Review: Eternals

A massive throw of the dice in terms of taking risks series-wise, Marvel’s Eternals can’t quite reconcile its galaxy-level scope and brave narrative choices with its connections to the wider franchise and a top-heavy cast.

In the modern day within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, 10 individuals previously presumed to be human (hiding in plain sight among humanity) are forced to reveal their roles as Eternals, immortal alien beings sent to Earth to watch over and defend it against the shape-shifting, monstrous Deviants. The group comes back together after decades due to a resurgence of their presumed-extinct foes, opening old wounds and establishing new truths about their place on our planet.

That’s a really enigmatic synopsis (quite proud of it actually), and much like the duration of their time on Earth, it’s taken me nearly a month to get round to writing this review (I’d say sorry, but nobody was waiting with bated breath for this!). Suffice to say, I’ve thought back to it a fair few times, and I really do respect how esoteric and cosmic this film aims to be – it’s definitely not much like anything else we’ve seen from Marvel for a good while.

This can also be explained by the presence of director Chloe Zhao, of Nomadland fame – meaning the most recent Marvel film is directed by the most recent winner of the Oscars for Best Film and Best Director! While that was a very down-to-earth, independently-minded story of low-wage work and struggles with belonging in a modern economy, Eternals could not be any more at the other extreme on all levels.

Zhao (a huge comic book fan and MCU adherent) brings her trademark eye for real locations and vistas, dragging cast and studio across the world in pursuit of a movie that actually feels like it wasn’t made largely in a studio. On this, Eternals strongly succeeds, with lush jungles, stark volcanic islands and the glorious suburb of Camden helping give it a strong sense of place, whenever the plot demands it.

A large part of how that works is Ben Davis’ cinematography, which really takes advantage of natural light and locations to give what superheroics we see a strangely muted, more earthy feel. It’s worth mentioning this now because it’s one of the things the film really gets right – real locations help it to plant itself in earlier stages of humanity’s history, as the Eternals live and fight among us while maintaining a distance from too much intervention.

Action and effects help to broaden this cosmic feeling – when we truly see the film’s mind-melting scale, it’s both tangible and jaw-droppingly immense, while the Eternals’ powers have a golden, Olympian tinge to them that sets what they can do apart visually from anything we’ve seen before. It’s a clever strategy, because it gives them a visual sensibility and identity that’s quite strong, and harks back to their mysterious origins. A rare case of CGI emboldening, rather than supplanting, what’s onscreen.

It’s worth examining the plot, because it’s both strong and also surprisingly weak. Zhao and writers Ryan and Kaz Firpo fully engage with the comics’ legacy of mind-bending cosmic scale, outlining the role the Eternals play and that of their master/god, Arishem. He is a Celestial, a monumental, planet-sized robot-ish giant, whose background and place within this story completely changes the game when it comes to the MCU and how it all works.

With such huge scale and stakes now set out, the plot cleverly pivots between unimaginable cosmic scales and the long, slow passage of time for the Eternals on Earth. Forbidden from intervening in human history and averting tragedy, these superhuman individuals start to fray at the edges, some getting stuck into elements of our civilisation against orders, others sitting back to let everything happen. It’s when they feel compelled, in the modern day, to intervene that everything starts going a bit tits up.

There are interesting moral quandaries thrown about, not least why this lot did nothing to intervene in the events of Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. The film half succeeds in explaining this, but it’s also one of a few examples of plot chasms that do it a disservice. Trying to fit 10 immortal(ish) characters with unimaginable powers into an existing storyline, where you have to do backflips narratively to explain their absence in earlier episodes, is a bit of a stretch at times. However, the moral crisis at the film’s conclusion is a remarkable change of pace from the usual Marvel ending.

The plot issues are a shame, and so is the film’s mistaken need to have 10 (!) new characters to introduce, humanise and give time to in two and a half hours. Cutting this cast down would have strengthened the story, given the film room to breathe, and probably improved it wholesale. As it is, there are some characters we see too much of that aren’t interesting; some we see little of and would like to have seen more of; and others who just about justify their time onscreen.

However, despite its faults, I liked Eternals for taking such risks. It feels totally different to other MCU movies, and beyond crowbarred-in references, you could be forgiven for thinking it wasn’t actually part of it. It works hard to set up immense stakes going forward, and it’s intriguing to think of how some of these characters will interact with heroes we’ve come to enjoy watching on screen for years now.

Another plus point is the flim’s considered pace at times, especially in taking us back to earlier times in the Eternal’s time on Earth – we get to see different civilisations and time periods in which this group were influential or inspired beliefs or cultures. Again, the dynamics and issues that arise would have been far more interesting if we didn’t have 10 characters to focus on.

