“Eternals” – Forgetting what works.
For years, Marvel and its Cinematic Universe (MCU) have been chugging along, producing one great movie after another, with the occasional Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 to remind us that nobody is perfect. Simultaneously, Warner Brothers and its DC Extended Universe (DCEU) have been frantically trying to emulate the MCU, producing one great turd after another, with the occasional Wonder Woman to remind us again that nobody is perfect. After watching Marvel’s latest film, Eternals, it seems as if the MCU wanted to try out DCEU’s approach just to prove it really is garbage.
(SPOILER ALERT – Get comfortable, there is a lot to discuss in this film and, like the film’s running time, we’re going to be here for a while.)
The biggest reason why the MCU has worked so well is it spends several movies developing individual characters and story arcs before moving to the big ensemble movies. You know, the opposite of what the DCEU did. You’d think that after twenty-five movies and three television series, the MCU would know better than to throw a dozen new characters into a new movie without previously developing any of them, but I guess they’re still hungover from the Endgame party.
It’s hard to believe that Eternals isn’t actually a DCEU film that stole the keys to Marvel producer Kevin Feige’s car. Eternals is a bloated, crowded, overly complicated, yet somehow-still-under-developed mess of a film. Eternals even has a really strong guy who can fly and shoot lasers from his eyes, a super-fast lady, a lady dressed like a goddess who fights really well, a guy who is good with gadgets, and a bunch of other characters with random and somewhat vague, if not redundant powers. They are one fish guy short of a full Justice League.
(Seriously. SPOILER ALERT. This is your last warning.)
The premise of the film is ten super beings called Eternals have been protecting humanity from deviants for 7,000 years. The Eternals look like humans, so can live among humans without drawing too much attention. They answer to a being known as a Celestial, named Arishem. If that sounds familiar it’s because Ego (from Guardians 2) is a Celestial. Except, instead of a Kurt Russell looking thing, Arishem is a giant robot looking thing, larger than a planet.
The leader of the Eternals, Ajak (Salma Hayek), occasionally speaks with Arishem via a glowy ball in her neck, giving Arishem status reports before voicing her concerns that the people of Earth are somehow different than the peoples of countless other worlds. “Stick with the mission,” responds Arishem. We later learn that the mission is really that the Eternals are only protecting humans to the point of humans reaching a critical population and intelligence mass, at which time a Celestial incubating in the center of the Earth (Tiamut) will be born, devour the entire human race, and destroy the Earth by bursting out of it. Once born, Tiamut will begin creating new stars, planets, and life forms, thus beginning a new circle of life. There’s just one small catch – only Ajak knows the true mission. The other nine believe they are protecting humanity until the end of time.
All of that sounds fairly straightforward, but then the movie starts talking. I don’t mean the characters, I mean the movie – there is opening narration. Why does every science fiction or fantasy movie have to start with opening narration, whether it be verbal or textual? Are audiences really so stupid and/or impatient that they can’t make it through the first five-to-ten minutes where the movie shows us what the narration just said? What’s that? Have I met current America that refuses to get a free, life-saving, taxpayer-funded shot in the arm, but will eat horse dewormer? I stand corrected.
One of the problems with the film is that much of it doesn’t make any sense. Partway through the film, we get a bunch of exposition explaining the truth of the universe and Arishem’s cosmic design. He seeded the universe with Celestials and populated their planets with intelligent creatures. He then created the Deviants to protect the intelligent creatures by hunting predators on the planet that might kill the intelligent creatures. Unfortunately, the Deviants evolved to also hunt the intelligent creatures. Arishem refers to this as a flaw in the Deviants’ creation and that he lost control of the Deviants. So, he created Eternals, synthetic beings incapable of evolving, to hunt down the Deviants. Once a Celestial is born, the Eternals return to Arishem, their memories are erased, and they are sent to the next planet to do it all again. Then, the Eternals got out of control, so he created tigers to kill the Eternals. Then, he created elephants to squash the tigers. Whoops, wrong story.
Let’s recap that – Arishem created humans, but also created creatures that might kill those humans. So he created new creatures whose sole purpose is to hunt the hunters, but it didn’t occur to him that the new hunters might also hunt the humans. So, he created new, new hunters to hunt the hunters of the hunters, but told the new, new hunters, they could only protect the humans from the new hunters and not do anything else, including hunt the original hunters since they aren’t the new hunters. And they took orders from this clown?
