When the film’s opening avoided the usual 40-second swift, fun Marvel Studios logo right off the bat and opted for a backstory reading (reminiscent of The Conjuring openings), it transmitted the message that Eternals was something astoundingly different than the usual Marvel Cinematic Universe affair.
And then 156 minutes came, and a moment ensued where somebody thought this was a DC movie instead. No one can blame them, and simultaneously, some will argue this is like “every other superhero film” out there. Who knows, maybe this will be someone’s favorite film ever.
Ever since the enormous releases of Avengers: Endgame and Spider-Man: Far From Home, the MCU has attempted to pivot itself into more creative, independent fanfare rather than stick to the popular Avengers films every other year. Black Widow was fine, but Marvel delivered it way too late and didn’t give it much purpose aside from telling us Scarlett Johansson’s journey at a time no one was very keen about anymore. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was entertaining and fun but didn’t break much ground in the franchise. And Eternals, the third feature of Phase Four, tries to be both portentous and enlivening simultaneously.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t get the job done much of succeeding as either, ending up in a limbo of sorts. Sure, it has lots of successes but contains some definitive problems. With a duration of 150+ minutes, ten new characters to introduce to the ever-evolving Marvel Universe, tons of backstory to unravel, and a reason for them to reconnect once again is a preposterously arduous feat. Director Chloe Zhao tried, but it didn’t entirely work.
The plot follows the Eternals, a group of immortal beings with astonishing powers who have quietly lived on Earth for thousands of years, reuniting to battle the monstrous Deviants. They became sent by a Celestial called Arishem, who commands that they do not interfere with human issues but solely deal with the Deviants’ presence. Originally thought to be extinct thousands of years before, the Deviants resurge, and the Eternals must re-band to fight them off again. Along the way, they must also confront dark secrets from their leader Ajak (Salma Hayek) and understand their purpose and why they were sent to planet Earth.
The other nine members (of the team on Earth) are Ikaris (Richard Madden), a discount Superman. He loves Sersi (Gemma Chan), who can manipulate matter and has a profound connection with humanity. Other Eternals are Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), who throws energy projectiles, Sprite (Lia McHugh) as an illusionist, Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) as a technology inventor, and Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), a deaf superhero that runs like The Flash. Then, there’s mind controller Druig (Barry Keoghan), hulk-like Gilgamesh (Don Lee), and an elite warrior named Thena (Angelina Jolie). A hell of a lot of characters and not enough to give them all reason.
Marvel Studios went a DC route for this film (like DC did for Suicide Squad and 2017’s Justice League). It becomes overstuffed with exposition and too ambitious to catapult one-too-many unfamiliar faces to the big screen. Sure, it’s understandable, but it’s hefty, almost like being asked to marry someone right after an engagement and purchasing a new house. Baby steps, Marvel, is how it worked for all the Avengers films, remember? Also, Eternals is long, way too long. It’s probably because it’s too occupied with authenticity production, going above and beyond to portray each cinema step. It results in a lack of benefits for the product at hand. It becomes deprived of that breezy, fun tone that catapulted so many others in the Marvel canon to stardom.
And the sad thing is, Chloe Zhao, a poetic director for her beautiful work on Nomadland and The Rider, fell victim to the straight-up expository conventionality of superhero filmmaking. We’ve seen it over fifty times by now, and Eternals is like watching Avengers: Infinity War without knowing any of the genuine stakes or the proper storytelling of the characters. If this film had not been a part of the MCU, maybe it would’ve benefitted the product. Since it is, the ambition of this franchise has jarringly reached some confounding heights. Maybe Eternals 2 could fix that if there is ever one. For now, the streak of the MCU now remains in jeopardy (unless it performs well box-office-wise).
Fortunately, Eternals has a lot going for it as well. It’s unquestionably the boldest entry of the franchise with some mature moments (a first-ever sex scene) and the ability to expand the universe away from the Infinity Stones-saga. It also has superb action sequences and visuals which electrify the screen, and the music is a magnificent bonus.
Zhao manages to give a moderate passion for the characters, and it amplifies the suspense powerfully. The drama gives way to some major twists, and it compels the audience to examine how aliens could (or not) live amongst us. Representation is the huge astounding factor here, and Marvel should stay applauded for incorporating more diversity in their projects. Plus, the post-credit scenes are excellent (no spoilers).
The blockbuster is fluid and visually vigorous but has an overburdened narrative with an excessive duration. Its grandeur nature cannot sadly cover up its conventionality and partial repetitive direction. Significant kudos to Chloe Zhao and Marvel Studios for valiantly trying, but Eternals is one of the weaker MCU entries alongside Thor: The Dark World and Iron Man 2.