Marvel's "The Eternals" Does Its Job Despite Flaws

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Marvel's "The Eternals" opens in the U.S. on November 5, 2021.

Marvel’s The Eternals isn’t a bad movie, despite what the general negativity of the internet would have you believe. No, it’s not perfect, but it’s also not Thor: The Dark World either. When The Eternals opens in the U.S. on November 5, 2021, exclusively in theaters, it will do so having already been labelled as a flop by film critics who aren’t as familiar with the source material, by comic fans who are familiar and expect every panel of the comics to be reproduced on the big screen, and by the so-called “influencers” on social media who seem dead set on "cancelling" evetything for tthe vagueist of reasons. The film is arguably Marvel’s most ambitious offering to date, and also perhaps it’s least accessible entry in their cinematic universe. In this context, it’s still a solid adaptation of The Eternals comics, which have always been a little outside of the mainstream titles, and will likely go down as one the most under-appreciated entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The Eternals is directed by Academy Award winner Chloé Zhao, who also co-wrote the script with Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo and Kaz Firpo. Marvel alumni Gemma Chan (the blue-skinned Kree villain Minerva from Captain Marvel) leads the ancient immortal heroes as Sersi. She’s part of Marvel’s most diverse cast to date, featuring Richard Madden as Ikaris, Angelina Jolie as Thena, Salma Hayek as Ajak, Kumail Nanjiani as Kingo, Lia McHugh as Sprite, Brian Tyree Henry as Phastos, Lauren Ridloff as Makkari, Barry Keoghan as Druig, Don Lee as Gilgamesh, Harish Patel as Kingo’s personal assistant Karun, and Kit Harrington as Dane Whitman.

Zhao was given a colossal task: tell the story of some of Marvel’s least well-known cosmic-level characters, giving each character enough time on screen to develop each character, make it all accessible to the millions of MCU fans who have never heard of the Eternals, weave them all into the fabric of the MCU, and keep it around two and a half hours runtime. By comparison, Director Jon Favreau, whose Iron Man film essentially launched the MCU, had it easy! 

If you consider that the source material is a series of comic books first created by the legendary artist Jack Kirby (without much input from his celebrated writing partner Stan Lee) that only lasted about 18 months in the mid-1970s, and then was brought back sporadically as a miniseries roughly every 10 years with the occasional random guest appearance in comics like The Avengers or Silver Surfer in between, you start to see how difficult this task was. This isn’t a property with 40 plus years of continuity to draw from, which can be both a blessing (possibility of creative freedom) and a curse (meeting the expectations of comic fans who are fiercely protective of their favorite characters while not alienating the bulk of the audience who doesn’t care about the comics). The best of the Eternals' series over the years was written by the brilliant fantasy author Neil Gaiman, whose work is often fantastic to read but notoriously difficult to translate into live action productions.

Working with a cast from a multitude of cultures, and changing some characters to female to equalize the genders (in the comics, Ajak was originally female but was reborn as male, Makkari was a white male and Sprite was an immortal boy of about 12 years of age, and none of these changes are problematic in any way), Zhao puts the ladies front and center, which is long past due. I really enjoyed seeing Gemma Chan feature as the central character of the film. She’s an actress whose star will only rise with Marvel. It would be great fun to see her Sersi character interact with Captain Marvel and the daughters of Thanos--Gamora and Nebula--in some epic cosmic battle, or alongside Thor--either Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, or both--Lady Sif and Valkyrie in a war of mythical proportions. I’m curious to see how or if Marvel will continue the romance between Sersi and Dane Whitman, which in some ways are just as unlikely a couple as the Scarlet Witch and Vision. I was very surprised to see her involved in the MCU’s first sex scene, though it’s very tame and brief as sex scenes go. I was far less surprised by the LGBTQ+ kiss between two of her male co-stars, because try as I do, some spoilers are unavoidable. Thanks for nothing, social media. I look forward to seeing Chan become a top box office leading lady, provided Hollywood has the guts to cast her on her talent and not relegate her to strictly “Asian” roles.

