A film review by Craig J. Koban November 16, 2021


2021, PG-13, 157 mins.

Gemma Chan as Sersi  /  Richard Madden as Ikaris  /  Angelina Jolie as Thena  /  Kumail Nanjiani as Kingo  /  Lia McHugh as Sprite  /  Brian Tyree Henry as Phastos  /  Lauren Ridloff as Makkari  /  Barry Keoghan as Druig  /  Ma Dong-Seok as Gilgamesh  /  Salma Hayek as Ajak  /  Kit Harington as Dane Whitman  /  Bill Skarsgård as Kro (voice)  /  Harish Patel as Karun

Directed by Chloé Zhao  /  Written by Zhao, Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo and Kaz Firpo

There's just so damn much to take in and admire in THE ETERNALS, the 26th entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. 

It has one of the most ethnically diverse casts of any super hero film of recent memory as well as containing ambitious ideas and endlessly sumptuous visuals.  That, and it has Oscar winning director in Chloe Zhao (who just this year became the only woman of color and just the second woman ever to win a Best Director Oscar for her work on NOMADLAND) leading the charge, and she seems courageously  willing to transcend the increasingly overused and somewhat tired MCU troupes and craft a comic book blockbuster here of a decidedly different vibe.   

Having said all of that, THE ETERNALS is a real expositional slog to sit through in how it tries to cram in an awful lot of characters and dense mythology into an already long two and a half hour film.  This is a MCU entry that wants me to embrace its pioneering spirit, but paradoxically seems to push me away at a distance, making for one odd viewing experience. 

I will say this, though: THE ETERNALS feels far less slavishly faithful to referencing other previous MCU entries, characters, and storylines and tries as it can to be its own unique standalone entry.  That approach worked relatively well for SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS, but not so much for the mostly mediocre BLACK WIDOW.  That's not to say that this post-AVENGERS: ENDGAME Fourth Wave installment doesn't have ties to the events of what has come before it, but rather that it's trying to stylistically segregate itself from many of the recent MCU films that feel like corporate committee efforts.  THE ETERNALS has a look and feel that's wholly its own, which is no surprise considering Zhao being at the helm, and she employs more of a deconstructivist approach here in terms of giving us a MCU film that seems more intimate and melancholic with its characters (mostly gone is the aggressively light and quippy touches).  I appreciated this type of thoughtful approach, but it nevertheless doesn't entirely equate to a good film overall.  THE ETERNALS might be moodier and more contemplative than other MCU stories, but it's also considerably duller as a result. 

And - by the hammer of Thor! - is there ever a lot - and I mean a lot ­- of mythology that this film has to wade through and introduce to viewers and do so in as expeditious of a manner as possible (at times, this film makes DUNE look simplistically easy to digest by comparison).  There is a god-like being known as Arisham that has his race in the Celestials working under him that, in turn, made the Eternals, who in turn were assigned a mission thousands of years ago to travel to Earth and watch over the historical and cultural development of humans, but with one major rule: Don't do anything to interfere with their development (think STAR TREK's Prime Directive, more on that in a bit).  The Eternals in question are comprised of a motherly leader in Ajak (an underused Salma Hayek), and under her is the Superman-esque Ikaris (Richard Madden), the matter controlling Sersi (Gemma Chan), the trained fighter in Thena (Angelina Jolie), the mind altering Druig (Barry Keoghan), the energy projectile throwing Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), the brilliant engineer Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), the illusion casting Sprite (Lia McHugh), the lightning fast and deaf Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), and the brutishly strong Gilgamesh (Don Lee).  Working in tandem as a tightly knit - and unkillable - band of immortal warriors, these Eternals rid the Earth of their evil enemies in the Deviants centuries ago, leading to them all disbanding and spending the rest of their days trying to hide while in plain sight as regular, everyday people amidst the rest of humanity. 



Predictably - and as the story flashforwards 7000 thousand years into the present - those pesky and monstrous Deviants are beginning to re-emerge on Earth, which means that the long separated Eternals are forced out of an extremely long retirement to team back up to combat this galactic menace the threatens to destroy the planet and all humans.  Things get complicated for many of them, especially for Ikaris and Sersi, seeing as they used to be a hot immortal item before breaking up (this is the first MCU film to have a sex scene, albeit pretty tame), and now in the present she has - gasp! - shacked up with a mortal dude (GAME OF THRONES' Kit Harrignton).  Thena has become mentally unstable as the years have progressed to the point of requiring therapy.  Phastos has his own demons in his closet (he was indirectly responsible for leading humanity down the technological line of eventually making atomic bombs...again...more on that in a bit), but has now retired from Eternal-ing and has a child with his husband.  Kingo seems to be the most well adjusted and has managed to finagle himself into a multi-generation Bollywood musical icon (because, of course he could!).  Despite the multiple problems that typify this group, they fully realize the gravity of the newly minted Deviant threat and plot a course of defending the planet, and they have their work cut out for them, to say the least. 

