, it shouldn’t be noteworthy that a major motion picture doesn’t look like a video game, or makes clearly deliberate aesthetic choices. Likewise, a lot of the things to get excited about in Eternals are things that should, frankly, not be noteworthy. It’s a big-budget blockbuster with a diverse cast directed by a woman of color. That’s good, but should not be special. That should be happening all the time. One of the main characters is gay and another is deaf, and neither trait is treated as a novelty. That’s great! None of this should be novelty! This is the bare minimum of what we should expect from Hollywood in the year 2021.
For weeks, there have been folks online (most of whom have not seen Eternals) ripping into critics for panning this film, for fear that the negative response to it will prevent films like this from being made in the future. It’s unfortunate that these fears are, historically, pretty well-justified. The fact that Eternals is not good and is not projected to be a massive hit should make zero difference in our cultural landscape. It should be remembered as a forgettable chapter in a long film franchise and a weird footnote in the career of an important filmmaker, and that’s all. There’s even odds that Eternals will get positively reevaluated in a decade or so, like Batman & Robin or Ang Lee’s Hulk, but if it does, that will only mean that Hollywood has gotten more cowardly and formulaic in the interim. If we’re lucky, American cinema will continue to diversify both aesthetically and representationally such that no one will feel obligated to have an opinion about Eternals at all.