Also featured in major supporting roles are Salma Hayek and Angelina Jolie, with Hayek’s Ajak serving as the first leader of the Eternals and the one who communicates with their Celestial overlords…yes, the Celestials have arrived. If you’ve seen the first Guardians of the Galaxy you’ve seen at least the repurposed skull of one of these cosmically gigantic space beings. It’s called “Knowhere,” the outpost where the Guardians first encounter Ronan the Accuser. Jolie plays Thena, the Eternal’s “goddess of war” who suffers from “Mahd Wy’ry,” a form of mental illness that afflicts Eternals, causing her to slip into a temporary state of rage and attack her teammates. McHugh’s Sprite provides some neat moments with her powers of illusion, while Rudloff probably comes off the most super-heroic, using her super speed to save humans from certain death.

It’s with the male side of the cast where the film feels a little underwhelming. Chan has good chemistry with her mortal love interest Kit Harrington, but perhaps a little less so with Richard Madden, as their characters had shared a long relationship a few hundred years prior. Madden’s Ikaris isn’t the most likable hero, but as a sort of erstwhile “Superman” without the Smallville, Kansas upbringing he probably shouldn’t be perfect. I think some viewers will find Ikaris a little stiff and cold, but keep in mind that they aren’t superheroes, at least not yet. They’re guardians of an experiment launched thousands of years ago by the Celestials. If you view the film not as a superhero movie but as a modernized mythology where the gods each have a singular purpose and don’t wander too far from that, you might enjoy it more. Ikaris felt little robotic to me, but I’ve never been able to get behind anyone who follows a leader or a creed with blinders on. I certainly enjoyed Nanjiani’s Kingo, who brought some comic relief to the film while still being a credible hero, along with sidekick Patel. I wouldn’t have minded seeing more of Henry and Lee, especially if they worked together more, with Lee’s Gilgamesh wielding huge weapons and devices designed by Henry’s Phastos. Keoghan’s Druig has been more often a villain in the comics and is probably better off that way given his mind control power. 

Unfortunately, there isn’t really a strong antagonist to be found in the film. When they aren’t fighting among themselves, the Eternals fight the Deviants, a bunch of CGI monstrosities that they’ve been protecting humanity from for several millennia. Zhao’s story would have benefitted from having a dedicated “big bad” enemy to rally the team around. Thanos, who actually is an Eternal himself (it’s a long story), would have been perfect, but alas, Tony Stark snapped him out of existence. I think having a stronger villain would have helped with presenting the Eternals backstory in more interesting ways. The middle act gets bogged down with a lot of exposition. Talking heads are still just talking heads no matter when or where in space and time they may be. It seems that Hollywood just can’t figure out how to avoid the mid-movie malaise that has plagued the majority of films I’ve seen over the last decade-plus. I still blame Glengarry Glen Ross for this—a fine stage play turned into the epitome of a film where people standing around and talking too much. Superheroes or mythical demigods should not spend so much time talking.

Despite the pacing issues and the lack of a true villain—Tom Hiddleston’s Loki would have been a godsend, no pun intended—The Eternals does the job MCU maestro Kevin Feige hired Chloé Zhao to do: continue the rebuild of the MCU post Avengers: Endgame. I think people come to Marvel movies now with unrealistic expectations that each film will up the excitement and emotional charge of the one that came before. It took 22 feature films to build to the climax of Endgame. Since then there’s been a handful of very good Disney+ TV shows, a flashback film and only one forward-looking MCU film in Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (I’m not counting Spider-Man: Far From Home because it’s part Sony and functions more as a post-script to Endgame than as a restart to the MCU) to reset the status quo in the MCU.

I don’t think it was ever Feige or Zhao’s intent to make The Eternals a sweeping, emotional tour de force. But I do think they have planted some seeds that will be vital to the next decade of Marvel movies. The Eternals might not overwhelm you now, but it could be the film you’ll come back to repeatedly as the MCU builds towards an inevitable second Endgame. With lovely costume design, exciting special effects and a beautiful score by Ramin Djawadi, I think the general public will regard it higher over time, while the haters spam the dislike buttons on their fan review sites of choice in the short term before moving on to whatever. Personally, I can’t dislike a Marvel movie that makes repeated references to DC Comics characters in the dialogue! I did not see that coming! People in the Marvel Universe read DC Comics—who knew?

Marvel's The Eternals carries a PG-13 rating and runs for 2 hours 37 minutes. I wonder if that includes staying through the credits? Of course, you have to stay for the credits! One scene introduces two new characters, ones that I thought--and kind of hoped--I’d never see on the big screen, but am admittedly somewhat excited for now, and one that teases the mystery of Dane Whitman and features a shocker of a cameo that will surely rock the MCU going forward! 

3.5 / 5.0