*Caution! This review contains minor spoilers*
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has long-since grown into the biggest movie franchise in history, producing 26 films since it began with Iron Man in 2008, and is now finding its way into television series (well, it did that a few years ago as well, but now those early ones don’t count). 2021 will ultimately see no less than four new movie entries in the franchise, and the past few months have already seen several streaming series added to the MCU. While the sheer amount of Marvel content is getting excessive, at the very least, it’d be hard to describe any entry in the MCU as “boring.”
Although not all of the MCU films are equals, Eternals – the third MCU film released in 2021 – is the first that had me waiting in anticipation not for something exciting to happen (though anything exciting would have been appreciated), but just for it to end. Even the weaker Marvel Studios movies (The Incredible Hulk, Captain Marvel) have at least provided some entertainment value, but Eternals – in a misguided attempt to prove its importance – apparently decided that it has no room for fun. Though the film’s over two and a half hour runtime suggests they could have found some time to boost the audience’s spirits.
Eternals tells the story of, well, the Eternals. An immortal race of super beings created by even more immortal, even more super beings called Celestials (basically giant robot gods). The Eternals were created to protect Earth (and other inhabited planets) from the Deviants, their evil counterparts. The Eternals are permitted by the Celestials to only use their powers to fight the Deviants, as to allow life on Earth to continue, but are not permitted to interfere with human conflicts and advancement (which is really just a weak excuse as to why the Eternals haven’t shown up in the MCU until now).
But they seem to interfere a hell of a lot anyway, with the Eternals being the real beings responsible for a number of human inventions (because God forbid humans are actually capable of accomplishing something). One of the Eternals even has the power to mind control humans, which seems entirely contradictory to their instructions not to interfere with humans.
The Eternals had seemingly rid the world of Deviants long ago, and gone their separate ways. They’ve moved on to live regular lives on Earth while they wait for centuries for their creator Celestial – Arishem – to instruct them to leave Earth in their ship (which looks like a triangular Kit Kat bar). But it seems the energy produced by the “snaps” of Thanos and the Hulk have somehow reawakened some Deviants, which have begun wreaking havoc once again. One Deviant, in particular, is capable of stealing the powers of Eternals and is beginning to gain sentience. So the Eternals must reassemble to stop the increasing threat of the Deviants (I guess the Avengers turned a blind eye to this one).
The Earth Eternals are an ensemble cast of characters: Ajak (Salma Hayek) is their leader, and has the power to heal. Sersi (Gemma Chan) is the compassionate one, and has the power to manipulate inanimate matter. Ikarus (Richard Madden) is the strongest, and possesses the powers of flight and laser eyes. Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) can shoot projectile energy from his hands. Sprite (Lia McHugh) is an Eternal with the appearance of a child, and can project lifelike illusions (so she’s basically Loki). Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) has the ability of invention, which isn’t really a superpower, but I guess it is in this movie since humans are incapable of invention themselves. There’s also Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), a deaf Eternal with super speed. Druig (Barry Keoghan) possesses the aforementioned mind control. Gilgamesh (Don Lee) has the gift of super strength, and is the gentle giant of the group. Finally, Thena (Angelina Jolie) is the fiercest warrior of the Eternals, and can produce energy weapons from her hands.
It’s an eclectic lineup of characters, and the movie seems to have good intentions with its diversity (along with the culturally diverse cast and one character being deaf, Phastos is also gay), but the film ultimately fails these characters because they never really show any development as individuals.
Perhaps the one exception would be Kingo, who at least has a fun character history. While most of the Eternals have lived low-profile lives on Earth, Kingo has found fame as a Bollywood star. More specifically, as an entire lineage of Bollywood stars (to keep his immortality a secret). This would be the movie’s best idea, except it’s bettered a few moments after being introduced when – after Kingo is called back into action – production of his current film is halted, so he has his manager Karun (Harish Patel) join the Eternals on their adventure to film the whole thing as a documentary. So the manager is just tagging along for the rest of the movie.
An immortal superhero who doubles as a Bollywood star with his (quite regular human) manager at his side? Now that’s a fun idea! I’d see a whole movie based on that concept in a heartbeat! It’s just a shame the rest of Eternals is nowhere near as fun or creative as that one element.
