Director Chloé Zhao had had a great track record with 2017’s “The Rider” and last year’s “Nomadland,” the latter winning Academy Awards.
Unfortunately, her venture into the Marvel Cinematic Universe isn’t as good.
This MCU entry features characters older than all of the heroes audiences have been introduced to since 2008. Those characters are the Eternals, a race of warriors with special powers created by a being known as Arishem. Their purpose is to protect life across the cosmos from dark creatures known as Deviants.
Their latest mission brought them to Earth at the dawn of humanity, where they defended mankind for centuries from Deviants across the planet. The movie picks up with the Eternals in the present day, living among humanity and waiting for future orders from Arishem. However, their now normal lives are upended when the Deviants, long thought defeated, come back.
There’s quite a few characters in this one so here’s the roster of who’s who.
- Sersi, played by Gemma Chan, can manipulate matter into different things, like metal into ice.
- Ikaris, portrayed by Richard Madden, has laser vision and can fly.
- Thena, played by Angelina Jolie, can generate energy-based weapons.
- Salma Hayek plays Ajak, who has the power to heal.
- Kingo, played by Kumail Nanjiani, can shoot energy blasts.
- Sprite, played by Lia McHugh, has the power to make illusions.
- Brian Tyree Henry is Phantos, a genius who can build any technology he can imagine.
- Lauren Ridloff plays Makkari, who has the power of super speed.
- Barry Keoghan portrays Druig, who has mind control.
- Gilgamesh, played by Don Lee, has super strength and energy gauntlets.
“Eternals” is to date, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s most lifeless film. It’s not for a lack of trying. The movie does a lot of heavy lifting trying to humanize these characters by exploring their backgrounds, showcasing what makes them tick and displaying their relationships.
These many efforts come across as so surface level again and again, though. With the Deviants returning, the first two thirds of the picture is all about the Eternals coming back together after having not seeing each other for years. This is interspliced with many flashbacks from centuries past.
However, while each Eternal is off doing their own unique thing, every time one of them is getting recruited, it feels all too similar. Basically, a group of already teamed Eternals will find another one of their own in *insert location here.* The Eternals will tell the other Eternal what’s going on, there will be a flashback, they’ll decide to join, and then it’s on to more of the same.
It’s all too repeitive and makes an audience really feel that two and a half hour runtime. The fact is, we’re introduced to all of the Eternals collectively at the start. The audience knows their powers and personalities, meaning a lot of the “let’s get the band back together” stuff feels excessive.
On top of that, the attempts at bringing any emotional weight to many scenes is undercut by the humor Marvel films have become known for. One example is where Gilgamesh is informed that one of their own has died. It’s supposed to be a sad moment, yet it also includes Gilgamesh dropping a very big pie, so audiences should also laugh, I guess?
Another example of this is Phantos, who now lives with a husband and son in the suburbs, trying to keep away from any kind of conflict. It turns out he was horrified that the technology he helped develop for humanity was turned into the atomic bomb used in Japan, and it was awfully tramatic to him.
It’s a moment where a viewer pauses and goes ‘really?’ It took until the atomic bomb for him to be so disgusted by human creation? Not ships being turned into slave vesels, or guns becoming more deadly, or even the chemical warfare in World War I?
Not only does Phantos standing in the rubble of Hiroshima for that scene feel somewhat exploitive, it’s also just a cheap way to highlight an Eternal’s mixed outlook on mankind.
The scene where he’s in Japan during the aftermath says a lot about the movie overall, too. It’s basically a microcosm of how the Eternals’ view on humanity is portrayed in a shallow fashion.
Not to worry, though, because Phantos is still in high spirits decades later for a joke about having a table from IKEA.
These are ancient beings who’ve seen so much bloodshed and death, but instead of cynical views, hardened attitudes and aged personalities, they all act like standard superhero characters from any era. Even last year’s “The Old Guard” from Netflix, which I wasn’t a huge fan of, did the “immortals in present day who’ve lived for centuries” angle better.
It should be noted that having humor in the film wasn’t the biggest issue, either. It was the execution. Unlike, say, “Guardians of the Galaxy,” the humor, and in some cases other emotional moments, is unnatural. That’s an absolute shame, too, because both “Nomadland” and “The Rider” from Zhao had such excellent, convincing human connections.
The characters aren’t as memorable as other Avengers or Guardians, either. Some, like Sersi and Druig are interesting enough to invest in, but many of the others, such as Thena, have such little going on. Honestly, Jolie’s Tigress from the “Kung Fu Panda” series has more personality than Thena.
The spectacle is the main driver with Marvel movies, though, and it certainly shows up. There’s a lot to like about all of the unique powers on display, which are all brought to life beautifully with the special effects. Ikaris doing airial combat with laser vision and Thena engaging in combat with weapons made of gold energy is great eye candy for the audience.
One just wishes the opponents of the Eternals were more interesting. The Deviants are far too generic when it comes to monster designs. Another issue with the film, and potentially for the MCU, is the concept of threat elevation.
Basically, a new threat to Earth is revealed that’s even bigger than those in previous MCU movies. Instead of feeling imposing, though, it’s more exhausting than anything.
“Eternals” is the weakest Marvel film in its now 13 year catalogue. It’s far too long to be just a fun, breezy superhero movie, many of the characters are pooly handled and the grand finale is a disappointment. 1.5 out of 5.