Directed by Chloé Zhao
Written by Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo, Kaz Firp, and Chloe Zhao
So here we are at a historic moment, the very first film of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to receive a "rotten" Rotten Tomatoes score. Not Spider-Man: Far From Home, or basically all of Phase 2. Nope, this one. Hopefully, Chloe Zhao's enjoying her pair of Oscars for producing and directing Nomadland, because the backlash is here!
Or maybe that's unfair of me. Eternals is, like all Marvel movies these days, chock full of problems. A nitpicky one to start with is the title itself, lacking the "the" that should very obviously be there. But more serious problems, as well. Some of them are endemic to the Marvel process; some of them are plainly of its own making, and you can't blame Kevin Feige. Most of them would seem like they should have been very easily solved, which is where I think the frustration kicks in, as you can clearly make out the shape of the better movie Eternals could be even while you're watching the movie we got. I'll stake my position on it, however—it's not particularly adroit about doing so, but I think it transcends its problems. Mostly, that's because of the sheer strength of its concepts, and those concepts are fucking rad. The rest of it is because 1)it is exceedingly well-photographed for a Marvel movie, in that it's well-photographed whatsoever and 2)I could at least meet the film halfway for pretty much every character, managing to give varying fractions of a shit about each one, and sort-of comprehending their perspective, especially if I pretended that the dumber things they said didn't count. That's a low bar, sure, but it's not the meanest feat for a film with this many major speaking roles (also with this much dumb dialogue for them to speak, but we'll get there), few of whom are even human people in the first place. That overstuffed cast is the most blatant problem, but it's also the one I find easiest to forgive, since "a dozen flatly-characterized, not-fully-human figures" was somewhat locked in by the premise and by the source material (disclaimer: even I find these guys somewhat obscure). But I don't think it grinds its gears that badly as it desperately flails around trying to find a dimension or two to give to each of its dozen characters, and even if in the end literally only one of them gets an arc that's completely satisfactory, it's a hell of a good one.
So: ten of those guys are our titular Eternals, and the Eternals are a group of immortal aliens who arrived on Earth 7000 years ago, sent here by a race of cosmic gods called the Celestials and cautioned never to interfere in human affairs except to guard our planet against the depredations of the Celestials' enemies, the so-called Deviants. They're led by Ajak (Salma Hayek). She has healing powers, and, like most of her subordinates, she has a "clever" name that indicates, often quite poorly, what human myths they inspired. She's joined by her eight fellows, whose talents are more aggressive than "healing powers": there is Sersi (Gemma Chan), who can transmute objects, which is mainly useful (in this movie at least) to destroy said objects in baroque, sometimes-beautiful, sometimes-horrifying ways; Ikaris (Richard Madden), who's a Superman type (identified as such in dialogue, in a weird gambit I somewhat like); Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), who can fire bursts of energy from his hands; Gilgamesh (Don Lee), who can manifest cosmic energy in the form of mighty blows; Thena (Angelina Jolie), who can use that energy to create an armory's worth of melee weapons; Sprite (Lia McHugh), who can cast illusions and turn invisible; Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), who has superspeed; Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), who can create complicated machines (this is arguably not a superpower); and Druig (Barry Keoghan), who can control human minds.
This is almost all of them.
These folks get pointed in the general direction of varied personalities and rich backstories—Druig, in the long meantime, has become dissatisfied with the Eternals' unwillingness to intervene in human affairs; offscreen, Phastos goes from a full-throated loathing of the human beings who've misused the breadcrumbs of technology he gave them to a man happily married to a human dude with an adopted human kid; Thena's mind has shorted out from the accumulation of millennia of memories; Kingo has entertained himself by pretending to be five successive movie stars hailing from the same Bollywood dynasty; and Sprite, having been given the form of a child, has spent 6999 years in a state of constant frustration and expresses this by halfheartedly cosplaying Aladdin Sane—but I suppose this story's protagonists must be Sersi and Ikaris, who spent nearly seven millennia as lovers, only for Ikaris to walk away after they completed their mission on Earth. You see, five centuries back, they finished, eradicating all known Deviants, and this has left the group with nothing to do but sit and wait for their Celestial creator, Arishem (the voice of David Kaye), to call them home. Sersi, in her loneliness, has thus begun a tentative relationship with average joe Dane Whitman (Kit Harrington). He's nominally her connection to the human world but he's cut out of the movie so quickly it's only my preexisting knowledge that the Black Knight fucks Sersi in the comics that makes his introduction here so much as comprehensible. (He does set the baseline for how ordinary humans react to the Eternals, however: not with nearly enough terrified awe.)
