What’s new, everybody? Eternals, the 26th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, finally dropped on Disney+ on January 12. It follows a company of immortal beings from the distant planet Olympia who have been watching over humanity for 7,000 years, although they’ve never stepped in to thwart foes like the trickster god Loki or the genocidal warlord Thanos. A rule they must obey in their guardian roles is that they can only intervene in affairs of the earth to defeat beasts known as Deviants—a threat that’s arising now and is forcing the Eternals to reunite in their perpetual mission to protect humankind.
Unless you’ve been ignoring all the MCU news, you know that Eternals, which was directed by Chloé Zhao (The Rider, Nomadland), has endured waves of criticism, with its critic score on Rotten Tomatoes landing on 48%. It’s now the lowest-ranking MCU movie on the review platform, having taken the spot away from Thor: The Dark World and its score of 66%. Obviously, we can discount the flak that certain viewers (*cough-cough* cishet white men) have hurled at the film for featuring the most diverse cast in the MCU. As for the constructive criticism being aimed at the actual narrative, that’s what I’m finding to be much more relevant, because Eternals, which I’ve watched twice by now, is far from perfect. You can feel the idiosyncratic and wonderful Zhaoness of it all surging within its core, desperately wanting the movie to be at once epic and quiet, sprawling and contemplative. But the attempt at uniting the director’s voice with the MCU’s appetite for CGI-heavy battles and quippy humor ends up making for a final product with a wishy-washy tone, janky pacing, and flimsily developed characters.
It’s crucial to point out that the script was penned by three teams, according to the ampersands (remember that when it comes the writing credits, “and” means the writers wrote the script separately, while “&” means the writers worked as a team): Zhao, followed by the team of Zhao and Patrick Burleigh (Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway), and then Ryan (Refuge) and Kaz Firpo (Bet Raise Fold: The Story of Online Poker), with the Firpo cousins also writing the screen story. Who knows how many uncredited writers there could be. I can’t help but wonder if the fact that numerous people handled the script at different stages is the source of the clunkiness.
It shows through most prominently in the polarizing movie’s nonlinear storytelling, especially during the first hour of this 157-minute film. You’ve got the present day, where we see the Eternals gradually regather their team to quash the impending threat of Deviants. Then you’ve got the past, where those very same godlike overseers dispatch Deviants and keep tabs on Homo sapiensfrom the background across several time periods and global locations. I did find most of the flashbacks to be compelling as they gave me some insight into the characters and their millennia-long interrelationships, but it felt like they were randomly strewn throughout the plot rather than placed at specific beats to form narrative tension that can enthrall the audience in both the past and present timelines. Causing the pacing and the exposition-dumping to progress quite unevenly, this careless approach contrasts with MCU buddy Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, which executed its own flashbacks much more effectively.
Then we have the sizable ensemble that consists of Gemma Chan as Sersi, who’s more or less the protagonist and possesses the power of elemental transmutation (that is, changing wood to metal or stone to dust); Richard Madden as Ikaris, the love interest of Sersi’s who is able to fly and shoot laser beams from his eyes; Kumail Nanjiani as Kingo, who’s been in the spotlight for decades as a Bollywood star and fires energy blasts from his hands; Lia McHugh as Sprite, who can project Loki-esque illusions and has to grapple with the challenges of perpetually living in the physical body of a 12-year-old child; Brian Tyree Henry as Phastos, the inventor who has contributed technological innovations to humans; Barry Keoghan as Druig, who desperately wants to wield his morally gray power of mind control to prevent people from instigating bloody wars and wreaking death upon each other; Salma Hayek as Ajak, the Prime Eternal who’s been assigned to lead the group and possesses self-healing powers; Lauren Ridloff as Makkari, who’s deaf and has super-speed; Angelina Jolie as Thena, who creates energy-based weapons akin to Green Lantern and wrestles with a dementia-like psychological condition called Mahd Wy’ry; and Don Lee as Gilgamesh, who has super-strength and is a close companion to Thena. Oh, and Kit Harington is part of the cast as Sersi’s human boyfriend and history professor Dane Whitman, although he plays such a minor role that he may as well have been excised from the film.
The movie dedicates a great amount of time to setting up its bulky roster of ten Eternals in the present and the past, sacrificing the space it needs to flesh out its characters in the process. I did grow to care for most of them and their struggles, particularly Sersi, Druig, and Thena, even though they’re otherworldly individuals to whom I shouldn’t be able to relate at all. But aspects of their arcs could have been further mined had the story been tackling a smaller crew. Trimming it from ten Eternals down to five or six would have helped to bring the story into focus; so would have shaving off fifteen to twenty minutes. Personally, I wasn’t much invested in the thinly written characters of Ajak, Ikaris (that is, until he suddenly becomes much more complex in the third act, and even then, his romance with Sersi came off as forced), Sprite, and Makkari (but I did buy into her dynamic with Druig). Performance-wise, the talent generally makes the grade, with Chan giving off dignified and nuanced presence in the starring role, Jolie easily slipping into the role of Thena and injecting her with a surprisingly quiet pathos, and Nanjiani shining particularly bright in his comedic interactions with Harish Patel’s role as Kingo’s trusty human valet Karun. Seriously, Patel was a surprise standout who brought both hilarity and emotion to the screen. Some of Kingo’s comic beats do clash with the rest of the film’s tone, though. I’ll also admit that Madden felt wooden much of the time, though his arc does head in a specific direction that leaves me wondering if Ikaris’s stilted demeanor was an intentional choice made by Madden and/or Zhao.
