Eternals and all the images you see in this review are owned by Disney
Directed by Chloé Zhao
One thing you can say about the MCU is that they’ve never met a character, no matter how obscure to the general public, that they couldn’t find a way to work. Well except maybe Iron Fist, but the Netflix shows are their own thing anyway so I wouldn’t bother counting that anyway. Heck, the ONLY thing I knew about Guardians of the Galaxy prior to the movie being announced was Rocket Raccoon’s inexplicable inclusion in Marvel Vs Capcom 3, and that turned out to be one of the best things the MCU has popularized! The Eternals however seem like Marvel REALLY trying to challenge themselves as far digging up obscure characters to make into household names as I STILL couldn’t tell you a thing about them despite seeing the trailers a few times! It’s definitely going to be its own thing which could be its saving grace considering how lackluster the Post-Endgame MCU has been so far, but is it too far away from what audiences’ expect for them to latch onto? Let’s find out!!
The Eternals are BASICALLY to Marvel Superheroes what Dracula is to other vampires. This group has been doing the super hero shtick before it was even cool to do so since they’ve been around since the time of Quest for Fire; protecting humanity from alien creatures known as Deviants, while also giving us a few pointers in the right direction. Of course they can only influence humanity so much and are forbidden to interfere with human conflicts as decreed by their Space Creators known as Celestials, and over time they just kind of drifted apart as the Deviants became few and far between. Cut to modern day where Sersi (Gemma Chan) is working as a school teacher in London when a SUPER POWERFUL Deviant comes out of nowhere, and she along with fellow Eternals Sprite and Ikaris (Lia McHugh and Richard Madden) have to stop it before it can cause too much damage. Clearly there is a new threat on the horizon if the Deviants are reemerging, so the trio must scour the globe looking for their fellow Eternals (Kumail Nanjiani, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Ridloff, Barry Koeghan, Don Lee, Salma Hayek, and Angelina Jolie) and convince them to put aside whatever difference they may have and come back together for a mission to save Earth! Can The Eternals overcome whatever threat is looming over the planet this time? Just what split them up in the first place, and how have the years away from each other changed them? Seriously, I know they’re doing their own thing here but can we at least get ONE Avenger to tag along? It can be one the B-Listers like War Machine or Hawkeye!
This is gonna be a tough one because I am conflicted as heck about it. I don’t know how I’m even gonna get past THIS part of the review, let alone the in depth analysis I’m oh so fond of. The movie just completely washed over me as I was watching it and nothing stood out to me as particularly good or even all that bad; it was all just there to take up my time and leave me feeling placated at best. What’s most maddening though is that I’m still struggling to put my finger on just WHY I couldn’t connect with it, which is pretty rough considering that’s what I’m here to do, but the more I think on it the more I start feeling like Charlie and his wall of mail talking about Pepe Silvia. It aspires for greatness like few films in the MCU have gone for, especially ones that have a brand new cast and aren’t the culmination of a dozen previous movies, and yet it lacks the excitement of even the lower stakes movies like Ant-Man and the Wasp. It has a large cast of diverse characters that embody a wide range of motivations and ideologies, but I still feel like I barely got to know them. Is it an ultimately shallow experience with that promises deeper themes than it can deliver on, or is it an experience that shouldn’t be constrained by the conventions of the genre and should be admired for its ambition? I don’t know the answer to that yet, but I WILL say that the Guardians of the Galaxy movies didn’t make it this difficult to figure out!
We’ll start with what I liked about this movie since those are much more concrete aspects of the movie. The cast is solid for the most part with Kingo (Nanjiani) being the clear standout for me. He brought a lot of life to the movie and added that Marvel charm that you expect out of these things; plus his valet Karun is easily the most relatable and fun character in the movie! That’s not to say that the rest of the cast are underwhelming as each character has unique and interesting situations that give the actors a lot to work with whenever the get a chance at the spotlight. Veterans of the craft like Angelina Jolie and Salma Hayek get their moments to shine, but some of the less known actors like Don Lee and Lauren Ridloff do a lot with their roles and it’s kind of a shame that the sheer size of the cast means that not everyone gets as much screen time as they should. The action is somewhat sparse, but it shines whenever it shows up as each member has a unique power that manifests in some interesting ways; particularly Phastos (Henry) with his techno gauntlet things and Thena (Jolie) with her ever shifting weaponry. It helps to pick up the pace whenever the movie starts to drag and there’s a lot you learn about the characters simply by watching how they fight and how they manifest their powers. There’s enough good stuff in here that you will almost certainly find something compelling and at least a few characters to latch onto which should keep you interested in what’s going to happen next even if they start to focus on something you find less interesting.