The entire movie seems to be an extended sequence of flashbacks and exposition. It gets so tangled up in talks about how things happened and introduces so much faux-philosophy of how things could be, that Eternals seems to forget to actually tell the story at hand (the previously mentioned Deviant who gains sentience seems completely forgotten about as soon as he gains that sentience, until he randomly stumbles into the finale as the movie remembered about that loose end at the last minute).
There’s an attempted twist with the plot early on when the true nature of Arishem’s plan is revealed: Long ago, Arishem selected Earth to be a host planet for the birth of a new Celestial. The “seed” for the Celestial was planted within the Earth, but in order to grow, it needs a large number of intelligent life to inhabit the planet in order to produce the amount of energy needed to birth the Celestial (or some BS reason like that). So Thanos wiping out half the population prolonged “the Emergence,” while the Hulk bringing that half back all at once sped it up. The looming threat being that the birth of a Celestial means the death of the planet that births it.
This is where that ‘faux-philosophy’ rears its ugly head. Once Arishem’s true nature is revealed, the movie seems to think it’s providing some deep moral dilemma for the Eternals (and the audience) to ponder: do they save the Earth and its people at the expense of a Celestial? Or do they let Earth die because the Celestial could maybe make more planets that may or may not develop life?
That’s a stupid ass question. Of course saving the Earth is the only right answer! It’s not like another inhabited planet is at stake. It’s literally either the lives of every human being and living creature on Earth, or save some space robot so he can create some space junk and see what happens. We’re already here. So tough luck, space robot.
If the movie took a direct approach and came to the obvious conclusion that yes, Arishem is wrong and Earth needs to be saved, it would be alright. But the fact the movie treats it as such a thought-provoking conundrum is unintentionally hilarious. Although I suppose even if Eternals just ran with the idea, the whole “we were working for the bad guy all along” concept is the single most obvious “swerve” a movie like this could have possibly attempted. We now live in a time in which a movie where the good guys are simply the good guys and the bad guys are simply the bad guys would be a refreshing, original concept.
The movie as a whole just has an undeserved air of importance. It’s something closer to DC’s Man of Steel than it is any of the entertaining MCU features of yesteryear.
I am the first to admit that I dislike when Marvel movies (or any movie) undercuts emotional moments with an unnecessary bit of humor. So many movies today seem hesitant to let audiences feel emotions (“gotta throw in a dumb joke in a sad moment or the audience might actually feel sad!”). But now, here I am being a complete hypocrite, because I wish Eternals could have provided me with something, anything, to lighten the mood.
The whole movie is so joyless, and embracing in that joylessness as some kind of intellectualism. We have a bunch of apathetic characters who have lived for thousands of years (later revealed to actually be millions of years, because unless something is at least a million years old it doesn’t matter in Marvel movies anymore), and all they ever seem to talk about is how terrible humans are based on all the horrors they’ve witnessed over time. And of course, anything good humans did was actually an accomplishment made by the Eternals. How convenient.
You know what I miss? I miss the Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies. Now those were Marvel movies that showed what a super hero should be: a symbol of hope. Crucially, they also showed the importance of the people Spider-Man was fighting to protect, with the first two Raimi films featuring memorable scenes where the people of New York helped Spider-Man save the day, and stood up for their hero. Even J. Jonah Jameson was given a moment of selfless heroism.
These days, between the mini-series Loki and now in an even more boring package with the Eternals, the modern Marvel movies and series seem to treat humanity as an afterthought. The heroes are no longer fighting for people, because people are insignificant and just exist to run around and scream whenever the villains are doing something bad. As a result, the heroes just come across as fighting for their own egos instead of fighting for what’s right.
Eternals was directed by Chloé Zhao, who has recently risen to prominence and even won an Oscar. One would hope that such a director would bring a new artistic touch to the superhero genre. Instead, Zhao’s film simply strips away the artistic merit the genre does have, and tries to turn it into something else. Eternals is an attempt to turn a superhero movie into an arthouse film, and not a very good one.
These Marvel movies show no signs of slowing down. Here’s hoping that Eternals is simply a bump in the road, and that these movies can get back to what made us all like them to begin with.
At least Shang-Chi was good.