I have been a Marvel Comics ever since I was a kid. I haven’t collected the actual comics in a while, but I was a pretty avid reader back in the day and consider myself an old-school fan. I still have the entire catalog of the 80s RPG on hand, even all the old “official handbooks” just for the lore and character info. I follow the new adaptations, and I’ve consumed the entirety of the MCU. Even with all that, I barely knew who the Eternals were. And after having seen a movie all about them, I still barely know who they are now.
The Eternals film starts out with a text crawl which…was a choice. But it does let us know that the Eternals are super-powered, near-immortal individuals sent to protect planets from monsters called Deviants by the Celestials, the cosmic creators of the universe. These specific Eternals have been on Earth for 7,000 years fighting the Deviants but otherwise not engaging in humanity’s conflicts. When the Deviants re-emerge on Earth, the scattered Eternals must band together to fight them again, but there is an ever bigger threat on the horizon.
The film focuses mostly on the Eternal Sersi (Gemma Chan), who serves as both the emotional center and a sometimes audience surrogate, but the actual team includes a whopping ten Eternals and a handful of supporters. It’s a large cast to throw at the audience all at once, and to say that it’s a lot to digest is being generous. That’s even before getting into the massive amounts of lore and background information necessary to process even a fraction of the film’s plot. There’s a lot going on here, and despite the best effort of everyone involved, it doesn’t always work.
Eternals is something of an odd beast in the MCU. It’s the first film directed by the winner of an Oscar for Best Director*, that being Chloé Zhao, who picked up the award for Nomadland between the filming and release of Eternals. And it was Zhao who approached Marvel, being a fan of the franchise. On top of directing, she also contributed to the screenplay. That all sounds like a formula to create a singularly unique entry in MCU, something distinct and expressive.
I just wish that could be how the final product could be described. To be fair and to be sure, Zhao doesn’t do anything wrong here. It’s clear she was trying to put her own stamp on the MCU, and she has her heart in the right place. But her voice comes out only about half of the time, often being drowned out by the MCU’s overriding, inflexible formula. Nothing here from a visual or purely cinematic sense is bad; like everything in the MCU, it never falls below a certain level of quality. The action scenes are well-framed, the CGI well-executed, the colors and frames and set-ups well-planned. The designs of the Deviants are especially intriguing, creatures seemingly made entirely of sinew and malice. The frustration lies in seeing what Zhao could have made and should have been allowed to make being smothered by the Disney/Marvel brand.
This often leads to film that looks beyond reproach but can be a task to watch. There is a tremendous amount of story crammed into the film’s runtime, and it doesn’t always seem to fit properly. The narrative is constantly shifting back and forth in time from the present day to flashbacks highlighting vital parts of the Eternals’ personal histories. Given the lifespans of the Eternals themselves, this was probably something that couldn’t be avoided, but the flashbacks are extended almost to the point of self-indulgence, pulling us away from the immediate conflict that we should be getting hooked into. Because of this, it’s hard to be concerned about that conflict because any time momentum is built, it seems to get derailed by a trip down memory lane.
That isn’t even getting into the Lore, and it does seem like it deserves that capital letter given the weight it’s delivered with. Eternals concerns itself with nothing less than the creation of the MCU itself and the reason Earth and humanity exists in the first place. It’s a level of cosmic perspective that’s familiar to fans of the comics but has never been touched on in the films, at least not to this degree. It seems like we’re jumping a few stages of evolution to get to it though, and the sheer enormity of the shift makes it hard to swallow. Like the planet-sized Celestials themselves, it’s a lot to take in all at once.
It might sound like I’m ragging on the movie, and I kind of am, but I want to point out that this is not necessarily a bad movie, just a kind of disappointment. There is a lot of potential for an excellent film here that gets squelched by the Marvel formula and its own narrative weight. This is a film that should not have been a film but a six-episode Disney+ series that gives us more time to live with the characters, their story, and their background. Why this was condensed into a movie and Falcon and the Winter Soldier stretched into a series is beyond me, but those circumstances should have been reversed in the green-lighting womb.
What makes the film keep going however, what makes it truly rise above itself is the cast. This is a good cast, a talented cast, and a cast that deserved that six-episode series to really shine. It’s clear that everyone has a good grasp on their characters, and it’s another facet of frustration that we don’t get to see more of them. Gemma Chan is a fantastic lead, and Sersi is probably the right Eternal to focus on here. She’s the member of the team most in love with Earth and humanity, and Chan gives her a strong, complicated heart. Sersi is very emotion-driven, and of all the Eternals exhibits the most potential for growth and evolution. Chan is simply wonderful in the role, and if Marvel is smart, they’ll utilize her again very soon.
Other standouts from the cast include Angelina Jolie as the team’s weapon expert Thena, who struggles with the weight of her own memories, and Kumail Nanjiani as Kingo, the film’s comic relief. Jolie is of course radiant and powerful as always, and she was sculpted by the universe to play warrior-goddesses. Nanjiani more than anyone seems thrilled to be there, and that’s not just the PEDs he took to get in his supremely super-buff shape talking. Kingo adds a very welcome amount of levity to film that otherwise doesn’t engage in as much of the MCU’s characteristic humor as we might be used to.
Special note should be made of the huge amount of diversity in the Eternals themselves. Most of the character’s incarnations are based on more modern versions of their comics counterparts, leading to a team of mixed genders, mixed colors, and mixed abilities. We have our first deaf MCU hero in super-speedster Makkari, played by deaf actress Lauren Ridloff. We also have our first openly gay** MCU hero in the mechanically-inclined Phastos, played by Phillip Tyree Henry. Not only does Henry get to play a powerful, creative character who’s a courageous fighter, Phastos’ primarily emotional arc involves his human family. We get to meet both his husband (played by gay actor Haaz Sleiman) and their adopted child. Phastos and his husband even share a kiss on screen. Credit should be given to Zhao and Marvel for integrating Phastos’ family in a way that makes them important enough to the film’s emotional narrative that they can’t easily be cut out for…shall we say specific audiences.
Despite the great cast, and despite Zhao’s best and clearly sincere efforts, Eternals is still a bit of a task to get through. There’s so much stuffed into the film’s runtime that even at 157 minutes, it feels like it’s not enough. There are long stretches where there’s a lot of drama but little movement, and it just seems like there’s an imbalance of cinematic energies throughout. It’s a noble effort, and there’s clearly a seed of brilliance lying deep in the film’s heart that gets unfairly inhibited by Marvel and Disney’s reluctance to let go of its formula. Instead of soaring into the cosmos like it should, it strains against its limitations in a very visible way. Although it’s ultimately enjoyable, a film this epic shouldn’t feel like just another step in the MCU timeline.
FBOTU Score: 6 out of 10 / B-
* Directors Joe Johnston (Captain America: The First Avenger) and Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok) are both Oscar winners, but neither won for Best Director. Johnston won for Best Visual Effects for Raiders of the Lost Ark while Waititi won for Best Adapted Screenplay for Jojo Rabbit.
** Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnarok was supposed to be portrayed as openly bisexual, but those scenes were allegedly cut before the film was released. In addition, there was an unnamed gay character in Avengers: Endgame, but he was a regular human and not an MCU superhero.