Well folks, here we are, back in the Marvel Cinematic Universe again. Mere months after the release of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, which itself was preceded by Black Widow, and just weeks after the conclusion of the TV series, What If?, Marvel Studios invites us to return for yet another new adventure.
This new adventure is The Eternals – a big budget epic from director Chloé Zhao. The movie stars Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Salma Hayek, and Angelina Jolie, and tells the story of a group of immortal beings who reside in secret on Earth.
Centuries ago, the Eternals were sent to our planet in order to safeguard humanity from monstrous creatures known as the Deviants. Their task was to watch over the human race, without interfering in any major conflicts, all the while removing any Deviant threat that might emerge.
After completing their mission, the group remained on Earth. They stayed here as the centuries passed, all the while awaiting further instructions from their master, Arishem – a seemingly omnipotent being known as a Celestial.
With nothing much to do, each member of the Eternals assimilates themselves into day-to-day life, finding their own little niche along the way. That is until a new Deviant arrives to disrupt their peaceful existence, and bring to their attention an extinction-level threat.
Now, I know this gets said quite often when it comes to Marvel movies, but I’m going to say it again and say it very clearly: THE ETERNALS IS VERY DIFFERENT TO EVERY OTHER MARVEL MOVIE THAT HAS COME BEFORE. This is not a film which easily slots in alongside the likes of Iron Man (2008) or Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) – this is a much different beast, with a very different feel and approach.
I expect this movie will also be a very divisive Marvel movie. Some audiences will come out of it feeling somewhat positive, as though it is a refreshing change from what has come before, while others will feel disappointed, and maybe even a little bored by the whole thing.
I fall somewhere in the middle. I enjoyed this movie, and I found much to like about it. However, it has issues, and despite its best efforts, it misses the mark a little.
The Eternals is a movie in which its primary goal seems to be setting out a lot of lore. This is a world-building picture, with a great deal of information to get through, and boy does it throw info at the screen.
The film runs for just over two-and-a-half-hours, and every second of its runtime can be felt. It suffers quite significantly with pacing issues, especially during the early part of the movie, and the first hour-and-a-half is incredibly slow.
The reason for this slow pace is because of how much exposition it works through during this period of the movie. The film opens with onscreen text to set up some initial details, then moves its way through info dump after info dump, before finally rewarding the audience with yet more endless talking.
Whenever the film seems as if it is done with its exposition, WHAM(!), it hits the audience with more information regarding characters and backstory. And while this is happening, the story zips back and forth between different time periods and different locations, making it all a bit of a jumble.
And a jumble is perhaps how best to describe this movie. Not only does this film introduce a wealth of new characters – ten Eternals in total – it also has to set up the plot, find space for a couple of side-characters, and tick off a few trademark Marvel-isms. Yeah, I know I said The Eternals is very different to previous Marvel movies, and it is, but it simply wouldn’t be a Marvel movie without some humour, a couple of references to the wider MCU, and two credit scenes.
All of this means The Eternals has a lot to cram in, and it needs the audience on board at every step of the way. Unfortunately, it seems to forget that in order for the audience to stay on side it needs to offer suitable levels of action to balance out the dialogue.
This is where the movie falls short. There are action scenes, and they are pretty decent, but they are simply outweighed by the sheer amount of talking that takes place.
The action scenes also fall victim to the odd decision to film them in the dark. The first two major fight sequences take place either at night or in dank surroundings.
I’ve got no major issues with night fights, but when you’re asking the audience to sit through a hefty amount of exposition, rewarding all that patience with something bright and breezy would certainly act as a good counterbalance. Because that counterbalance doesn’t come, everything feels like a bit of a slog, and all that darkness is rather downbeat, and that’s a real shame.
In fact, there is a fairly depressing note about this whole movie. The majority of the film looks quite bleak, the plot involves the potential decimation of the human race, and those good ol’ Marvel gags that are chucked in here and there, largely fall a little flat.
The whole thing feels just a bit off. The film doesn’t fit the Marvel template, and while that is a good thing (I’ll explain why in a moment), it means that it takes until the final hour for things to start slotting into place.
This final hour involves plenty of action – this time in some daylight – as well as some huge ramifications for the MCU. These ramifications raise the stakes considerably, and set in motion various ideas that I’m sure will play out in many movies to come.
Many Eternals movies to come? I’m not so sure.
Whether this movie is a huge hit or not, I’m not certain there will be another Eternals film. This whole movie feels as if it is here simply to set up a bunch of new characters, create some new story beats for other films, and widen the audience’s knowledge of the MCU. It does not seem to be about kick-starting endless sequels.
However, that is not to say The Eternals is a film to be overlooked. This is a Marvel epic. It is a film which is about something; with interesting themes and likeable characters; and with a story that is told across a grand scale.