There's no question that THE ETERNALS is on resoundingly solid and pioneering ground as far as inclusiveness goes for the MCU, which makes it a most welcome companion piece to the Asian led ensemble that made up SHANG-CHI.   Gender and cultural awareness has not been one of the MCU's stronger suits (by modest scrutiny, it took seemingly forever for Black Widow to get her own solo film, not to mention that if you exclude her and the African American Nick Fury from the lot, the first Avengers squad was white and male).  So, there's something to instantly appreciate and admire about the diversity on display in THE ETERNALS, and diversity on multiple levels.  Beyond the cast's multicultural backgrounds, there's an attempt here to tackle other elements, such as Thena's mental health issues, portraying Makkari's as a deaf team member, and, perhaps most noteworthy, Phasto's same sex union with his partner (building towards the first same-sex kiss in the MCU, granted, last year's THE NEW MUTANTS was the first Marvel branded comic book film to tackle homosexual relationships, and did so with more screen time being granted to portraying their gay characters).  THE ETERNALS deserves kudos for pushing through and championing for a much needed representation tide change in super hero genre films, especially for the usually Disney-safe and soft-pedaled MCU canon. 

THE ETERNALS also looks reliably grand, which should come as no suprise for the legion of MCU devotees, but it's a bit surprising considering Zhao is behind it all, who's more known for making vastly smaller scaled and personal dramas.  Teaming up with cinematographer Ben Davis (GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY and DOCTOR STRANGE), Zhao makes a concentrated effort here to evoke a naturalistic look to her super hero team-up film, filled with frequent and gorgeous sunset drenched vistas that help visually ground the film in a relatable reality despite its otherworldly elements.  THE ETERNALS is just as wall-to-wall with visual effects and costume clad heroes battling it out with CG monsters that have become a staple (some would say overused) of the MCU, but Zhao tries to impart her own painterly and observant eye to the proceedings here, which makes for a fairly breathtaking picture to look at and engage with through and through.  Perhaps most crucially, THE ETERNALS is not just preoccupied with building up to the next large scale obligatory action setpiece; it respects its heroes and aims to highlight their unique personalities and character dynamics first over spectacle and mayhem.  That's pretty refreshing, overall. 

Noble minded creative imperatives aside, however, all of that is for naught if the underlining film simply doesn't work all that well, and it's simply too hard to shake the fact that THE ETERNALS moves as slow as molasses at times.  As alluded to before, there's so much that this film has to introduce and explain that it does hurt forward momentum in the early stages, and the resulting story never feels like it has a genuine pulse until it gets to its livelier final act, and by that time it's too little and too late.  At 157 minutes, THE ETERNALS almost always feels its length, and it takes a long, long time for the narrative to gain sizable traction after dissecting what Eternals, Deviants, Celestials, and Arisham are and how they tie into the larger MCU.  That, and this story has to introduce many new personalities to the MCU that have not seen the light of day before in any previous franchise entry (it's almost akin to having an AVENGERS film that never had any solo member films beforehand).  I love the core concept of the Eternals trying to acclimate to normal human lives over a gargantuan time period, but I rarely felt emotionally invested in any of them, which is not assisted by the fact that most of the performances range from stilted to serviceable and lack bankable charm.  Only the rascally Nanjiani (as shockingly ripped as Wolverine here) seems to be the only cast member that exudes an iota of charisma and spunk as his squad member, and the only one that seems to be having any fun.  And considering the relative industry stature of vets like Hayek and Jolie, it's pretty astounding how relatively invisible they come across in the larger scheme of things.  There were times when I forgot that they were even in this film...and how is that even possible with these actresses? 

And maybe I shouldn't be doing this while watching a super hero flick, but THE ETERNALS forced me to ask many logic straining questions about its core mythos and how that ties to the MCU.  The largest hole, in my estimation, is why beings that are essentially the equivalent of super heroes as gods have stayed on the sidelines and did nothing during the entirety of Thanos' mad tyranny that destroyed half of all life in the universe?  Considering the might of the Celestials, they could have assisted the Avengers and stopped Thanos like (snaps fingers) that!  Now, this is all explained with a couple of lines of dialogue that's woefully convenient.  The Eternals are simply not allowed to interfere with anyone or anything, but rather must just observe.  Yet, this makes no sense, seeing as the Eternals do - for example - help with the tool development of early humans that acted as a springboard for their later technological maturity.  Wait a minute...isn't that interference?  I don't like it when any type of movies plays fast and lose with its own established rules.   

By the time THE ETERNALS builds to a fairly involving and exciting climax I still found myself straining to thoroughly immerse myself in its world and characters.  I liked Zhao's delicate and mannered approach to this type of material (let's face it, many of the latter MCU films have a repetitious assembly line sameness) and as a visual odyssey it's not aggressively miming the MCU aesthetic blueprint.  That's great.  What's not great is the convoluted scripting, the inconsistent performances, the sluggish pacing, and the nagging sense that the post-AVENGERS Fourth Wave MCU world is straining to find ways to propel itself forward in meaningful and impactful ways.  THE ETERNALS doesn't feel like a dramatically weightless and empty minded corporate cash grab picture like BLACK WIDOW; Zhao's film tries to look forward, not backward, in terms of MCU progression.  Plus, the willingness here to be more, shall we say, risk taking than typical MCU fare is to be lauded to a degree.  I just wished that I cared more about the super powered and costumed adorned heroes here and what was happening to them.  THE ETERNALS is a comic book extravaganza that's commendable for its fearless ambition, but it's pretty uneventful and substandard as far as memorably enjoyable MCU fare goes.  

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