Before I saw this film, I thought the Deviants were going to be actual people. Like, a very specific few super-beings or something. Hela, for example. Or someone we hadn’t seen yet. It was an intriguing concept, mostly because it was teased in the film when Sersi (Gemma Chan) is asked by her boyfriend Dane (Kit Harrington) why the Eternals didn’t help stop Thanos. “We were forbidden from interfering in human affairs unless Deviants were involved,” she replied.
I was extremely disappointed to find out they were just ravenous monsters. I was even more disappointed when the Deviants turned out to be a red herring. One Deviant in particular is noted to have the power to heal itself, something Deviants had not been known to do. Later in the film, it kills Gilgamesh (Don Lee), the strong Eternal, absorbing his power and gaining the power of speech. No, seriously, the thing can suddenly talk and morphs into a more human-like creature. Does this figure into the plot at all? Nope. Thena (Angelina Jolie) has a fight scene in the climax with it and that’s it. Speaking of Jolie…
Given the parameters of the mission, we really have to question why there are ten of them and why some of them have the powers they have. Ikaris (Richard Madden) is strong, fast, can fly, and shoots lasers out of his eyes. Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) can shoot energy balls out of his hands. Sprite (Lia McHugh) can project illusions. Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) invents stuff. Gilgamesh is strong. Thena can summon stabby weapons and shields and is a good fighter. Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) runs super fast. Ajak can heal people. Druig (Barry Keoghan) can mind control humans. Sersi can change stuff into other stuff, like change rocks into water. It really is a grab bag of powers, some of which don’t seem to be useful against…checking notes…ravenous monsters.
Why didn’t Arishem just make ten Ikarises? Or one hundred, for that matter? And, if they aren’t supposed to interfere in human affairs, why does he give several of them powers that seem specifically for interfering in human affairs? And, since he doesn’t seem to care what they do, why not let them interfere in human affairs to speed up the process, which they are doing anyway? And, why did he make Sprite a child? Seriously, they took orders from this clown.
Beyond the main conflict and storyline, there are a whole pile of sub-plots that only serve to muddy this already muddy mess. Ikaris and Sersi have a romantic relationship, including a sex scene on a beach. Prior to this scene, their relationship is developed by the two of them noting that Earth is beautiful and helping some ancient peoples do chores, then Ikaris disappears on her for 500 years until showing up again in present times. Druig and Makkari appear to also have a relationship, but who has time for that? Thena is freaking out and trying to kill the others, so Gilgamesh cares for her in the middle of a desert for centuries. Phastos is upset that he can’t give humans more inventions, so he settles down with a family in the suburbs. Kingo becomes a Bollywood star because the film needs some comedic relief. Sprite is a moody adolescent because the film needs some juvenile angst. Ajak is keeping the true mission a secret and lies to them all that the Deviants have been defeated, but they can’t go home yet. Druig is upset that they can’t intervene to stop humans from killing each other, so he intervenes during a massacre of Incans by conquistadors. And during all of this, and I can’t stress this next point enough – you will not give even the tiniest shit about any of it or any of them.
Scanning through a bunch of other reviews, every critic is going out of their way to fault the studio and not director/writer Chloe Zhao because Zhao won an Oscar last year for directing Nomadland. I’m just as guilty of accusing studios of meddling as any other critic, but it is malpractice not to place some of this mess on Zhao’s shoulders. Just as one example, a bit of research revealed that Zhao said she patterned Ikaris after Zack Snyder’s Superman. On purpose. If the studio really was meddling that much, wouldn’t at least one suit have threatened to fire her for taking inspiration from the dumpster fire that is the DCEU?
And that fits with the overall feel of Eternals. An overly serious movie featuring lackluster performances, with comic relief that misses far more than it lands, starring far too many poorly developed heroes in a complicated mess of a story, fighting a villain even less developed than themselves and who is ultimately discarded for a different quasi-villain, surrounded by tons of special effects and questionable music choices. It’s a film that asks us to care about a bunch of characters without actually developing those characters. It’s a film that tries to be another Avengers without having done the necessary work beforehand. I know a lot of people are trying to soften the criticism with platitudes like “at least they tried something different,” but that’s not a good thing when the something different is basically everything wrong with the DCEU. It’s been twenty-five movies and three television series – they should know better.
Rating: Ask for all but a dollar back. Marvel can afford it.