In the trailers for Eternals, Marvel Studios’ latest offering in their ever-expanding cinematic universe, we saw some familiar faces: Angelina Jolie, Selma Hayak, Kumail Nanjiani, and Game of Thrones brethren Richard Madden and Kit Harrington. But it may come as a surprise to some that the ensemble is led by Gemma Chan (Crazy Rich Asians), whose star is on the rise but is nowhere near as bright as several of her higher-profile castmates.
The surprise is a pleasant one. Not only is the film written and directed by Academy Award-winning director Chloé Zhao (Nomadland), but the fact that it’s the second MCU film in a row to feature an Asian actor in the lead role is a testament to Marvel’s commitment to representing Asians on screen and behind the camera.
Eternals is significant in this regard. It boasts one of the most diverse casts of any superhero film, ever, and all of the actors do a fine job in their respective roles. But tragically, on a nuts-and-bolts level, it doesn’t serve its actors well. It doesn’t reflect the pure talent of Zhao, whose previous films are intimate, soulful character portraits. Eternals, unfortunately, is bloated and scattered and hobbled by relentless exposition. As for its contributions to the larger MCU saga, the references, ties, and setups are intriguing but almost detract from the singular enjoyment of the film that harbors them.
Still, with a cast this good and Zhao directing them, there was no chance that Eternals would be a complete dud. There are many moments throughout the film that are moving, thrilling, and thought-provoking. The best thing the film has going for it is that it doesn’t feel quite like any other film in the MCU. It’s got an epic, mythological milieu and aesthetic that literally spans the breadth of its imagined human history, and while all of the time-hopping weighs down the storytelling, the imagery is compelling in that it appears at once ancient and futuristic.
The Eternals are beings who were created by an all-powerful celestial called Arishem to protect the people of earth from bloodthirsty monsters called Deviants. This is their sole mission. They’ve been ordered to never intervene in human events unless they involve Deviants, which explains their absence from the MCU thus far.
Their story takes place over the course of about 7,000 years, and the film flits around the timeline from character to character to reveal just how dysfunctional this group of superpowered beings from the stars is. In the present, they learn that the Deviants, who have been dormant for some time, are back, and that the end of the world may be at hand. In a post-Thanos MCU, it’s difficult to show audiences any kind of villainous threat that seems, well, threatening. But Zhao and co.’s version of the impending end times is convincing.
The story mostly revolves around Sersi (Chan) and Ikaris (Madden), Eternals who were in love for millennia but are estranged in the present day. The tension between them is less than electric, but not because the actors aren’t capable, but because they don’t seem to share a modicum of onscreen chemistry. Nanjiani brings humor and intermittent seriousness as Kingo; Bryan Tyree Henry brings seriousness and intermittent humor as Phastos.
The point is, all of the supporting characters are well-acted and each has well-delineated motivations and superpowers, but they all play such similar roles in the grand scheme of things that it’s difficult for any of them to stand out. And there are so many of them – the team tops out at 11 – that it seems a fool’s errand to wring even a drop of intimate character storytelling out of this thing.
So perhaps it’s a testament to Zhao that she actually manages to wring out several drops of character-driven goodness. A good example is found in the relationship between the brute-ish but kindhearted Gilgamesh (Don Lee) and the mentally unstable warrior Thena (Angelina Jolie). She loses herself in a most violent way from time to time, and he dedicates his life to helping her center herself and find inner peace.
Sprite’s (Lia McHugh) plight is poignant as well. She’s lived countless lifetimes but is stuck looking like a teenager forever, which precludes her from many experiences someone her age would want to partake in; finding a partner, going to university, getting pathetically drunk in nightclubs…all the fun stuff.
These moments are undercut by the oppressive plot centering around Arishem and the unending war against the Deviants. The superhero action is entertaining enough and looks quite dazzling at times (a literally earth-shattering set piece at the end of the film feels positively massive in scope), but the fight scenes aren’t particularly novel, especially given that many of the Eternals’ powers are reminiscent of other, more popular characters’ abilities.
Some examples: Phastos’ acumen for otherworldly tech is like a cross between Doctor Strange and Iron Man; Druig’s (Barry Keoghan) ability to control people’s minds reeks of Loki; and Sprite’s mind-boggling illusions reek of, well, Loki also. Ikaris can fly, has super strength, and shoots lasers out of his eyes a la Superman, and the film addresses the uncanny similarity with a couple of cleverly-worded lines of foreshadowing: “I’m not what you think I am.”
There are some compelling twists throughout the narrative that give the story some propulsion here and there, but they’re too few and far between. Long stretches of the film are rudderless and dour. That’s saying something, as these may be the broodiest Marvel characters yet, with some of their exchanges so cynical and tortured that viewers may crave cheeky MCU one-liners to break up the monotony.
It’s good that Eternals tries to take on a more serious tone than the other films in the franchise, but ultimately, while Guardians of the Galaxy is like an ‘80s-themed rager in outer space, Eternals is an overcrowded, vibe-less party held in the middle of nowhere that everyone wishes they could leave.
It’s a shame that the film chugs along the way it does, simply for the fact that its characters represent such a wide range of underrepresented communities. There’s Sersi and Gilgamesh, whose Asian-ness is a refreshing sight. There’s the super-fast Makkari, played by deaf actor Lauren Ridloff, and Phastos, Marvel’s first openly gay superhero. Representation should be the headline-grabber for Eternals, but instead, the conversation around the film will likely focus on how much of a disappointment it is.
Giving Zhao the freedom to tell a Marvel story in her way seems like a good idea, but with its sprawling story and the huge cast of protagonists, Eternals isn’t a good fit for Zhao’s vision. Maybe it was the wrong property to saddle her with, or maybe she simply dropped the ball here. Either way, the film doesn’t reflect the brilliance Zhao has demonstrated in her work on prior films Nomadland (2020), The Rider (2017), Songs My Brother Taught Me (2015).