All of this is somewhat less dryly-exposited in the execution, though even the "dry exposition" part is fun for a few seconds right upfront, with Eternals beginning with a long scroll of Times New Roman text, aesthetically right out of 1983, and I think it's maybe trying to prime you to enjoy the proceedings in the vein of an 80s fantasy that, because it actually came out in 2021, is a lot fussier and prone to second-guessing itself in its world-building, and also from time to time political. (The Eternals' appearance in Tenochtitlan just in time to see the Spaniards sack the city serves both purposes just fine: it's relevant without annoyingly erasing the hundred genocides to precede it, by allowing Keoghan (quietly earning a place as the potential MVP of the whole film, in that he very much understands he's playing an ageless space alien who holds us in contempt) to treat it more as the last straw. But then there's Phastos crying in the wreck of Hiroshima, for which he blames himself due to his vague assistance over the centuries—shit, we only ever saw him invent a plow—and while I'm pretty cold to this being what wracks him with guilt over the technology he's shared, let's leave that aside, and instead ponder how a super-inventor from outer space didn't see "nuclear physics" coming.)
It helps that, for all the info-dumps, Eternals has a solid structuring principle, with the plot kicking off in the MCU's present of 202X. Our Eternals have long-since disbanded to live "normal" lives, but the Deviants, reports of their demise greatly exaggerated, have returned to mount a direct attack on Sersi and Sprite in London. The directness is unusual in itself, and may have something to do with the earthquake that shook the whole globe (!) not long before; either way, that's why Ikaris has shown up in London, too, which was a lucky break since he helps defeat these shimmery, oily spaghetti monsters. They decide to seek out Ajak's counsel, but all they find is her corpse—likewise a Deviant attack. And so, continent-by-continent, they reassemble the team. It's not actually insistent that what we've got here is a murder mystery, because the culprit seems to our characters pretty obvious. But it's always kind of in the back of your mind that we didn't see Ajak die, and there sure are a lot of characters here for none of them to have developed their own agenda. I'll happily admit, on this one count, Eternals' script managed to surprise me.
It is not going to surprise anybody in any other respect, and almost everything you could've predicted about Eternals happens in Eternals, so that I doubt it's much of a spoiler to state, "actually, the Celestials are bad, and actually, the Deviants are..." Well, there's where we start running into the film's other problems, don't we?
I mean, when we all predicted "the Deviants are actually misunderstood," this was of course accurate. But I personally would not have predicted "the Deviants barely fucking matter," and to the extent they do it's just to serve as an inciting incident, and, even less honorably, to pad the film with some pretty darn good action sequences. And they are, whatever anybody says (I do not understand what the hell it is you people want, I think just people in costumes having conversations). They're remarkably distinct from normal Marvel fare, is the thing, even if on paper they'd seem like "superheroes fight anonymous CGI part 25." The anonymous CGI has a neat design, for starters—the Deviants wouldn't be out of place in a horror movie, with their vampiric and even hentai inflections—but a lot of it's honestly just good filmmaking, in that they are really good CGI for Marvel, weighty CGI, even, and fighting them off actually seems difficult, even desperate, with a surprising emphasis on e.g. Madden popping every blood vessel in his head screaming while trying not to have his face eaten off by them. (Keoghan is doing fine work, but man, Madden is this film's uncontested MVP of making faces that look like he's taking the worst shit of his life.) Yet, eventually, the Deviants just kind of stop being an important factor, as if Zhao, rewriting a script she already wrote with those three dudes listed above (so that she gets that weird-ass doubled writing credit that looks like a typo on the poster) just kind of lost interest in them, even as a metaphor.
