The Celestials are looking out for us humans. They have created the Eternals, a race of god like heroes, to protect us from the Deviants, a race of demonic animal-like killers. And over the last thousands of years, they have done just that. But the Eternals have eliminated all traces of Deviants on the Earth. Instead of being called home, they are all left stranded on our planet for centuries, scattering to the four corners of Earth trying to find a place in our world. When Deviants start popping back up again, its a race against time to get the team back together before the world ends.
That is pretty heady stuff for a Marvel Cinematic Universe film. You’d need just the right touch to bring the concept to the screen. Marvel Studios seemed to have a dramatic stoke of luck when they hired Chloe Zhao to direct the film back in 2018. Because through a series of COVID-19 related delays and reshuffling, Eternals became Zhao’s follow up to Nomadland, a film for which she won an Best Director Oscar. A comic book film directed by an Oscar winner! How could you go wrong?
Brother, let me tell you.
First off, the film is beautiful to look at. The vistas are sweeping. The staging is pretty. To bad Zhao and her fellow screenwriters Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo and Kaz Firpo dropped the ball in so many other aspects.
Zhao and her cohorts present the concept as if it was one that required serious, ponderous examination. It’s not. At it’s heart, the Eternals is a very silly concept–space gods create immortal superheroes to fight immortal supervillains. The character’s creator, Jack Kirby, knew this. Every page of his work on the Eternals was bombastic, every character an Adonis, every piece of technology unique and complex. It was over the top, in your face and exciting. Heck, Kro in the comics wasn’t some grey demon dog beast. Kirby drew him to look like used car dealer who stepped out of 1960’s Las Vegas.
If the film took a more wild and wacky approach to the concept, more Thor; Ragnarok on speed than Thor on quaaludes, it might have fared better. But since it is suffocating under the weight of its own self-importance, all its faults are laid bare.
The major fault, and the one that affects all that follow, is that the first half of the film is exposition heavy. How heavy? So heavy that we get four methods of exposition delivery: 1. a pre-credits scroll, 2. liberal use of flashbacks, 3. that cosmic slideshow thing like they did in the Guardians of Galaxy films and the classic 4. characters explaining things to other characters. There is a lot of things the audience needs to know. There are better ways of explaining it to them than this.
But since the film devotes so much time to exposition, the characterization suffers. Let’s face it, alone, there are ten Eternals. Add in all the Deviants, Celestials and supporting characters, someone was going to get the short shrift. The movie makes the bold choice of giving all the characters the short shrift.
The characters are one note at best. Sersi (Gemma Chan) really loves Earth and everybody that lives here. Druig (Barry Keoghan) is an arrogant prick. Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) is a vainglorious fool. Thena (Angelina Jolie) is slowly going mad due to an Eternal specific disease, which would be an interesting bit of characterization if the disease didn’t come and go whenever they needed a plot complication. Ikaris (Richard Madden), a character who is pivotal to the plot, has a main characterization that loves Sersi. His character is further enhanced by having two of his fellow Eternals have crushes on him (and it’s not the two you might think).
Since the characters are so poorly developed, you don’t become at all invested in them. The pairings and betrayals, their deaths and near deaths, all lack the emotional impact the filmmakers expect them to have. The humor falls short because of this as well. The biggest laugh I got out of the film was when “The Eternals Will Return” flash during the end credits. It too all my will power not to scream “That’s bloody optimistic” at the screen.
At two hours and 37 minutes, Eternals would be a slog to get through regardless. But its critical flaws make sitting through it a true test of endurance. It is definitely the biggest misstep of the MCU so far. Hopefully, it’s not a harbinger for the future.