Eternals Review: Gods Among Us
The 26th MCU film is audacious in a way unlike anything that has come before it. Although elements seem to share the galactic feel of “Captain Marvel,” the trippy ambition of “Doctor Strange,” or the classical myth-making of the “Thor” films, never before has a Marvel Studios production swung for the fences quite like this one, telling a tale that spans thousands of years, encompassing civilizations both terrestrial and quite extra, and offering substantial storylines detailing a dozen main characters. At times, this ambition threatens to take the film down, but Chloé Zhao’s impressive-looking movie unapologetically wields ambition as if it were a superpower.
Watching “Eternals,” it’s also striking how Marvel has accomplished something movie studios attempted unsuccessfully for decades: bomb-proofing a film release. How many people who see “Eternals” really want to see “Eternals”? And how many others would much rather be going to “Spider-Man 9” or whatever, but will see this film simply because they’ve seen the 25 that preceded it (and the Disney+ series as well) and fear that if they don’t see “Eternals,” the MCU will move along without them? It’s a valid concern, because this film introduces all sorts of concepts — from celestial string-pullers to spinoff characters — likely to influence future MCU adventures.
Based on one of Jack Kirby’s crowning achievements when he returned to Marvel in the ’70s, the first film adaptation of “Eternals” opens with a convoluted scrawl wielding words like “Arishem,” “Deviants,” and “the prime Eternal.” You might want to take notes — what this film lacks in capes and tights, it makes up in jibber-jabber.
We then meet the titular super group in 5000 BC Mesopotamia: molecule-shifting Sersi (Gemma Chan), Superman-like Ikaris (Richard Madden), energy-firing Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), illusion-wielding Sprite (Lia McHugh), technology-savvy levitator Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), speedster Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), mind-controller Druig (Barry Keoghan), super-puncher Gilgamesh (Ma Dong-seok), agile weapons-wielder Thena (Angelina Jolie), and their boss (at least on Earth) Ajak (Salma Hayek). At the risk of reinforcing an earlier point, take notes.
To break down their epic story in simple, Reader’s Digest-like terms that will likely result in a lot of angry comic book fans: the Eternals were created by the alien Celestials to defend and cultivate Earth. Much of this defending has been against “the Deviants,” a previous Earthbound race gone wrong. After millennia spent battling these creepy, energy-sucking creatures, the Eternals thought they had won the war; Ajak rewarded the troops by telling them all to take the Eternals’ equivalent of a long weekend (a few hundred years) to chill. Now, on the heels of the “Avengers: Endgame” Blip, the Deviants have seemingly returned, causing the Eternals to stop teaching, dancing, and taking human lovers and instead cut their vacations short. Oh yeah, and one of them has also turned up dead.
The first thing you notice in “Eternals” is the stunning cinematography — if ever there was an MCU film to see in IMAX, this is it. The film frequently feels like Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” mixed with the free-flowing narrative ambitions of Terrence Malick, rather than any superhero film you’ve seen before. The next thing you notice is the equally stunning beauty of the cast, manifesting this concept of god-like beings through the flawless features and impressive cheekbones of Chan, Jolie, Madden, and others, as well as a multicultural, non-gender-conforming aesthetic that effectively represents the grand scope of humanity, rather than any particular civilization or era’s interpretation of what a “supreme being” should look like.
The Eternals, in fancy dress
But then it’s time for the plot, and this is where things start going off the rails. Constant, often unannounced flashbacks have a disorienting effect on the viewer (are we in 575 BC Babylon? Present day South Dakota? 1531 AD somewhere else?) as does the unforced error of examining the backstory of each and every Eternal as if they were the film’s main character. In some instances, characters die moments later, making all this backstory feel like a wasted trip down a dead end — and also burdening the film with a flimsy logic where the characters seem to heal their wounds and be unkillable when the plot requires it, but at other times they seem to die quite easily. Later in the movie, somebody gets stabbed — and the film holds on it, as if this is a major occurrence — only to have the character later flick it away like a bug bite. The movie’s lack of continuity in such moments leaves the viewer unsure in many instances whether a blow is inconsequential or could, for some reason, be fatal.
Then there are moments like when Salma Hayek tells another character in 575 BC to “Get a life!” While we can’t be certain of such things, it seems unlikely that people were using that phrase back then. There are also some quirky decisions made around character motivations: At the height of the film’s action, after we learn that an event called “the emergence” is going to end all of humanity, the Eternals must choose between saving humans and forsaking them — except for one Eternal, who decides to peace out; later, he is reunited with the rest, and nobody seems to be bothered by his reticence in their time of need. Another Eternal decides to turn an entire village into their own personal zombies for generations, a dereliction of duty that is barely remarked upon and quickly forgiven. Then there is a subplot involving Ikaris going dark that plays like a pale imitation of “Invincible,” “The Boys,” and heck, “Superman III.”
Perhaps Achilles should have been an Eternal, because another heel is one that has plagued MCU films since the beginning: its failure to present a clearly defined, terrifying, truly memorable villain. It’s a safe estimate that “Eternals” has somewhere in the neighborhood of six (or more) villains, most of whom are not working in conjunction with each other, and whose villainous ways emerge and then recede as required by the plot rather than any common sense. Half of these beings are lifeless CGI, including a disappointing realization of The Deviant Warlord Kro. Can we get a Joker around here? A Thanos? How about a Doctor Doom? At the end of the day, a movie about good vs. bad can only be as good as its bad.
Which is a shame, because there is a lot in “Eternals” to like, albeit in small doses that almost feel like their own films. Gemma Chan carries the movie impressively, harnessing a unique talent to be charming and feel like a character in a Hallmark movie one moment, then turning into an all-powerful immortal being the next; her fun romance with Kit Harrington (who plays an incredibly forgiving “normal” guy … or is he?) is a highlight. Also worth noting is an emotionally powerful, groundbreaking subplot involving Henry’s character and his home life, which involves a husband and a son. Angelina Jolie is similarly impactful as an Eternal whose mind has begun playing Alzheimer’s-like tricks on her that always seem to flare up at the most inopportune moments — but again, she frequently feels like she’s in her own movie at the fringes of this one.
The Eternals, undercover
“Eternals” also continues the fascinating new Hollywood tradition of having actors bulk up for comic book roles, only to costume them in ways that make them look no different. Google Kumail Nanjiani and the first thing you’ll see are thirst-trap pictures of the amazing physical transformation the comedian undertook, starting around late 2018, for the role of Kingo; much like JK Simmons in the DC Universe, you’d never know it from what you see on film. By the time the flick begins to focus on Kingo (which honestly, arrives far too late), the audience is treated to some much-needed comic relief, reminding us that Nanjiani’s comedic skills are as buff as ever. His character has been masquerading as multiple generations of a Bollywood acting/directing dynasty, and although one has to wonder who the intended audience is for the “behind-the-scenes” documentary that his valet (Harish Patel) is filming, there are some great moments of levity in that storyline.
By the end of its lengthy run, “Eternals” stumbles across the finish line with a dizzying mix of spaceships, superpowers, erupting volcanoes, and other spectacles. The audience also gets two post-credits scenes that make promising revelations abut MCU developments to come, and a promise that “The Eternals will return.”
But ultimately, that statement feels as much like a threat as it does a promise. After watching the first film, should the Eternals get a second one? Or would these characters be better scattered to the wind, sprinkled into disparate Marvel movies and Disney+ shows so that someone like Jolie’s Thena can get a more deserving close up? Ultimately, “Eternals” feels a bit like homework: If you don’t want the rest of the class to move on without you, it’s mandatory; but in the end, you’ll just be glad to turn it in and move along to the next thing.