Marvel has taken a lot of hits over the years for their formula, and it’s a fair assessment at times that they lean too hard on the known and don’t take many real risks with their films. In that way, Eternals is the biggest swing they’ve ever taken, a film that not only looks different from other MCU entries but also feels like a departure, at times, from the “Marvel formula”. Unfortunately, the formula is still there, and Eternals is the best example yet of that formula hamstringing a story on the brink of being something altogether fresh and interesting and revitalizing. Directed by reigning Best Picture/Director Chloe Zhao, and written by Zhao & Patrick Burleigh, and Ryan Firpo & Kaz Firpo, Eternals tries to break the mold and bring a new scope to the MCU, but ultimately it falls victim to some of Marvel’s worst impulses, and not even Zhao’s direction can save it.
The story spans 7,000 years as the Eternals, a race of alien space-gods, descend on Mesopotamia to protect Earth from another race of alien space-gods called Deviants. There is an unavoidable strain of “ancient aliens” that I don’t love, but Zhao’s concept of the Eternals is to make them a font of mythology, which is treated in a more magical and strange way than the Thor films ever approached Norse myth. Streamlining the backstory from the comics, it’s implied that the Eternals are recorded in human history as the Greco-Roman gods, and the Deviants are only just barely not generic CG gloop-monsters because they cleverly resemble mythic beasts like griffins and dragons. Neat!
Marvel heroes are usually positioned as men with the problems of gods, but the Eternals are very much gods with the problems of men. In the modern day, their issues revolve around a long estrangement and the reemergence of the Deviants, thought killed off centuries before. The cast is as sprawling as the timeline, but the ensemble is anchored by Sersi (Gemma Chan), an Eternal with the power to alter matter; Ikaris (Richard Madden), who is explicitly referred to as “Superman”; and Sprite (Lia McHugh), a forever-young Eternal with the power of Loki’s illusions. In the modern day, Sersi is a teacher of some sort and Sprite is her roommate, and we get an interesting introduction in which Sersi is struggling to reveal her truth to her partner, Dane (Kit Harington), even as Sprite seethes at her inability to blend in with humanity because of her permanent adolescence.
There is so much humanity and grounded emotional conflict in the early going of Eternals that I resented the appearance of a Deviant in London. It is virtually impossible to invest in almost indestructible gods tangling with CG monsters when you also have those same physically impervious characters dealing with broken hearts, long-simmering resentments, and an existential conflict that threatens the foundation of their identities, all conflicts that reveal their vulnerabilities. Who cares about CG gloop when Sprite is berating Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) for abandoning her centuries before because he grew tired of constantly moving when people realized Sprite doesn’t age? Why bother with fight scenes when Ikaris has to grapple with Sersi moving on after he suddenly dumped her a hundred years ago?
And why do we even need the CG gloop-monsters when the Eternals have a dangerous warrior in their midst? Thena (Angelina Jolie) is the greatest warrior among them, but she is also afflicted with a kind of space dementia that causes her to forget who and where she is, and she turns on her fellow Eternals. They have to fight one of their own without killing her! THIS is compelling drama! The fight scenes between Thena and the other Eternals are far, far more enthralling than any of the CG fights because it carries actual stakes and emotional relevance (and involve actual, emoting faces). No one wants to hurt Thena, but she is too dangerous to not defend themselves when she attacks. Another Eternal, the strong man Gilgamesh (Don Lee), has taken on responsibility for caring for Thena, and when he is forced to face off against her, it is genuinely moving.
But the Marvel formula demands CG gloop shows up every twenty minutes or so for an obligatory fight scene, and it crushes the momentum of Eternals every time. The characters will be in the middle of an interesting scene and then oop, gotta go punch some pixels for a few minutes. It’s maddening! Zhao and the cast are doing SO MUCH with the emotional weight of the story but that damn formula can’t pull its teeth out of the script long enough to let these characters breathe. It’s a big problem that Eternals is over two and a half hours long and still feels overstuffed with too many characters and too much plot. Just eliminating the Deviant subplot would clean up a lot and leave more space for the ensemble to work through their characters’ far more compelling interpersonal dramas.
It makes for an uneven story, where some Eternals get short shrift—Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) uses her speed power to become a master thief, a thing we NEVER get to see despite how MASSIVELY fun that concept is—and others get rushed through big emotional moments to get to the next fight (Ikaris and Sersi, mostly). There’s a lot to like about Eternals; it looks great, for one, Zhao’s signature grounded aesthetic, lensed by her collaborator, DP Ben Davis, lends a naturalistic, moody atmosphere that complements the film’s weighty themes. And the idea of these gods wrestling with their own higher power and their responsibility toward the people and planet they’ve adopted runs a lot deeper than Marvel movies usually go. But the film never quite hangs together. Not unlike Dune, Eternals is a great-looking vehicle with a broken spoke that keeps its wheels from turning. It will have its fans, for sure, it offers too much interesting stuff to be dismissed as “bad” outright. It’s just frustrating as hell to feel the effort made to do something more than the usual Marvel movie, only for Eternals to fall into the formula trap.
Marvel’s Eternals is now in theaters.
Attached - Kumail Nanjiani at a special screening of Eternals with his parents earlier this week.