Something which perhaps doesn’t come across in the trailers, or perhaps even the marketing for this movie, is just how much of an epic this film is. This isn’t a small-scale origin story, the conflict in this film borders on Avengers level threat.
The Eternals is grand. It has a huge vision and one specifically suited to the big screen. This is a story which should be driving audiences into cinemas, so I really hope that people are getting that vibe from the advertising for this film.
Now, earlier I mentioned The Eternals doesn’t fit the template of the standard Marvel movie and I said this is a good thing. It’s a good thing because this film pushes into enough new directions that I didn’t come away feeling as though this should have been a television show instead of a movie.
Marvel Studios is currently in the business of developing various movie and TV projects, and has to decide what will work best for each medium. Without doubt, the right decision was made for where to place The Eternals, because this is a big screen story through and through.
A problem I had with the two previous Marvel movies, Black Widow and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, is that neither film quite felt ‘movie worthy’. In an age where Marvel is pumping out countless mini-series on Disney+ (WandaVision, Loki, etc), I felt that those two movies could have easily played better if reworked as shows.
This isn’t me knocking the shows – I love what Marvel/Disney are doing on television right now – it’s more me saying that unless Marvel is doing something huge, then I can’t see why it doesn’t just put its heroes on TV. While I liked both Black Widow and Shang-Chi, I do think that both movies never quite hit the high watermark of the MCU. And although The Eternals presents more of a bumpy ride than either of those two movies, it at least tries something more experimental.
This film gets points for effort, and a big ‘well done’ for its ambition. No matter its shortcomings, it really does try to deliver something new.
The Eternals also benefits from its cast, who are all very good in their roles. Not every character stands out as well as I would have liked, but the actors give it their all.
The movie also gets to display some truly impressive shots, beginning with some beautiful backdrops. I know I bemoaned the often bleak aesthetic, as well as those dark action scenes, but when the movie is able to show the brighter side of the world, it really shines.
Director Chloé Zhao is no stranger for bringing stunning landscapes to the big screen, and her recent work on Nomadland won her the Best Director Award at this year’s Academy Awards ceremony. Here she is again bringing some fantastic imagery to the screen and she sure knows how to make the most of this when given the opportunity.
Zhao also knows how to make the more fantastical elements of The Eternals look damn good on screen. Hats off to her, as well as the visual effects team on this movie, because wow, this movie delivers!
The Eternals is based on a comic of the same name by legendary artist, Jack Kirby. Kirby’s devotion to his ideas, as well as his mark on the comic book industry can never be overstated, and this film does its very best to bring a fraction of his talent to the screen.
The visuals for the Celestial being known as Arishem look as if they have been ripped straight from Kirby’s sketchbook. This is his work on screen, beautifully recreated, and to a comic book fan like me it is truly mesmerising.
I expect the Eternals and the Celestials to factor into the MCU quite significantly in the coming years and I for one can’t wait to see what else is on the horizon. More impressive visuals like this are very welcome, and more of Kirby’s work on screen too, please.
In addition to the visuals, The Eternals serves up a story which feels rather timely, with themes and ideas that line up with what’s cropping up in the news right now. This is a movie about potential extinction, and watching this all play out in light of the ongoing discussions about climate change and COP26, you can’t help but feel it really is hitting a different beat to what one might expect from a Marvel movie.
So, all of this is good. There really is a lot going on in this film, and so much to like. However, it simply can’t shake the aforementioned issues with pace and exposition, as well as some of the downbeat elements, and this is what stops it from becoming the movie it should be.
Last month, I berated Dune for being depressing, bogged down in lore, and at times very boring, and while I found The Eternals to be a much more enjoyable experience, they both suffer from similar trappings. I feel the desire to get this property on the screen, and to make it a little different, has resulted in something which is a bit of a mixed bag, that gets too caught up in its own self-importance.
For me, The Eternals takes big and impressive strides, and gets a big pat on the back for what it attempts to do, but as a movie-going experience, I’m on the fence. I came away liking some parts, and being less interested in others – and this is coming from someone who has been heavily invested in the MCU since the beginning, and who has been a Marvel Comics fan for over thirty years.
I always feel that Marvel Studios has this great knack for taking characters that are less popular, or less appealing, and turning them into the hot new thing. The studio did it with Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) and with Black Panther (2018), as well as various other characters.
I don’t believe this same magic has been used on The Eternals. I certainly came away feeling more invested in these characters, but I wasn’t wowed in the same way.
I’ve watched both Guardians of the Galaxy and Black Panther many, many times, and consider these two films to be amongst my favourite titles in the MCU. After today’s screening of The Eternals, I don’t consider this film to be a favourite, and I can’t see me rewatching it all that often either.
The Eternals serves up some good entertainment, lots of ambition, and some strong ideas, but it doesn’t quite land as well as it should and moves too slowly. I expect some will love it, others less so, but most will find themselves unsure of what to make of it.