Well, they can’t all be winners. With the arrival of Chloé Zhao’s Eternals, somewhere Alan Taylor, director of Thor: The Dark World, is breathing a sigh of relief; he’s no longer responsible for the worst Marvel film.
The Eternals are a group of 10 alien superbeings who have hidden on Earth for the past 7000 years, fighting the monstrous Deviants on behalf of the Celestial (read: God) Arishem. Having seemingly defeated the Deviants, which are big CGI beasties of various forms, some 500 years ago, the Eternals have scattered. Now, the death of one of their number brings them back together to fight a Deviant resurgence. However, there’s something about their past they don’t know, and soon they’ll be fighting a bigger threat than they ever imagined.
Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Comics legend Jack Kirby’s cosmic nonsense filtered through a secret history/hidden magic lens that takes us from the depths of space to the splendour of ancient Babylon and more, with perhaps the most impressive cast Marvel has yet assembled filling out the roster of costume-clad demigods. Unfortunately, what we get is a slow, turgid, lifeless mess bereft of charm, personality, and momentum, yet obviously enamoured of its own sense of self-importance.
Eternals is a slog; clocking in at almost two and a half hours it does nothing to earn that running time, consisting mostly of info-dumps (I lost track of how many times the same plot, themes, and backstory were related to us by different characters at different times) and flashbacks that are meant to invest the film with a sense of sweep and grandeur, but instead are completely inert onscreen. I don’t know how you manage to make the sack of Tenochtitlan boring, but Zhao managed it.
Thematically, the source Eternals comics always struck me as religious metaphors, and here the characters are essentially Old Testament angels tasked with doing God’s dirty work (remember, it was an angel who slew all the first born of Egypt).
But Zhao and her team suppress that theme, reducing it mere plotting rather than invoking anything resembling awe. Indeed, given the scale of the film, it’s remarkable how pedestrian it all feels—maybe we’re all just a bit tired of the Big Existential Threats that so many of these cape flicks seem duty-bound to invoke?
Even on the interpersonal level, Eternals doesn’t work. These characters have almost no chemistry with each other. The millennia-long love affair between Sersi (Gemma Chan) and Ikaris (Richard Madden) fails to convince, and neither does Druig’s (Barry Keoghan) cynicism or Sprite’s (Lia McHugh) puckishness.
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The performance highlights are Korean star Ma Dong Seok as Gilgamesh and Angelina Jolie as Thena, the former caring for the latter as her mind fractures under the weight of thousands of years of memories; and Kumail Nanjiani as Kingo, an egotistical Eternal who has forged a career for himself as a Bollywood star in the last century. By the way, Nanjiani’s much-ballyhooed physical transformation for the role was in no way required—in costume, he simply looks like himself.
I’m pretty convinced that the cast were given almost no direction, leaving them to soldier on as best they can while the big cosmic plot unfurls around them. Keoghan flails, Angie and Ma bring it, poor Brian Tyree Henry (playing the MCU’s first openly gay hero Phastos) vacillates between killjoy misery and unsuccessful comic relief, and Salma Hayek as Eternals leader Ajak simply reads her lines. Chan, ostensibly the main protagonist, is given nothing to work with and her arc fails to engage us, while Madden is literally compared to Superman in the movie but never does anything to earn that apart from fly and shoot lasers out of his eyes.
Given Marvel’s top-down, studio-led approach to filmmaking they must take the weight of blame here, although it is incredible to me that Zhao can go from an Oscar win on Nomadland to this absolute mess. Perhaps she simply has no facility for the material or was hamstrung by the more constrained big budget working environment.
In any case, her gifts are largely absent from the screen. While Marvel has made a habit of taking emerging indie filmmakers and plugging them into their content machine, Zhao is the most high-profile and acclaimed director so far recruited, and there’s a fair chance this whole train wreck is down to director and studio pulling in different directions.
Whatever the case, Eternals is not worth your time. You may be tempted to check it out for yourself on the off chance I’m overstating the case, but I swear to you I am not. This is the nadir of the MCU thus far, and given the tag “The Eternals Will Return” that flashes up onscreen as the credits roll, does not bode well for the future.