“Eternals” Is A Mess, But There Are A Few Bright Spots

Eternals is far from perfect, but it pushes the MCU into promising new territory. Spoilers ahead.

When you prepare to watch a Marvel film, there are usually a few things you can expect: good-looking superheroes wearing exquisite costumes; unbelievably devious villains; a soaring, triumphant score; and memorable quotes like “that’s America’s ass.” Even when it focuses on lesser-known characters, like the recently released Shang-Chi, people flock to the theater because they know Marvel will deliver a great cinematic experience, complete with emotional story arcs and amazing action sequences.

But Eternals, out today, is disappointing. There are flashes of the things that make a Marvel film great, along with earnest scenes designed to push the MCU into new territory — worthy efforts that fall flat. The movie is magnificent to look at but not deep. You get the action-packed sequences but not the benefits of more popular characters. It sticks out, in ways good and bad, when considered alongside the other films Marvel has churned out over the past decade.

The good stuff is obvious. Eternals is visually arresting, as expected from director Chloé Zhao; she helmed both 2017’s The Rider and Nomadland, this year’s Best Picture winner at the Oscars. The way Zhao deftly captures landscapes in their natural beauty is mesmerizing, a visual sensibility that translates even to CGI renderings of long-lost structures, like an overhead shot of ancient Babylon highlighting the Hanging Gardens, or Teotihuacán during its heyday. There are also gratuitous shots of Richard Madden’s perfect mug, so handsome it should be considered one of the new wonders of the world.

And then there’s the not-so-great stuff, like the film’s tedious dialogue, muddled script, and long runtime (2 hours and 37 minutes). Still, while the movie has been pretty much panned, I can’t bring myself to condemn it. While it is a departure from Marvel’s past offerings, some of Eternals’ contributions should be lasting additions to the franchise. It hits on important themes, including the climate crisis, mental health, and sexuality, in a way that feels novel for the MCU. These zeitgeist-friendly ideas are welcome but don’t fully cohere with the film, mainly because none of them are given adequate attention. In trying to cover so much ground, including introducing viewers to new lore, the project fumbles its point of view and overall message.

The film begins with a barrage of text in a Star Wars–like opening crawl that explains how all-powerful cosmic beings called Celestials created life in the cosmos. In the beginning, the Celestials created humans, who lived alongside monstrous-looking beings called Deviants. Later on, the Deviants began to attack humans and, in order to correct this error, the Celestials created the Eternals, good beings designed to extinguish the Deviants. For thousands of years, 10 Eternals — Sersi (Gemma Chan), Ikaris (Richard Madden), Thena (Angelina Jolie), Gilgamesh (Don Lee), Druig (Barry Keoghan), Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), Ajax (Salma Hayek), Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), and Sprite (Lia McHugh) — have lived among the human race to protect them from the Deviants. Eventually, after a few millennia, the Deviants are vanquished. The Eternals disband and go their separate ways, roaming the Earth. But when the Deviants, long thought to be gone, begin cropping up once again, the Eternals must seek each other out, set aside past differences, and figure out why their adversaries have suddenly returned.

The MCU is a well-oiled machine, a consistent source of broadly appealing films guaranteed to garner box office success. Despite the by-now traditional qualities of Marvel content, Zhao injects some new elements into the superhero movie as we know it: sensuality, connection, tender moments that speak to and reflect our shared humanity. Chan and Madden’s characters, Sersi and Ikaris, have an actual, though restrained, sex scene, a first for the franchise; previously, references to sex in Marvel movies have been either ambiguous or played for jokes. The scene shows the two characters in a tight shot from the torso up, embracing each other, complete with soft kisses and confident thrusts. The tasteful scene demonstrates the level to which the two characters love one another and adds to the stakes when they face different paths near the film’s end.

Zhao, who wrote the script with Patrick Burleigh and Ryan and Kaz Firpo, takes a direct, invigorating approach to subjects that Disney and Marvel have traditionally been tepid on — in particular, queer characters and plotlines. Phastos is a Black gay scientist. He also has a partner and a young son. Everything about the presentation of the Black queer family feels intentional, from Phastos’s rapport with his young son to the kiss he shares with his husband. With him, audiences get a fully formed queer superhero, welcome progress after Disney’s weak pandering to LGBTQ viewers by declaring LeFou gay in the live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast.

Another unexpected but great moment centers on Angelina Jolie’s Thena, a character who is otherwise sorely underused. Thena, a warrior Eternal, has a psychological condition called Mahd Wy’ry (pronounced like mad weary); sometimes her eyes turn white and she slips into a state of mind where she rebels against her fellow Eternals. In one scene, when Thena comes to after a scary episode, the team contemplates whether they should wipe her mind. Thena, obviously emotional because she doesn't want to lose her memories — and her own self — is saved when Gilgamesh takes the compassionate route, saying he will nurse her back to health. When Eternals tries to say something new about how we should be in the world, like emphasizing the value of community and care, it gets exciting.

But even a director like Zhao, whose style is so distinctive, can’t escape the requirements of the MCU. Take one scene that has been blasted online for its insensitivity: Phastos cries at the destruction of Hiroshima in 1945, blaming himself because his gift for creating technology led human beings to make horrific decisions. The scene does get at the Eternals’ quagmire: They are supposed to protect humanity from the Deviants but cannot protect the human race from itself, because the Celestials have forbidden the heroes from interfering in human conflict. On the one hand, it’s a comic book movie, and this sort of reference is par for the course. But invoking such an appalling event for the sake of emotion feels vile.

The convoluted logic of the Eternals’ powers and responsibilities is just one of the film’s issues. They are a group of heroes that many moviegoers are likely learning about for the first time via this film, and they don’t have the same pull as beloved names like Iron Man or Spider-Man, who can draw big numbers thanks to nostalgia and a solid track record. Despite scorching reviews, however, Eternals’ box office predictions look promising, which suggests that audiences are so invested in the MCU brand that they’re willing to overlook complicated backstory and relatively unknown characters. And, as noted by a title card at the end of the film, the Eternals will return, so there’s hope that a sequel can improve upon this first foray.

Eternals feels like an amalgam of what Marvel does best — splendidly chaotic fight scenes, dazzling special effects, and stories that speak to who we are as human beings. Like fellow recent Marvel offerings WandaVision, Loki, and Black Widow, the film’s storytelling feels ambitious and emotionally grounded. Still, Eternals isn’t for everybody, which is unusual for an MCU property. The film asks a lot of its audience, especially when it comes to staying on top of the lengthy exposition. But it isn’t trying to be a standard Marvel movie, easily consumed by general audiences. Eternals was an experiment. “I think the desire to do something different is a very natural desire for where Marvel Studios is right now,” Zhao told IndieWire last month. If big swings that result in missteps are what we need in order for that universe to get more interesting, then I’m all for it. ●

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