Eternals is an interesting entry to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Not interesting in the “well these are quirky characters,” Guardians of the Galaxy way. More in a “I wonder why they chose this moment to tell this story” kind of way. It’s not like the MCU doesn’t have its fair share of immortal, nearly all-powerful characters. And yet, the introduction of a bunch more, who have all been around for thousands of years, stands up from the back of the class and shouts, “hey I’m here,” in a way unlike most other Marvel films. It’s a premise that demands heavy exposition, is likely to contain liberal use of flashbacks, and is prone to feeling disjointed. Attaching Oscar Award winning director Chloé Zhao to the film added assuredness and uncertainty in such a strangely balanced proportion that, going into the movie, I had almost no expectation for what I would be presented.
Movies like this are a blessing and a curse. Hype is a thing, and we’ve all seen the aftershock of the “didn’t live up to the hype” earthquakes that rumble around social media. But dissuading hype via ambiguity can be dangerous. Guardians of the Galaxy, a movie I didn’t think I would reference twice in this review, took a property very few people had familiarity with and delivered it to us with bombastic panache. Eternals just floated into the box office with this ethereal blanket of mystery. After viewing the film—hell, while viewing the film—I was instantly confronted with the realization that the trailers I had seen had not given me the slightest idea of what I was going to get. What Chloé Zhao gives us is going to be polarizing, albeit for trivial reasons in some cases, but nevertheless, Eternals is a strange superhero film that has the potential to be the perfect prelude to the extremely cosmically centered fourth phase of the MCU. At the same time, it also has the potential to bounce off of some people in ways Marvel movies generally steer clear of.
The film sets up the Eternals as, well, eternal beings, who serve the goliath Celestials, the latter having only been seen in one other Marvel property—you guessed it, Guardians if the Galaxy. Knowhere, the massive skull turned museum by The Collector, is in fact the head of a Celestial. Is that ever discussed in this film? No. Why? You know what…I don’t know. Moving past missed expositional opportunities, the story unfolds as such, more or less. The Eternals arrived on Earth thousands of years ago to protect humanity from interstellar predators called Deviants. After a few thousand years, they wiped them out. Then from that time until today, the Eternals have lived among humans. Why haven’t we seen them before? Because plot device. Their Celestial god Arishem restricted them from ever becoming involved in the affairs of humans. Their job was to eliminate the Deviants and then hold until the call to come home came. Is it a great explanation for their absence from pivotal moments like those that occurred in Endgame? No, not particularly. But it’s a comic book film, if we can believe in a rapidly approaching multiverse, this isn’t the biggest ask.
Also unlike most other Marvel films, and certainly unexpected based on the fact that Chloé Zhao rests at the helm of this picture, I was lost by the first act not due to its copious use of expositional time jumps, but rather due to flat acting. It was a strange thing to experience. Zhao has become known for her ability to draw incredibly nuanced performances out of her actors, and it’s not like Eternals lacks talent. The extremely diverse cast includes Gemma Chan, Angelina Jolie, Richard Madden, Salma Hayek, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Ridloff, Kumail Nanjiani, Don Lee, Lia McHugh, and Barry Keoghan. All of these performers are incredibly talented and still, in the first forty minutes they completely underwhelm. There are moments, sure. Barry Keoghan, whom I last saw in The Green Knight, is never bad. Don Lee crushes it throughout. Still, there were more than a few moments where I found myself trying to solve for x, x being the reason the first third of the movie felt so flat. The best I can surmise is that since the majority of the exposition in this film is based in flashback that means it was modular, thus able to move anywhere. Its proliferation then must have contributed to a confusing or even disjointed filming schedule. There is just too much talent here, from top to bottom, for there to be any other excuse. Also, it’s an issue that almost completely dissolves once the second act takes off and powers right through the third act.
Those last two acts are very good. The problem is, you have to survive the disjointed and nearly colorless first act. The action segments are all good, a testament to the folks at Third Floor, whose previsualization was outed this summer. There is a talent required to imagining how so many heroes with so many unique powers and abilities can be represented on screen. Each Eternal is fun to watch in action and while the action lulls for a good bit of this film, when you get a dose it goes straight to your veins. Standouts for me are Henry’s Phastos and Nanjiani’s Kingo.
All in all Eternals is ambitious, but much like Brutus’ assessment of Caesar, that ambition may lead to its wobbly reception. There are a lot of moving parts between the credits of Eternals. Kit Harrington’s character, on screen for a measly fifteen minutes, has far more coming up in the future. The troubled love story of Sersi and Ikaris weaves its way between acts. The Eternals revelation of their purpose. All important, but none affixed firmly at the film’s center, leaving most subplots feeling a little unfinished. But this is a Marvel movie, complete with cliffhanger ending and both mid-credits and post-credits scenes that open the door for myriad directions a sequel or sequels could and inevitably will go.
Chloé Zhao is out of her element a bit in the MCU, but the challenging material and its challenging placement in the universe weren’t obstacle enough to prevent her from making a movie worth watching and enjoyable even if only slightly above average. It’s no Thor: The Dark World, and for that, we should all rejoice. Eternals is without a doubt Marvel’s most inclusive and diverse hero ensemble thus far, and the potential of the characters going forward should prove to be worthy of our interest. Welcome to the cosmic MCU. Prepare for things to get weirder from here. | Caleb Sawyer