When it comes to the characters, it’s best to start with Gemma Chan’s Sersi and Richard Madden’s Ikaris, who can respectively manipulate matter and… fly/shoot lasers from his eyes/use super strength (the film does NOT try to hide how similar Ikaris is to a certain red, white and blue bloke from Kansas who’s known to be pretty super. Madden’s Scottish accent goes a long way to dispelling that connection though!).

Chan is an interesting lead, in that Sersi is calm, doesn’t act on impulse, and takes time to understand others and their actions before taking action herself. It makes for a really curious protagonist role in a superhero movie, and the British actress is at turns caring, inscrutable and driven (a character worth keeping, in essence).

Madden is really engaging as Ikaris, his prior romance with Sersi providing lots of tension and his prominence among the group (by prior reputation and sheer power) giving the film what feels like a truly unstoppable hero. However, if you saw Bodyguard, you know you don’t cast Madden to be the purely golden boy, and the Game of Thrones veteran mines wells of regret, sadness and anger as someone torn between obligation, following the rules and love. Another character I’d keep.

Where we start to find characters that could have been amalgamated or dropped is Salma Hayek’s Ajak, the ostensible leader of the Eternals able to heal others and herself. Due to the nature of the plot, Ajak is constantly in and out of proceedings, and while Hayek is soulful, wise and clearly very driven in charge, I couldn’t help but feel that combining Ajak with another hero would have benefitted the film in terms of focus and time.

The same goes for the double act of Angelina Jolie’s Thena and Don Lee’s Gilgamesh, great warriors who inspired myths and have an interesting interplay and shared history. Both actors do well in the time they’re given, and this very different type of relationship is absolutely needed – but because they’re having to share time with countless others, their powers and plotlines either need to be shared out, or given time to breath. This is particularly apt for Jolie’s Thena, given what appears to be a pivotal role in a certain strand of the plot, but never really allowed the time to endear herself to us.

Other characters that deserved more prominence include Brian Tyree Henry’s haunted, innovative master craftsman Phastos, whose inventions spur humanity along but who feels great responsibility for our more disturbing creations. He’s tragic, interesting and one huge step for diversity and representation in blockbuster cinema, but he’s not onscreen enough until the plot really takes off.

Barry Keoghan’s Druig is another who doesn’t feature much, able to control minds and eager to question the Eternals’ purpose and restrictions. While this creates interesting conflict, he again is sidelined until needed and is less developed, with the charismatic and mischievous Irish actor robbed of a chance to stand out.

This can also be said of Kumail Nanjiani’s Kingo – who could have been merged with Gilgamesh, for example – because while he serves as comic relief and embeds himself more in society than the others, his power consists of…shooting lasers from his fingers. The character has an interesting arc, until he doesn’t – a charismatic actor and some interesting material are hamstrung once more thanks to the large cast.

FInally, we have two characters who could have been combined. Lauren Ridloff’s Makkari – our first deaf hero – is fun, quirky and odd, and has super-speed. So far, so good – but we see so little of her, and she doesn’t have much to do. Contrast this with Lia McHugh’s illusionist Sprite, a woman trapped in a child’s body who holds unrequited love for another Eternal, which begins to curdle. Why couldn’t these two characters have been one, with both powers, and been a stronger part of the plot for it?

Madden’s old Stark brother (yes yes, like Tony Stark harhar) Kit Harington is our dim audience cypher Dane Whitman, a plot device and franchise Easter egg poorly hidden in a rival love interest for Sersi. What little time Harington is onscreen, he’s basically asking the questions we are, not least “why didn’t you do anything about Thanos?”. But because of everything else going on, he really does have little to do and feels like a means to a franchise end.

Hamish Patel makes more of an impact across a few short scenes as Kingo’s assistant Karun, who does a better job of outlining the madness of what’s going on than you’d expect, and gives us most of the big laughs. David Kaye is boomingly imposing as the voice of the inscrutable and momentous Arishem, while finally, It’s Bill Skarsgard voices the ever-evolving Kro, the main Deviant seeking the death of the Eternals, though he has very little to do or say, and is a mass of ugly CGI throughout largely forgettable scenes.

One final note of disappointment (and another Game of Thrones connection!) is Ramin Djawadi’s largely forgettable score, which cleverly tries to echo the millennial timescale by playing the same bombastic main theme on different instruments and in different ways throughout. Beyond this, it’s not very memorable though: the first song we hear in the film is what I remember musically (if you know it, you will too).

I guess this seems like a real downer, especially if you’re a Marvel fan. What I’d say is that this film deserves your time for the risks it takes and the huge decisions it makes – it’s not terrible, by any means. However, it’s definitely a misstep for Marvel, I think – a bit more plot and character consolidation, and a little less desperation to cosmically widen the franchise so quickly, and this could have been really special.

(P.S. – the mid- and post-credit scenes are worth staying for, as always – but in this film’s case, really do reward the nerds rather than the fans. Both feature big surprises, but much like the movie, do seem a little too distracting and desperate to unfold the Marvel puzzle box even further)

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