2021, PG-13, 157 min. Directed by Chloé Zhao. Starring Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Kumail Nanjiani, Lauren Ridloff, Brian Tyree Henry, Salma Hayek, Lia McHugh, Don Lee, Barry Keoghan, Angelina Jolie, Kit Harington.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Nov. 5, 2021
Marvel‘s recent attitude has been to let indie filmmakers work on a bigger stage than their success to date would normally allow them, just working within the bigger framework of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That’s how the directors of antihero black comedy Super, schoolroom drama Half Nelson, racial meditation Fruitvale Station, Cannes-favored romance Somersault, and lo-fi adoption drama Short Term 12 have all ended up with blockbusters. And Eternals, directed by Nomadland filmmaker Chloé Zhao, is likely to be another blockbuster, purely off the momentum of the MCU. Bluntly, it doesn’t deserve it.
It doesn't help that mentioning the Eternals will elicit an overwhelming, “Who?” from most comic readers, never mind the broader Marvel film and TV audience. First seeing print in 1976, they were Marvel’s answer to founding artist Jack Kirby’s New Gods title for DC: When Kirby returned to Marvel after a six-year sojourn at the Distinguished Competition, he mixed his ongoing obsession with the blurry lines between superheroes and gods, and added in a layer of New Age-y Erich von Däniken Chariots of the Gods “ancient aliens” narrative. The result was the Eternals, a cadre of unkillable guardians left on Earth by the Celestials as noninterfering guardians. The problem is that no one cares. In 45 years, there have only been 45 issues of The Eternals, in part because they are tough to care about. They are abandoned angels, waiting on the will of implacable divine forces, tending in limited ways to humanity – so, basically, it’s Wings of Desire with more punching.
But Eternals never even comes within glancing distance of that kind of insight, and instead is an oddly flat adventure that should feel epic. It definitely has the longest timeline of any Marvel film, zipping back and forth between post-Avengers: Endgame now and the last 5,000 years of the Eternals mucking around with human development to appease the will of their divine masters. Most of what they did was beat up the Deviants, the latest and least interesting of the generic CG monsters that occasionally plague the MCU. Supposedly disposed of centuries ago, now they’ve returned and have disrupted the blossoming relationship between Eternal Sersi (Chan) and human Dane Whitman (Harington), which is being encouraged by perpetual preteen and deceit-dealing exposition depositor Sprite (McHugh). Worse still, Sersi’s old boyfriend, Superman knockoff Ikaris (Madden), is back after a few hundred years. That’s awkward as they must scour the world to gather the team together, only to split them back apart again, then reunite them for a big fight.
There’s been an urge to excuse the director and blame the studio, arguing that Zhao just didn’t fit into the strictures of the MCU. Yet that doesn’t explain how weak the script she co-wrote is, or why it’s so insufferably long, or why it almost completely fails to tackle its own core conceits of blind loyalty, of the perils of immortality, of rebellion against faith. Thank goodness for Kumail Nanjiani as Kingo, who has gleefully spent the last century pretending to be several generations of a Bollywood family, and Barry Keoghan as the mind-controlling Druig, a dour and sardonic presence who saw through the Celestials’ supposed benevolence centuries ago (and, to a lesser degree, Henry, who may be the MCU’s first queer hero, but whose superpower makes him a discount Tony Stark). Without them there would be no light or shade.
Eternals is as flat as the Western plain across which team leader Ajak (Hayak) rides in one of the National Geographic-esque scenery shots. For years, edgy cineastes have whined that there’s no sex in Marvel, but the scene Zhao finally delivers has less passion and heart than Steve and Peggy dancing cheek-to-cheek in the finale of Endgame. Character traits are mentioned but irrelevant, while the return of the Deviants is one of a multitude of strained contrivances. Sersi’s excuse for not helping against Thanos may as well be, “We slept through our alarm,” it’s so weak: Moreover, how the Eternals start seeing off a global-level threat without any other heroes noticing stretches credibility in the increasingly interwoven MCU. Worse, there’s something uniformly placid about the performances, not helped by the cameo-length appearances by much of the wasted cast, and especially Jolie as warrior Thena (often relying on the same one-note smugness that drowned her version of Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider franchise).
The inevitable “Eternals will return” stinger seems like more of a threat than a promise, especially since the first mid-credits scene introduces a character that is, to say the least, problematic – a scene worsened by some wretched CG that is possibly the worst in the MCU’s history. But it’s the second that emphasizes why Eternals fails. It’s a reframing, one that pulls back from the cosmic to what defines Marvel: the ordinary versus impossible odds. Stan Lee once said that, if you looked in the basement of a building in one of his comics, you’d see plumbing. Even Asgardians have explicable concerns. By contrast, Eternals is the unengaging concerns of cardboard demigods.