Where the movie starts to falter for me is when we look at the whole picture as it wants to be everything at once and so nothing sticks around or feels important enough that we can’t just move on to the next thing when the script says so. That would be fine with a snappier script or if they had a bunch of movies beforehand to build up the individual characters, but we’re starting completely from scratch here with barely any connection to the rest of the MCU. Having to work out who these characters are, their relationships to each other, their individual character arcs, the overarching storyline, and the moral and philosophical implications involved with being an immortal being, well it’s a lot of groundwork that has to be laid out and so the movie is paced like a bowl of molasses. To their credit, there are certainly scenes that are small and character focused that I found quite enjoyable, and they do a solid job of explaining the HUGE cosmic ideas we’re playing with that I never lost track of what was going on. Still, with there being SO MUCH movie, I could never quite calibrate my investment level from scene to scene as everything felt weighty and yet empty at the same time. There’s a pretty significant story beat about one of the Eternals running a brainwashed cult, and yet it never got resolved to my satisfaction as we have a dozen more interesting ideas to bring up, briefly meditate on, and then move away from. The biggest casualty of this is the villain, if you could even say there IS one as the threat is not so much an antagonist with emotions, pathos, and tragedy (the character that kind of sort of fills that roll is underwhelming at best) than it is… I don’t know; entropy and the cruel uncaring neutrality of the universe? It’s just another thing that makes the movie drag as NOT having a villain frees up time for everything else the movie wants to do, but now we’ve got one less thing to move the plot forward.
Still, I don’t feel like I’ve gotten to the heart of what I didn’t like here, so what is my real issue with this movie? Why did the stuff in it that SHOULD appeal to me and that I can recognize as good, didn’t elevate this movie above being “okay”; even taking into account its languid pacing? What I think it comes down to is that I just don’t BELIEVE in these characters and so their struggles feel really small and unimportant; which is impressive considering the IMMENSE scale of this and the many different emotional beats it goes through. Perhaps it is that sense of bigness and the fact that there is so much going on and so much to consider that nothing stands out as THE central idea or THE central conflict. In many ways it does feel a mile wide and an inch deep; only giving us enough of the characters to get across the BIG WEIGHTY EMOTIONS but not enough time to invest in the characters beyond that or to find them all that relatable. It’s basically Highlander but about people who were already extraordinary; where Connor McLeod was just a simple warrior and farmer when he was granted this gift, these are people who never knew a life outside of it. They pass effortlessly though society with no any mention of how they avoid scrutiny either hand-waved or used as a joke, and frankly the movie barely even INVOLVES the rest of humanity which makes it feel like it’s taking place from a point of view beyond our level. Still, I think it’s less the characters that are lacking in humanity as it is the script because my problem feels like one of framing rather than specific story beats or dialogue as there are moments in the movie that work; most of which are with Kingo which is interesting since he’s the most outwardly wealthy of the group yet still seems the most engaged with the world and the people he lives with. Then again, he ALSO has a character beat at one point that I really didn’t like, but now we’re getting really into the weeds of this thing. I don’t want to use the word pretentious because that implies a cynicism that I don’t think this movie has, but the effect is still the same with the movie feeling a lot hollower than its trappings would indicate. Guardians of the Galaxy (particularly Vol 2) is the counterbalance to this where it too manages to have strong emotional beats in a large cosmic world, but it always felt like it was for PERSONAL reasons that themselves the jumping off point for bigger philosophical and moral discussions. A lot of times it feels like this skips over that human element to get right to the heavier stuff, which I guess can still work if you find enough in this to connect with, but I left a lot of this movie feeling pretty cold.
I’m sure we’ve all been in the situation where we have to read a book for school that just didn’t connect with us despite being widely a classic. Maybe you thought the prose of Shakespeare was tough to get through, or perhaps you didn’t GET what The Scarlet Letter was about and rolled your eyes when the dude had a heart attack. Heck, I tried reading that Allen Moore Jack the Ripper book and just lost interest after a dozen or so pages! It’s sometimes difficult to figure out why works like these just don’t hold your interest, and while I can’t speak for anyone but myself, I think I made a pretty solid case as to why this movie is fine but falls short of the lofty goals it sets for itself. It’s not an impenetrable movie by any stretch, even with all its cosmic ideas and copious flashbacks, but I also always felt at arms-length despite how well the actors handled the material and how much I liked some of the characters. As to whether you should see it in the theaters… I don’t know, I think it’s more meditative and ponderous pace will work better on your coach at home than staring at the big screen for nearly three hours. Then again, if this cosmic stuff that expands the breadth of the universe is your jam then I’m sure you’ll be absorbed in its world whatever its runtime happens to be. It’s certainly no Jupiter Ascending, but I guess it will do in a pinch!