Here it finally is, the film touted as the latest, and most radical, entry into the MCU to date. This is the one that jumpstarts a whole new chapter of cinematic superhero lore, and will answer the question whether an auteur director, who just won the Oscar for Best Director this year for an indie film – Chloé Zhao for Nomadland – can create enough of an impact, and take us on a new Marvel journey. Of late, several of the MCU fans had been complaining about how tired the formula of quippy superheroes immersed in action sequences, was becoming. They were clamoring for something more serious, darker, and even more adult – which to me sounded like the old scenario of wanting what the other side has, i.e. what DC has been doing with their Batman & Superman films.
But of course, hiring Chloé Zhao, and not giving her free rein, or making sure she still retains enough of the established Marvel formula, will result in something half-baked – and that certainly is what “The Eternals” feels like. You can sense the tug of war happening between the Director and the studio. But that isn’t necessarily bad. It results in some strong changes to the expected template; and yet, there are enough familiar beats to the film.
One scene seems to encapsulate that – there’s a love scene between Sersi (Gemma Chan) and Ikaris (Richard Madden), and they’re actually naked. You may think it’s about time, as how many MCU films have we watched with all these buff bodies in skin tight costumes, sexual tension filling the ether, and there’s really never been any hot sex shown. Did we need a Chloé to insist on this? But then, it’s shot from the waist up, and as chaste as you can make it. Guess we still had to keep the kids in the theaters coming, as they’re a major segment of the box office revenues of Marvel films.
I mention this early on, as it’s not really a spoiler. So what do you need to know heading into the theater? “The Eternals” are a race of immortal beings, all with superhuman powers, and they’ve been living in secret here on Earth for more than thousands of years. Originally formed by a Supreme Being to battle the Deviants, they need to reunite today, as it would seem the Deviants are back, and they’re paving the way for some momentous happening that spells the end of the human race.
What follows is exposition, and our getting to know each of the Eternals, what power each is in possession of, and how they’ve survived through the centuries, staying under the radar. I mentioned Sersi and Ikaris, and to be honest, they carry much of the heavy-lifting. And I don’t know how good that is, given that the other Eternals seem just as potentially interesting, but only get their chance to shine much later in the film, or not at all.
Salma Hayek as Ajak is sorely underused, and Angelina Jolie as Thena spends more than half her screen time not even knowing who she is. Lauren Ridloff as Makkari, and Barry Keoghan as Druig are truly intriguing, but hardly make an impression. Lia McHugh as Sprite, Kumail Nanjani as Kingo, and Don Lee as Gilgamesh fare better in terms of screen time and presence. And of course, much has been written about Brian Tyree Henry as Phastos, the first acknowledged gay superhero – but that’s brought on past the mid-point of this overlong film.
Also, sorely missing is a strong presence in the villain department. The head of the Deviants eventually makes the case for some moral complexity – but by the time this is broached, I doubt much of the audience cares, or are even invested in the Deviant’s motivation.
Despite the critics generally panning the film, the MCU fans have come out in droves, supporting the film globally. And to be fair, beyond the fact that there are those who just need to watch every MCU output, there is enough to enjoy in the film. You can wish there was better editing, that some of the action scenes were better lit, and that some of the other Eternals had more ‘in the spotlight’ time; but you won’t leave the theater feeling cheated of strong storytelling, and you’ll have been delighted by some excellent end-credit Easter eggs.
“The Eternals” opens in theaters Dec. 1, and some cinemas will have an advanced screening, open to the public, on Nov. 30.