Eternals: A Clunker That Shows Room for Future Improvement
It took 13 years and 26 films, but with the release of ‘Eternals,’ the Marvel Cinematic Universe finally has its first clunker.
It was inevitable.
Now before you come for my head, I’m not saying the movie is awful, that it should be purged from the MCU, or that this group of characters can’t be redeemed through sequels and better stories in the expanded universe going forward. I’m just that this particular movie wasn’t all that great.
Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), Sprite (Lia McHugh), Sersi (Gemma Chan), Ikaris (Richard Madden), Thena (Angelina Jolie), and Gilgamesh (Don Lee) in ‘Eternals.’ (©2021 MARVEL)
‘Eternals’ is the story of a group of (you guessed it) eternal beings assigned to live on and protect earth from a destructive race known as Deviants for an indeterminate amount of time by the celestial Arishem. Making up this never-aging (at least in terms of appearance) team is Ajak (Salma Hayek), Druig (Barry Keoghan), Gilgamesh (Don Lee), Ikaris (Richard Madden), Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), Sersi (Gemma Chan), Sprite (Lia McHugh), and Thena (Angelina Jolie).
After thousands of years on-planet, eradicating the Deviants, avoiding inserting themselves into human conflict (per Arishem’s directive), and waiting for their next assignment, the group disbands, and its members scatter across the globe.
That, however, changes when the Deviants return. And this time, rather than hunting humans, they’ve developed a taste for Eternal flesh.
As the team assembles – as Marvel teams do – the truth about their mission comes to light. Will they stay the course or chart their own?
To find the first problem with ‘Eternals,’ start by scrolling up four paragraphs. There are 10 Eternals to keep track of, along with Arishem, and some secondary characters that are getting enough screen time that you know they’ll be important at some point.
You’re probably saying to yourself, “this isn’t a big deal, look how many characters the last two Avengers movies had in them.” And you’re correct – ‘Infinity War’ and ‘Endgame’ had WAY more characters to keep track of. But those characters were rolled out over the course of a decade and often only a few at a time – it’s like drinking from a water fountain vs. a fire hose.
This ties directly into problem two: by having so many new characters show up at the same time, there’s not much opportunity to flesh anything out or really have any of them develop. I assume that will come eventually, but for a franchise that’s spent the last 13 years building stories, universes, characters, and lore, having a story arc that’s a flat line should be viewed as problematic.
Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) and Druig (Barry Keoghan) in ‘Eternals.’ (©2021 MARVEL)
The method through which director Chloé Zhao attempts to build those arcs is problem three: flashbacks. Flashbacks are far as the eye can see. As the Eternals reassemble one by one, we’re treated to a flashback. And while each plays directly in to what’s happening in the present, they step on the throat of the present and squeeze out any momentum that might be building. It’s not until the middle of the final act that it doesn’t feel like more than a series of vignettes.
All of these things combine for problem four, which might be my biggest gripe: it’s WAY too long. ‘Eternals’ clocks in at a robust 157 minutes, and it feels every bit that long. With the start and stop that comes with interlacing present day and multiple flashbacks, it never really feels like you’re building to anything, that you’re basically sort of slogging along.
I have no problem with long movies, so long as it feels worthwhile. ‘Eternals’ felt long simply for the sake of being long.
Despite that laundry list of grievances, there are some good things about ‘Eternals.’
First, the performances of Chan, Lee, and Henry are outstanding, and Nanjiani brings some much-needed levity to a film that’s much heavier than most MCU tales.
Second, as is the case with most Marvel fare, it truly is a feast for the senses – big action, big sound, seamless CGI, and outstanding cinematography.
Third, while it certainly “feels Marvel,” it also feels distinctly Chloé Zhao as well. It’s much more dramatic and serious than most other MCU flicks, and while it’s obviously a big budget, big picture film, it also has many moments that feel quite intimate. I won’t go so far as to say it’s ‘Nomadland’ in the MCU like others have, but a very talented director has put her stamp on the film and made it distinctly hers.
That brings me to the final and biggest thing I liked: they committed to doing something completely different than what we’ve previously seen in the universe. Zhao, producer Kevin Feige, and screenwriters Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo, and Kaz Firpo (along with Zhao) set out to tell a larger, deeper story that dealt more in emotions than explosions – although there are plenty of those to go around. And while I don’t feel it was all that successful, I applaud their efforts and hope they keep trying to tweak the formula for what has worked so well for so long to keep things fresh.
★★1/2 of ★★★★★