By Reed Ripley
Directed by: Chloé Zhao
Adventure/Action | PG-13 | 2 hr 37 min
Exclusively In Theaters
Eternals is undoubtedly epic, but that unfortunately applies definitionally more than substantively.
Marvel Studios’ latest gambit follows the Eternals, a race of beings imbued with massive cosmic energy and sent to Earth to protect humans from a monstrous race of alien predators, the Deviants. Serving as guardians and shepherds, the Eternals guide humanity through thousands of years of cultural and technological advancement and eradicate the Deviant threat along the way. Frustration about humanity’s flaws (and an imperative not to interfere with human-on-human conflict) drive the group apart, but when the Deviants return, the surrogate family comes together to save the world and the people they’ve come to love.
Everything about Eternals is a lot, from its characters, to its plot, to its themes. There are ten members of the team (Gemma Chan’s Sersi, Richard Madden’s Ikaris, Lia McHugh’s Sprite, Salma Hayek’s Ajak, Angelina Jolie’s Thena, Kumail Nanjiani’s Kingo, Barry Keoghan’s Druig, Brian Tyree Henry’s Phastos, Lauren Ridloff’s Makkari, and Don Lee’s Gilgamesh), and the film attempts to deliver an arc for each, albeit with emphasis on Sersi and Ikaris. Each character gets flashes of real promise, but these moments are almost always gone as soon as they arrive, as there just isn’t enough runtime to go around. It also doesn’t help when a not-insignificant amount of dialogue in any given scene is doing a ton of expositional legwork, leading to several forced exchanges that don’t service the characters in meaningful ways. The cast does an admirable job with what they’re given (especially Nanjiani in much-needed scene-stealing comedic bits), but there’s only so much they can do.
The story’s scope, too, tests the bounds of a singular film experience. It spans 7,000 years of human history, from Mesopotamia, to Babylon, to the Aztec Empire, to present day, with the Eternals guiding and protecting humanity’s development the entire way. This duty and purpose come from the larger-than-life race of near-omnipotent beings called the Celestials, shapers and molders of universal life. The Eternals’ and Celestials’ mission is universal in breadth, and at several points, the zoom in and zoom out in scale is headache-inducing (sometimes metaphorical, sometimes literal).
Further weakening things are the film’s ostensible villains, the Deviants, growling, animalistic messes of multicolored muscle-fiber-like tendrils. Many of the film’s more CGI-heavy set pieces feature these creatures, and none are particularly compelling. Interestingly, in the comics, the Deviants are indeed monstrous, but they’re still humanoid and serve as great foils to their Eternal counterparts. For the film, the Deviants lose all their humanoid characteristics (save for one notable, yet still underdeveloped, exception). The decision was probably (and understandably) made to avoid stuffing even more characters into the mix, but they ended up bringing little to the table.
The clear thematic through line is the simultaneous beauty and ugliness of free will and the ultimate question of whether humanity is inherently good or evil, which the Vision nodded at back in Age of Ultron (“Humans are odd…but there is grace in their failings”). It’s explored here in much more depth, and it’s one of the film’s more successful aspects.
That all the above mashed together in two-and-a-half hours didn’t result in disaster is a credit to Zhao, although mostly, it seemed out of her depth. She went from three very small, very good independent films (the latest of which, Nomadland, deservedly granting her Best Director and Best Picture), to this; all the Marvel infrastructure in the world can’t lessen that gap. However, it’s valid to wonder how much of that is the result of Marvel’s omnipresent hand on the wheel and not of Zhao’s inability to wrangle the material. Zhao probably did the best she could with it, and it’s obvious she tried.
Again, the themes are legible and consistent throughout, and there are plenty of moments that feint at loftier heights. Some of the wide shots (the plains of South Dakota and the desert and rocky terrain of Iraq come to mind) are gorgeous, and there’s some really interesting character work done, especially with the Eternals’ various interactions with humanity. Eternals certainly isn’t like any other Marvel movie, in look, tone, and subject matter, and that must be somewhat attributable to Zhao’s influence.
Is Eternals bad? No, definitely not. Is it the table-setting, awe-inspiring epic Marvel intended to propel audiences into Phase Four? Also definitively no. The answer lies somewhere closer to the former, and it’s hard to view that as anything other than a disappointment.