Movie Review: Eternals

After 13 years, the MARVEL Cinematic Universe keeps chugging along.  If you’re keeping count, the films from the first three phases, collectively known as “The Infinity Saga”, totalled 23.  From Phase Four, we’ve already had BLACK WIDOW and SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS.  Now comes ETERNALS, which is based on the Marvel comics series of the same name that was introduced in 1976.  As the story goes, a group of super-powered humanoids known as Eternals first arrived on Earth 7,000 years ago to help guide and protect humans in their development.  If these aliens are so powerful, how, you’re probably asking, did they allow Thanos to destroy half of humanity with just the snap of his fingers?  Like Starfleet and Captain Kirk, the Eternals aren’t supposed to get involved in the planet’s daily strife… but I’m getting ahead of myself.

ETERNALS introduces audiences to the 10 eponymous characters – Ajak (Salma Hayek, HITMAN’S WIFE’S BODYGUARD; THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD), who has healing powers and can commune with Arishem, the Prime Celestial who brought light to the universe; Sersi (Gemma Chan, CAPTAIN MARVEL; MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS; CRAZY RICH ASIANS), who can transmute objects; Ikaris (Richard Madden, 1917; ROCKETMAN; TV’s GOT and BODYGUARD), who can fly and has laser vision à la Superman; Thena (Angelina Jolie, THOSE WHO WISH ME DEAD; the MALEFICENT films), who is a formidable warrior; Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani, THE BIG SICK), who can shoot energy blasts from his hands; Gilgamesh (Korean actor Don Lee/Ma Dong-seok), who can throw one helluva punch; Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry, GODZILLA VS. KONG; JOKER; IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK; WIDOWS), who is the group’s inventor; Druig (Barry Keoghan, DUNKIRK; ’71), who can control minds; Makkari (Lauren Ridloff, SOUND OF METAL; WONDERSTRUCK; TV’s THE WALKING DEAD), who has superhuman speed and is deaf; and Sprite (Lia McHugh), who appears as a 12-year-old and can create illusions.  Over the centuries, the Eternals were present whenever humans were at a crossroads in their development.  As they weren’t allowed to interfere even when the humans screwed up, bad things like genocide and the dropping of the atomic bombs happened.  Arishem had told them that they were only allowed to battle the Deviants, gigantic lizard-like (or perhaps PROMETHEUS-like) winged creatures that preyed on humans.  When the Eternals killed the last Deviant thousands of years ago, they thought their job was over and they started to integrate into society.  But, as both audiences and the Eternals learn in the movie, the Deviants are back and this time they’re not just more powerful, they have a new objective too.

The best thing about ETERNALS is that it’s visually refreshing.  Director and co-writer, recent Oscar winner Chloé Zhao (NOMADLAND), foregoes MARVEL’s typical green- or blue-screened sets in favour of location shooting, this time in London, southern England and the Canary Islands, giving the film a more grounded look than what MARVEL audiences are used to.  She then layers her background with mythic and mystic imagery both in the Eternals’ costuming and in how they channel their powers to give the characters a quality that’s clearly not of this world.  For most of the film, ETERNALS looks and feels very different to a typical MARVEL movie.

Where the film falters, however, is with the story and there’s a lot of it to cover in one movie.  Not surprisingly, a good chunk of the film is spent on exposition – who the Eternals, the Celestials and the Deviants are, how they fit into the MARVEL universe and what their connection is to Thanos.  Two-and-a-half hours later, which is the second-longest runtime in the franchise’s history, ETERNALS turns out to be a fairly dull tale.  There are far too many new characters here, which makes it difficult for audiences to develop empathy for any of them, even when a couple of them die.  The bigger script problems, though, are the solutions that seem to come along at just the right time and the inventions that continually seem to backfire on the Eternals.  Did they not learn anything about humanity in 7000 years?  Why invent the flintlock or nuclear fusion if you know that humans are just going to pervert them?  If the Eternals’ objective is to protect life, shouldn’t Phastos be inventing vaccines to protect against cancer, cost-effective ways to turn waste into fuel, or efficient clean water technology?  And then there is the story’s unnecessary self-analysis.  Did we really need an Eternal to point out the similarity between some of his colleagues and the characters in a famous novel and stage play, or that Ikarus is the only Eternal who can fly?  Kingo, who seems to be the only one of the group to have a sense of humour, may be the Eternal with the most personality but even he’s shunted aside far too many times in favour of Sersi and Ikarus, who do a lot of crying and forehead pressing throughout the film.  At least the pair gets it on, which is a first for a MARVEL film.  But, by the time the credits start to roll, not much of anything of consequence has happened.  Instead, it’s all saved for the film’s mid- and post-credit scenes that introduce two new characters to the MCU family, both of whom we will be seeing again in the coming few years.

ETERNALS opens in Hong Kong and around the world starting today (November 4th).  It’s really nothing more than just a very long promo for upcoming features in the MCU. Unless you’re a die-hard MARVEL fan, you can safely wait for this come to Disney+, which should happen right before Xmas.

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