I find myself deeply torn on Marvel’s The Eternals unlike any other entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Most of these films aim for some simple and low goal that they can usually cross with a certain grace and an ounce or two of insight. Black Widow managed to focus on both the dysfunction of the family and the sexist nature of archaic systems. Shang-Chi was a picture about grief and questioning destiny. Now comes a film that wants to be about existentialism, criticizing utilitarianism, and defying God. Oh, and a whole lot of romance that lasts for thousands of years.
This is an overwhelming heaping of thematic meat that spills off its plate. Consider the non-linear nature of the storytelling. While this film starts at the beginning of mankind, when the Eternals ensemble first arrived on Earth, the picture jumps back and forth through time to stress a number of arcs and relationships that have developed for thousands of years.
The Eternals, who can’t age and each come with their own superpowers, work for the people of Earth by protecting them from monsters known as Deviants. It’s a task that isn’t too difficult for this group that includes Sersi (Gemma Chan), a woman who can turn elements into different matter, and Ikaris (Richard Madden), someone who can fly and shoot energy from his eyeballs. It seems like such an easy task they’ve been given by a mysterious alien ship that has awakened them for this task. When all the Deviants have been defeated, the Eternals can go home.
The war of Deviants does have a lot of downtimes though. In that time, the Eternals have time to get to know the human race and learn to love it. They also learn to love each other as Sersi and Ikaris form a romance that turns to marriage and later to divorce. That relationship lasts well over a thousand years so that’s a pretty decent run. There are other romances throughout including a love triangle but there’s little time to explore all that. How can you with over ten characters at play?
Part of the Eternals and their prime directive of sorts is that they can’t interfere with the events of mankind. While this is seemingly an easy explanation for why they were never present or known in previous Marvel movies, it does better explain the group’s split prior to the present day. Some of them were just not content with watching humans murder each other.
Druig (Barry Keoghan), an Eternal with mind-control powers, would rather use his powers to control humans into a peaceful lifestyle. He leaves to form his own commune of calm yet controlled humans. Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), an inventor Eternal, grows frustrated with how humans use technology and goes into exile as a husband and father. There’s also the deaf speedster Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) who keeps to herself, the calmly stoic Gilgamesh (Don Lee), the eccentric actor Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), the mediating healer Ajak (Salma Hayek), the traumatized Thena (Angelina Jolie), and the bitter youth Sprite (Lia McHugh).
All of them come back together when the Deviants suddenly rise back into the modern world. They’re even more powerful than before and the group decides a reunion is in order. It’s only once they regroup, however, that they learn there’s more to their mission than they originally thought. Lies and deception have led to them being placed in a very dire situation where they must make a tough choice. It’s a choice similar to the one Thanos took in Infinity War but one that is relatively easy to decide with all things considered. There’s no simple argument for the ends justifying the means when superpowered gods consider just how much power they can wield.
There’s a lot of firsts in The Eternals. There’s the first sex scene in the MCU which, while about as tame as one can expect from a PG-13 blockbuster, feels genuinely passionate. There’s the first same-sex couple in the MCU and it’s not just tossed into the background but forced into the foreground with Phastos not hiding his love by showcasing an onscreen kiss. There’s also the first deaf character with Makkari who speaks entirely through sign language.
However, this is seemingly the first MCU film to make two outright references to DC Comics. While this seems like nothing more than throwaway pop culture references, the relation reminded me of the DCEU. I was reminded of how the likes of Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman attempted to be about something bigger but just gave off a pretentious vibe. While The Eternals never falls into that same pit, it teeters on the edge by overloading the picture with grand themes that never feel as though they have a great payoff.
While there is a lot of love going on between the characters, a lot of it feels forced off the screen and lands without much impact. A fascinating angle to explore was how Sprite, a character doomed to look like a kid forever, has a crush on Ikaris that she never confessed. The only one who picks up on this and points it out is Kingo. Though Kingo acts as though this crush was obvious to characters who have known each other for centuries, this comes as a surprise to the audience who isn’t given much time to watch that crush develop. There’s also a romance between Druig and Makkari that is meant to be surprising to the others even though they clearly have more onscreen chemistry to lead up to their PDA moment.
It’s concerning just how much of this doesn’t work because it’s a highly divergent film. Free of most of the expected humor that accompanies MCU movies, there’s a somber and contemplative tone that doesn’t feel as present in other entries. There’s also a grandness in having the story jump around different centuries to tell more of an epic than just another tale of saving the world from CGI creatures. There’s just so much going on that it feels as though we’re only getting cliff notes of a much longer film with so much more to say.
It should be noted the direction is quite stellar. Director Chloé Zhao makes great use of environments by favoring beaches, mountains, and marshes. There’s a clear focus for the action scenes that don’t become a mess of effects, considering how many are at play with characters who can fly, zoom, create energy chains, and shoot lasers from either their face or hands. There isn’t a moment where it becomes difficult to tell what’s going on.
The Eternals spends more time breaking ground than it does fitting all its grand ambitions together. While the progressive shifting of the MCU is perhaps bolder here than any other entry, there’s an emptiness in trying to stuff in all this great stuff that hardly has a moment to breathe or reflect. Hopefully, The Eternals 2 can find a more cohesive story than trying to rush such a sprawling epic into a feature not big enough to house all of its own greatness. There’s some fantastic stuff in this film and I can only hope that Marvel Studios will learn to keep all the good stuff while filtering the clutter. There’s a great movie inside The Eternals but you really have to sift through its rushed nature to see the slow burn of an epic cosmic fantasy that is unfortunately stuck in overdrive.