‘Eternals’ is epic and character driven, but flawed

Chlo´´é Zhao’s ‘Eternals’ continues Marvel Phase Four’s trend of character development, but suffers when it comes to pace and clarity

Starring Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek, Kit Harington, Kumail Nanjiani, Lia McHugh, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Ridloff, Barry Keoghan, Don Lee, and Harish Patel

It is little secret by this point that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is an unprecedented collection of films. Now on its 26th instalment, with television series now being added to the fray, it is a franchise that faces incredible levels of scrutiny. Within this, therefore, it is heartening to see the studio taking creative risks and telling different stories, whilst also balancing the soulless business of corporate greed.

So far, the cinematic tales of Phase Four, Black Widow and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings have been unusual for the MCU, focusing more upon character relationships and universal themes of family. Both have had more credible villains who are rooted within the character’s pasts and have produced far more streamlined and comprehensible superhero films instead of leaning into wonton destruction as has been known from the genre. On top of that, Black Widow was the first MCU film to be directed by a woman, and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings marked the first MCU movie to be fronted by an Asian-American or, indeed, anyone who wasn’t white.

With December’s Spiderman: No Way Home doubtless providing something which is more typical superhero MCU fodder, with crossovers aplenty, Eternals is the last film currently slated in Phase Four tasked with introducing new ideas and canon to Marvel lore and, with Oscar-winner Chloé Zhao directing, Eternals has far greater capacity for creativity. Unfortunately, aside from remarkable diverse and nuanced characters and despite an incredibly talented cast, Eternals winds up feeling sluggish and vaguely clumsy. It fails to elevate itself away from the superhero genre, and ultimately ends up feeling like something that we have seen before, only less cohesive.

The Eternals, an immortal alien race, were sent to Earth thousands of years ago to protect the planet from dangerous predators known as the Deviants. Now assimilated with society and living amongst humans, the Eternals must fight once more when the Deviants reemerge, stronger than before.

The Eternals themselves have a diverse set of characters, with a line-up even larger than the Avengers. The leader, Ajak (Salma Hayek), who communicates between her team of Eternals the Celestial Arishem whom they serve, has the ability to heal and provides a motherly stability. Thena (Angelina Jolie) is an incredible warrior, and has a deep connection with Gilgamesh (Don Lee), who is equipped with super strength. Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) is able to fire energy from his hands, while Sprite (Lia McHugh) is a mistress of illusions, though is stuck perpetually looking like a pre-teen, Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) is a skilled inventor, Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) has super speed and Druig (Barry Keoghan) can manipulate minds.

Finally, there is Ikaris (Richard Madden), a suspiciously Homelander-adjacent portrayal, a particularly committed Eternal who is able to fly and can produce laser beams from his eyes, who falls deeply in love with fellow Eternal Sersi (Gemma Chan). Sersi falls in love with Earth and its culture, befriending its people and investing her time and energy into them. She is able to manipulate inanimate matter when she touches it, altering soil to water, for example. Compassionate and gentle, her power matches her attitude – nurturing and pacifistic.

In the present, the once-inseparable, focused team have scattered to the breeze, their mission to defeat the Deviants apparently complete. The audience discovers the Eternals in the present, with Sersi now living with Sprite in London, working in the Natural History Museum and in a relationship with human Dane Whitman (Kit Harrington). When a Deviant attacks the group, Ikaris appears to help fight it off and they group together to find the rest of the Eternals and defeat the threat once more. However, upon travelling to find leader Ajak, the group soon discover that their true purpose on Earth might not be what they thought it was, and they start to buckle under the weight of the revelation.

Part of Eternal‘s issue stems from the sheer scale of its ambition. The established mythos of the Eternals has them arriving on Earth in 5,000BC (we’ll casually ignore the anachronism of labelling that date in such a way), and as such the movie is required to summarise the events that have transpired since then. In establishing the Eternals’ purpose on being on Earth, long, expository flashbacks are needed to give the audience the necessary information. In fact, there is even an opening crawl used to convey even more information. This is then clumsy when the established information is overturned on multiple occasions throughout the film.

