Eternals, presently showing in cinemas globally, has a lot to offer. After all, it is the second-longest Marvel Cinematic Universe film ever made (156 minutes) (with credits). The Eternals cast includes Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek, Richard Madden, and Kumail Nanjiani. We know it from 5,000 BC Mesopotamia to today’s London and from the 15th-century Spanish conquest to the 400 AD Gupta Empire. Even all the exposition dumps aren’t enough. It informs us how the Eternals came to be, their primary opponent, and why they’re on Earth.
Despite its two-and-a-half-hour length, Eternals falls short, just like not watching any of the previous MCU flicks. It was previously called Guardians of the Galaxy. However, two of James Gunn’s five main characters were a talking tree and a snark machine. Eternals introduces us to TEN human-like individuals. Even if you’ve won an Oscar for your filmmaking, it’s still a tough road. Nomadland’s director, Chloé Zhao, won Best Director and Best Picture earlier this year.
Eternals isn’t a Chloé Zhao picture, and that’s a problem. But we’ve never seen Zhao in a picture this huge. Before Eternals, he was recognized for his poetic excursions of rural America, made with amateur performers whenever possible. That made her art feel grounded, honest, personal, and even documentary-like. Eternals isn’t what it seems. This Marvel superhero film is about immortals. The characters are unrelatable, yet the film features planet-sized giants and a Marvel Studios vibe. No doubt Zhao enjoys filming in the golden hour on location, and Eternals features vast panoramas and astounding visual effects that are palpable in some areas. But it’s all a lie.
To be fair, Zhao delivers a giant, beautiful movie with little to say, as Marvel is often accused of doing.
Ascended Prime Celestial Arishem created them, says the Eternals’ intro. Having a super deity who solely deals with matters of planet size makes it reasonable. Our Eternals to Earth by Arishem to protect it from the Deviants. They were strictly forbidden from interfering in other people’s conflicts. The Eternals arrived on our Earth about 7,000 years ago and have been living in secrecy ever since.
Sersi (Gemma Chan, Humans) is a London Natural History Museum staffer who can animate anything. Ikaris (Game of Thrones’ Richard Madden) is Marvel’s Superman when flying and blasting light beams from his eyes. Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), a Bollywood superstar who can unleash blasts from his hands, is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur. Sprite (Lia McHugh, The Lodge) is a 12-year-old girl who can make realistic illusions. Brian Tyree Henry, the Atlanta-born computer expert, plays him.
Makkari (Lauren Ridloff of The Walking Dead) is likened to The Flash in Marvel Comics. Druig can control human minds (Barry Keoghan, from Dunkirk). Gilgamesh (Don Lee, Train to Busan) has a mighty fist. Thena (Angelina Jolie) can conjure weapons from thin air. So Ajak (Salma Hayek) can heal herself. Ajak is the “Prime Eternal” and can converse with Arishem.
First, Eternals tells the group’s history on Earth, including how they separated and re-emerge today as the ancient Deviant danger resurfaces. It’s watchable but not captivating. The Eternals never fully let us in on their immortality and fallibility.
Like any film with so many characters, certain Eternals characters are more “important” than others. Sersi and Ikaris earned the most screen time, after Chan and Madden. Their “millennia-spanning love story” is a one-scene blip. Angelina Jolie’s star power is wasted chiefly in this one-note character. Hayek, who feared being portrayed as a grandma, got her to wish as a mother to the Eternals.
A significant character disappears during the epic struggle in the third act, and no one notices until the end. Kit Harington plays a “backdoor pilot” in Madden’s MCU adventures.
So are Phaistos and Makkari. This is incredibly disappointing because Eternals was billed as Marvel’s most diverse film to date. Even though it’s a low bar and should’ve happened years ago (I know). First deaf, the gay superhero in the MCU. But his apparition is fleeting. The Indian censor board has been known to remove gay kisses from films in the past, but not this time. First, a PG-13-rated sex scene.
Eternals are not immune to Marvel’s villain dilemma. Even though they can’t communicate, the Deviants are boring. Some of them don’t even have names. The first character appears in the film’s midway.
Only Kingo and Karun, his camera-toting valet, are amusing (Harish Patel, from Gunda). Only Kingo is funny, and Nanjiani and Patel bring truth and heart to the film. Dev Patel steals scenes from movies with a lot of A-listers. So it’s no surprise that Kingo is the only one not feeling the cosmic weight.
By having Karun follow Kingo around with a camera, Eternals likewise breaks the fourth wall. Zhao’s most astute remark in Eternals is on Kingo and Karun—I’m not sure if it’s meant, but some phrases in Eternals cut deep through Bollywood. It made me wonder who on the writing committee knew so much about the issue.
A couple of jokes in the film link the Eternals’ characters to Superman and Batman’s butler Alfred Pennyworth.
Eternals’ action segments are equally unremarkable. If you expected longer stunt shots due to Zhao’s love of long takes, you’d be disappointed. Like any previous Marvel film, it’s chopped and edited. It was offered to Lucrecia Martel, but she declined since they said they would “take care” of the action. Zhao doesn’t appear to direct the film’s major set-pieces. They occasionally show off their unique abilities and the alien nature of their capabilities, but these are rare and unremarkable.
The most hopeful Eternals factoid is that the crew was split on ideals, which is why they went their separate ways. I won’t spoil the plot twist about Eternals. Druig, he argues, can instantly solve all human issues. The counter-argument is that we wouldn’t be human if we didn’t evolve. Being asked to stand vigil by a godlike being is a tremendous load. Eternals must figure out how to grow. Instead, we get exposition, character squabbles, and little urgency or forward movement.
Eternals focuses on the MCU’s gods. Is there any doubt that Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Ego (Kurt Russell) are Celestials? Marvel, on the other hand, has only recently explored the origin tale. After Loki, Eternals digs more into MCU’s lack of free will. Even so, the results are skewed. Eternals claims the 10 have shaped humanity’s evolution. That’s OK. When the Eternals are blamed for humanity’s worst, they eliminate all human evil. Rather than relying on gods to determine our fate, humans are our own worst enemies.
No matter who directed Eternals, it was always going to be a risky project. If you have a lot of time on your hands, don’t try to cram 12 people and an epic story into it. So, Zhao says, “It could’ve gone on! Years, characters, and the Celestials. A lot is going on.” While Eternals isn’t terribly intricate for most of its runtime, the film’s ending feels rushed. The ship capsizes. It’s a double-edged sword for Zhao to convey the Eternals’ story on such a vast scale. With the (Marvel) cosmos and its eternal characters comes complex mythology. As a result, we can’t get to know them better.
Eternals hits cinemas worldwide on November 5th. This movie is accessible in English, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, and Hindi in India.