The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s newest movie Eternals reminds me of an intricate tapestry that’s been woven from beautiful individual threads and crafted with obvious love and care, that somehow results in an end product that feels lacking.
Eternals is a bold, ambitious film, unlike anything we’ve seen in the MCU before. It’s directed by Oscar-winner Chloé Zhao and features some of the most beautiful cinematography in the MCU, with an all-star cast and some surprising plot twists – all factors that should have made this movie an easy homerun. However, Eternals tries to tackle too much in a runtime that feels both too long and too short, and it fails to achieve all the goals it aims for.
All that being said, I don’t want to sound overly negative in this review, because there actually is some genuinely amazing stuff in Eternals that has me very excited for future storytelling in the MCU. I’ll get to more on this later, but I’m also thankful the MCU is showing a willingness to take more risks when it comes to tone and style. Even if these risks don’t always pay off, the franchise will grow stale if more projects like Eternals aren’t allowed to be made.
Before discussing the film’s problems, I want to start off with what I liked. As I mentioned before, the cinematography in this movie is absolutely gorgeous. Apparently Zhao requested to film on location rather than relying on a green screen, and that realism definitely shows. This movie is breathtaking to look at, especially on an IMAX screen.
My favorite of the Eternals characters was Gemma Chan’s Sersi; Chan gives a lovely, quiet performance as a compassionate leader who rebels against the mission the Eternals have been given by the Celestials, after she realizes what the consequences of that mission will be. ***Spoilers ahead!*** I did not see the film’s big twist coming: i.e. that a new Celestial will soon be born in the center of Earth, and that the emergence of this Celestial will kill all life on the planet. This incubating Celestial has been feeding off the energy from the growth of humanity, which the Eternals were supposed to encourage. Now the Eternals are just supposed to step back and allow the planet to be destroyed, and Sersi, who’s fallen in love with the people of Earth despite their flaws, cannot bear to let that happen.
My favorite scene in the movie was watching Sersi stop the emergence of the Celestial. This film does a great job showing the scope and scale of what the Celestials are capable of (Thanos’ power pales in comparison). Watching the Celestial Arishem appear in the sky at the end of the film was truly terrifying as you realize what massive beings the Celestials are.
My other favorite character was Kumail Nanjiani as Kingo, who was thoroughly charming and hilarious. Kingo is an Eternal who’s been masquerading as a Bollywood star, and he brings his assistant Karun (Harish Patel) along on the Eternals’ mission, to film a documentary about their experiences (the other Eternals aren’t exactly thrilled).
Overall, I really liked pretty much all the new characters introduced in this movie; unfortunately, there’s simply too many characters, and most aren’t given the depth they deserve. Salma Hayek has a nice amount of gravitas as the leader of the Eternals, Ajak, but we don’t get to see enough about how the people of Earth changed her heart and inspired her to defy Arishem.
Similarly, I liked the concept of Ikaris’ turn to the dark side, and Richard Madden looks suitably stately in the role. However, the script doesn’t give him enough character development to make that moment of betrayal feel earned. The film needed way more detail about his romantic relationship with Sersi, and while I’m excited to see Kit Harington appear again in MCU projects as Black Knight, his relationship with Sersi also felt a little forced.
Angelina Jolie is a badass fighter as Thena, but the film doesn’t provide much depth to her inner struggles, or her friendship with Gilgamesh (Don Lee), who was killed off too soon. Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) creates technological marvels but needed way more screen time (his moment grieving the destructive power of humanity needed more room to breathe). Although Sprite (Lia McHugh) crushing on Ikaris was an interesting idea (the girl who wants to grow up but literally can’t), this plotline could have been handled in a way that felt less forced into the narrative. Finally, Lauren Ridloff and Barry Keoghan have some fun romantic chemistry as the mind-controlling Druig and the superhuman speedster Makkari, but they too needed more time.
Also, since I enjoy both Marvel and DC movies, I don’t like to dive into arguments about which franchise is better or try to constantly compare the two. Yet as I was watching Eternals, I couldn’t shake a sense that certain characters reminded me too much of DC characters (Ikaris is Superman, Thena is Wonder Woman, Makkari is Flash, etc.). By the end of the movie, I realized that if given a choice between watching Zack Snyder’s cut of Justice League and Eternals, I’d pick the Snyder Cut. That film does a better job living up to its grand premise, and giving us layered characters with heart.
Eternals introduces some fascinating themes, and then doesn’t do enough with them. One of the story’s surprises is that the Eternals are actually robots, who have been reincarnated many times to assist with countless emergences. So in the end, are they just computer programs? Do they have souls? Why do they choose to rebel against the Celestials now? Why is Earth more worthy of saving than other planets that died? Have the Eternals tried to rebel before? Is the death of an Eternal actually a death, or can they just be brought back as a new copy?
Also, what are the ethics of an immortal being like an Eternal having a relationship with a mortal human (especially if that mortal human isn’t told about the fact that the Eternals don’t grow old and die). Is it fair for Sersi to date Dane? Or for Phastos to marry Ben and have a child with him, when Ben and the child are going to grow old and die? Did Ben consent to this? Did Phastos consider having Sersi turn him mortal, as she did for Sprite?
A movie doesn’t always have to answer every single question it raises, especially in serialized storytelling like the MCU, where you have to sow the seeds for concepts that will be explored later. However, too many unanswered questions are like tiny holes in the bottom of a ship, and soon that ship starts to sink.
I hate being hard on this movie, because it was actually my most anticipated MCU project in phase 4. I was intrigued by the premise and the cast of characters, and even though this movie didn’t fulfill the hopes I had for it, I’m still not sad that this movie was made. Yes, this movie is flawed, but it dares to bring something new to the MCU, and I hope that the somewhat lackluster response from critics doesn’t discourage Kevin Feige from greenlighting projects like this in the future and from letting directors like Chloé Zhao have more creative freedom.
The movie has received a lot of negative press for being rotten on Rotten Tomatoes, and while some of the criticism is fair, the current rating of 48% doesn’t reflect the nuance with which this movie deserves to be discussed. It’s trying to do a lot and say a lot, and it is worthy of in-depth evaluation. I don’t know that I’ll see it again in the theater, but I do want to rewatch it on Disney+. Maybe I’ll like it more, or maybe I won’t. Either way, Eternals is a worthy experiment, and I hope to see more projects like it.