These flashbacks are incredibly exposition-laden and dramatically slow the pace. They tend to be told in their entirety and are shoe-horned in during moments of tension, when perhaps they might have been more effectively laced to maximise dramatic tension. The separation of the Eternals, or indeed the events that lead to Ikaris and Sersi’s separation could have been used emotively, to demonstrate their conflicting emotions upon being back in each other’s presence, or indeed any of the Eternals’ reservations or past trauma from reuniting, but by presenting all of these flashbacks so neatly, it almost robs these events from any dramatic significance.

What’s more, the pacing of the multiple revelations could have been more effectively used. Most audience members probably could have guessed from the opening crawl that the Eternals just coming to Earth to protect it from the Deviants and then to wait around for multiple thousand years seemed slightly fishy and, even with the Deviants re-emerge, led by sentient Kro (Bill Skarsgård), who is now able to absorb the Eternals’ powers, there isn’t nearly enough that’s captivating about this enemy to suggest that it could hold an entire film.

Were the narrative to have leaned more heavily into the threat that Kro posed, this may have made the reveal of the Eternals’ true nature feel more impactful. Perhaps this true nature could have been revealed by Kro himself, which would have made it substantially more dramatic, instead of everything being relayed via voice over and spelt out for the audience. While the third act plot twist is better done, it is still done through flashback instead of through an impactful, dramatic and tense scene in which the true events are teased out. The film doesn’t seem to trust its audience enough to deal with making any sort of narrative leap for themselves, instead spelling out every single plot point through either laboriously narrating it, or literally showing.

Having said that, the film does a good job of centring the film around Gemma Chan’s Sersi. Despite having an impressively large cast which must all be introduced, Zhao succeeds in creating characters who feel real and distinct to each other. Hayek is underused as maternal Ajak, though Jolie proves her mettle as an actress as Thena, providing some of the more affecting moments. Madden is quietly terrifying as the stoic Ikaris, but Chan is the true light of the movie.

Chan crafts a character who is innocent and vulnerable, who does not sacrifice emotion for strength, but rather uses her incredible heart and empathy to drive her forward. Unassuming and non-confrontational, she is not the typical choice to lead the Eternals, but her immense heart demonstrates a character who is just incredibly “good”, and stands up for what she believes is right. She holds the audience’s attention from the first moment until the last, and Sersi is sure to be a highlight of the MCU moving forwards.

Of particular note, as well, is Lauren Ridloff as Makkari. The first deaf superhero to be shown in the MCU, Makkari is sure to be a fan favourite. Kumail Nanjiani as Kingo is also amusing, though after a while his one-dimensional brand of humour begins to wear thin, though valet Karun played by Harish Patel continues to be a delightful foil for the superpowered Eternals. The film is also partially let down by its overestimation of the appeal of Sprite. While played ably by Lia McHugh, one might imagine that an Eternal who has lived for thousands of years might behave more maturely, despite their appearance as a 12-year-old.

On top of these nuanced, well developed characters, Eternals boasts stunning cinematography, featuring many beautiful and diverse locations throughout the movie.

However, these distinct locations do not help elevate the fight sequences, which are drastically less innovative and dynamic than Black Widow and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings‘ stunt choreography. Instead, these rely quite heavily on actors fighting CGI creations using their CGI powers. So extensive is the use of CGI, in fact, that it’s the first time that Marvel’s budget has seemed stretched thin and unconvincing in these areas.

Eternals is perhaps deeper than many Marvel movies that have come before it, but it doesn’t necessarily create a better film. It is watchable for the brilliant performers at its heart, but the examination of questions surrounding morality, loyalty and self determination does not make up for the laboured, plodding pace, especially when this could have been streamlined and better used to serve the character’s development and enhance overall dramatic tension. While Zhao should be commended for not making a generic superhero flick and taking a creative risk, the future that this sets up within the MCU does not seem as interesting as Eternals perhaps wants it to be.

Eternals was released in cinemas on November 5th

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