Eternals is without a doubt the MCU’s bleakest and most philosophical entry to date, touching more pensively—but not quite enough—on the soul-shattering impact of genocide than any of its equivalents. It’s fitting that Zhao bolsters such meditation by shooting most of the movie in real outdoor environments like the open plains of South Dakota and the volcanic landscape of the Canary Islands rather than against green screen and blue screen. Watching the beautiful and soothing natural scenery stretch out in the background grounded the ruminative tone in a visually engrossing way for me. But like I said before, Zhao’s style feels like it’s fighting with the MCU formula to come out on top, which is why I’m left wanting the film to probe its themes of genocide, religion, and purpose even more deeply. In addition, while I found Thena and Gilgamesh’s relationship to be touching, I was disappointed by the shallow approach to Thena and her Mahd Wy’ry. We know the MCU is capable of thoughtfully addressing mental health thanks to WandaVision and its exploration of grief, so it would have been satisfying to see Eternals give Thena’s arc the same treatment. Without getting into spoilers, though, let me tell you that I was fascinated by the depiction of each Eternal’s personal perspective on humanity and how it’s affected them over their lives.
This is a relatively small element of Eternals, but I think the creature design for the Deviants isn’t too shabby. Their appearance reminds me of those medical textbook illustrations of the human body sans skin, leaving all its muscles exposed. The tentacles that sprout and writhe from the Deviants add to the interesting visuals. But I take issue with their primarily gray color scheme. In general, beasts of the white, gray, and black variety have grown dull for me over time, and I much prefer vividly hued monsters.
As for Ramin Djawadi’s score, I found it to be yet another so-so piece that blends in with the generic music that comprises most of the MCU catalogue. While the main theme has the tiniest bit of a catchy beat, it’s nowhere near the level of the Loki, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Avengers scores by Natalie Holt, Tyler Bates, and Alan Silvestri, respectively. I certainly would have expected something much more memorable from the composer of Game of Thrones’s sweeping medieval accompaniments, Westworld’s classical covers of songs like “Paint It, Black” and “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” and Reminiscence’s electric guitar-backed taste for sultry tunes.
Of course, I can’t review this film without bringing up the white cishet men who tore it apart solely because of its inclusiveness. It boasts the most racially diverse cast by far out of all the MCU installments. It features Makkari, the superhero franchise’s first Deaf character played by a Deaf actor (you may remember Ridloff from Sound of Metal), which is great to see after watching fellow Deaf actor Alaqua Cox play Maya Lopez/Echo on Hawkeye. It’s directed by an Asian woman. And it includes a kiss between Phastos and his husband, marking this as the first explicitly onscreen depiction of a queer romance involving one of the leads. It isn’t offscreen, it isn’t implied through dialogue, and it doesn’t revolve around minor characters. Finally, just finally. But the white cishet male critics who were repulsed by such positive representation had to barge in and reviewbomb the movie, right? They felt like it was their duty to assault Eternals in the same way that they assaulted John Boyega, Kelly Marie Tran, and Brie Larson. Now, I actually don’t believe they’re the only reason for Eternals becoming a critical flop and attaining the lowest critic score on Rotten Tomatoes. The movie itself does have its major flaws. But that doesn’t mean the white cishet men played a merely negligible role in the outcome. After all, if Iron Man 2, which I consider to be the MCU’s worst movie, can land at 72% on RT, how would the white cishet male critics have responded to Eternals if it was filled with their own mediocre kind?
Should Eternals have been a Disney+ series instead? That’s the argument that plenty of viewers have used, reasoning that an eight- or ten-episode show would have given the characters and their interconnected stories more time to breathe. This could have been a suitable approach, although the hypothetical success is by no means guaranteed. As much as I’ve generally enjoyed the MCU shows, none of them have been pristine, especially in regard to the oft-flawed finales.
There is the question of whether Zhao’s latest picture will undergo a renaissance sometime down the line and garner much more appreciation for the path it laid down for the MCU. Honestly, I could see that happening. I certainly hope Disney will be inclined to let tinker with its superhero formula some more and let its directors ply their ambition. A part of me is afraid they’ll hold up Eternals as the proof they need to go, “See, this is what happens when we let our movies get weird and diverse.” Personally, I want more of these movies. I want Chloé Zhao to direct the Eternalssequel. I want the MCU to be courageous enough to take risks, not all of which will be successful. Obviously, that’s a possible consequence whenever you go off the beaten path. The upside, however, is that the franchise could turn out something as fresh and moving as Guardians of the Galaxy.
As for those two post-credit scenes, you can hear my thoughts on them and the rest of the movie on the next episode of my podcast. Overall, an admirable amount of beauty and ambition resides within the heart of Eternals, but the messiness of its script precludes it from achieving masterpiece status.
Until next time, stay healthy and stay strong!
Windup score: 58/100