Suffice it to say, anyway, that the film's actual conflict is internecine, driven by those who hold with Arishem's divine plan for the Earth and those who do not. (There's also the matter of Sprite to consider, and I kind of wish they'd just left her character in movies that could actually accommodate the queasy horror of eternal childhood, like Interview With the Vampire, and actors who could communicate it, like Kirsten Dunst.) Still, though I don't condone it, I can at least understand why the Deviants were shoved into the background: what we get winds up being one of the most interesting dynamics a Marvel movie's ever latched onto, ultimately requiring our heroes to decide whether they should keep the faith or go on a death ride against their objectively-real God. Some decide they must reject their God; others decide they must oppose them. Their zealotry is put to the test, and the movie scrapes right up against magnificence once it untethers itself from any other concerns besides its three-way struggle of demigod vs. demigod vs. god, driven by what I might be willing to call the only imagery in the MCU's cosmic cycle that has ever felt like it truly encompassed a legitimately cosmic sense of scale. Maybe Zhao just set up some sturdy foundations for it: it's been implied all along by the frequent backtracking through thousands of years; it's incipient, too, in the lovely location shooting she managed to get out of Feige. But in a cinematic universe where some dorks fought a literal living planet once, this is the very first time I felt the full immensity of the Marvel Universe onscreen. This is the movie that gives us just the fingertips of a birthing god emerging from its cocoon, too big for even a horizon to hold: it is, arguably, the most successfully Lovecraftian imagery ever put in a motion picture, and undoubtedly the most successfully Kirbyesque.
And that's a lot, but to finally get there, it stumbles constantly. Zhao-and-company's script is one of the clunkiest Marvel movie scripts ever, and just cannot leave the mystery of creation alone, so Eternals spends so much of its (very very long) runtime anguished and miserable trying to erect a logical scaffolding around something that probably doesn't need a logical explanation, and certainly does not benefit from that explanation being so loudly idiotic. I mean, I hate rewriting something and calling it a review, but it's impossible not to imagine a much cleaner Eternals, irrespective of whatever Jack Kirby did in his comic, that treats Deviants as basically galactic oviraptors, and simply shrugs at human existence as a mere byproduct of cosmic processes that never cared about them; instead we get unbelievably labored "explanations" like "well, actually, the Celestials feed off human minds, and they need roughly eight billion of them, and war leads to improvements in medical technology, which makes more humans, and that's why we didn't just create a utopia even though—hey, where are you going? I'm stating my feelings about being betrayed by God here!" Like, none of this makes sense. Not even superficially. And for something that makes no sense it's absurdly convoluted. It also allows for possibly thirty aggregate minutes of stultifying clichés regarding the tarnished nobility of humanity, and how we're real mean but we dance and laugh and shit. You don't need to explain why human-ish beings might decide to save a planet. Either way, Eternals is so much better at being a story about immortal priests finally losing their religion, and that's the film's real, fundamental problem: only a couple of its actors appear to even fully understand that this is what their movie's about.
Beyond that, it's not bad. It's easy to dislike the way the Marvel formula imposes itself upon a movie that would obviously much rather have been made without reference to it at all (when people say it's like Zack Snyder's Marvel movie, I'm compelled to agree), but Zhao is able to mostly quarantine it, and keep it from doing too much damage. (The worst damage that the studio's traditional "quips first, personality later" approach does is that Madden winds up, in retrospect, with a broken performance, not even trying to layer Ikaris's slaying of Ajak into his expressions or line reads until after the film's revealed this dark secret.) But otherwise it only occasionally registers, and Lee and Jolie are almost sealed off from it entirely; despite having the haziest pair of characters in the film, they manage a surprising depth of feeling. Hell, the comedy even works out okay intermittently: when it takes the form of Nanjiani's wacky Bollywood star and his human valet (Harish Patel; irritatingly, they keep saying "valay"), marked out as designated comic relief and saddled with the ungainly conceit of making a documentary about Kingo's "family," I still got some laughs out of it. Plus I kind of like the weird anti-screenwriting trick they ultimately pull for Kingo. (Then again, I feel like the Bollywood number that his presence permits could've been treated like something other than sullenly-approached obligation. Why do it if you're not going to do it to the nines?) It's Henry who gets the absolute worst of it, with Phastos also designated as our comic relief, presumably because Henry is sometimes a comic actor, and sure as hell not because guilt-wracked Phastos is a comic figure; it's awful the way his character gets split between "tortured scientist" and "sitcom dad" without any effort to bridge those two things. The other element of the Marvel formula that stinks on ice is the overlong epilogue; there's a very cool visual that delivers a very uncool sequel hook (frankly, given the number of characters here, and their obvious lack of IP legs, far too many Eternals survive Eternals), and the post-climactic material drags so endlessly and unenthusiastically that I considered walking out there. I'd have given it a higher score if I had. Yet I'll say something about Eternals you'll never hear me say again: it needed to be longer. Or, let's be real, better-arranged (but in any event, with more flashbacks to flesh out the present), but right up until that epilogue, I was never bored. That's unusual these days. More than that, I felt actual feelings about these fallen angels, and considering the last six or seven Marvel projects, that comes off like a God damned miracle.