The Immortal Price
Eternals is the most different of any Marvel Studios film that has come before, and when your 30 films deep into the cinematic universe you will need something fresh to keep things from being stale and formulaic. The latest film in the MCU has the potential to be one of the best, with an Academy Award winning director in Chloe Zhao, a talented and diverse cast, and poignant themes about humanity. However, Eternals has a case of mistaken identity where it tries to be a high concept thinking piece exploring themes of immortality and humanity’s innate struggles but falls coy to big CGI action sequences and lofty exposition that has plagued the franchise in its worst films. It’s a unique problem to have, one that no other MCU film has had in the past making a little difficult to judge where this film lies in terms of the ranking. At its best, the film tends to be a beautifully shot and mature film about the interactions with humanity and at its worst its a dull, exposition-heavy, and CGI-laden journey that together make it a pretty unremarkable film. Its reliably entertaining like any Marvel film, but overall its better to wait for this to come on Disney+ as opposed to sitting 2 hours and 40 minutes in the theater.
The film follows a group of demi-god like beings called Eternals who were sent to Earth over 7000 thousand years ago to protect humanity from an evil race of creatures known as the Deviants. As history unfolds, the Eternals place in human and MCU history becomes more clear as their mission to fight and destroy the Deviants spans thousands of years and many different historical events that have shaped the course of Earth itself. After believing the Deviants to be gone at some point, they split up and embark on their own individual journeys among Earth and find their purpose. But when the threat re-emerges and the looming doom of the planet is at stake, the Eternals will have to regroup to fight insurmountable odds.
If the plot reads more mature and dense than previous Marvel films, it’s because it absolutely is. This is a slower paced, more methodical, and higher thinking piece than anything that Marvel has done in the past. While that is certainly to be praised for the film attempting to pursue a bold new direction, it doesn’t fully commit to the ideas it presents. A story spanning thousands of years across many different significant events in the human history is an amazing concept, one that could even be masterful and raise the bar for the franchise. When Zhao decides to go in deep and ruminate on the slower, more intricate thinking pieces of its concept, the film tends to thrive in its story. But when the film tries to be a big budget action Marvel movie that we have seen so many times before it holds it back from realizing its potential.
This could be helped with a diverse cast of characters each with a unique set of different abilities, struggles, and desires but the film never properly develops its characters for the audience to be invested. The film is more or less centered around Gemma Chan’s Sersei and her interactions with humanity, but Richard Madden, Kumail Nanjiani (who is insanely funny), Angelina Jolie, and many more also help round out the impressive cast. Each of these 10 characters form the Eternals team, but none of them are developed beyond what the film initially presents them to be. Madden’s Ikaris is a Superman like being who is the strongest of the team, Jolie’s Thena is a fierce warrior struggling with her memories, Chan’s Sersie is quiet yet empathetic. Each of these characters have a personality but none of them truly shine among the team, and by the time the film reaches its conclusions character motivations and personalities are suddenly given forced development to evoke some sort of emotional response. It’s an impossible task to balance such a wide variety of characters and give them all due justice, but its also sad to see the result is a lack of in depth insight beyond their initial presentation.
What can be said about the characters in more of a positive light, is that any audience member can walk away from this film feeling as if they connected with a different character. For me that was Druig, whose ability is to control the minds of humans and have them to do what he commands. He wants to use that power for good, influencing humanity to stray away from war and destruction and instead towards peace and resolution. Seeing Druig wrestle with whether he should make that choice and stop all wars was fascinating and highlighted to me the film’s greatest strengths. Similarly, each of the 10 members has a different perspective on humanity that influences that choices that they make. Seeing the team wrestle with those feelings and emotions and the dichotomy of what they can do versus what they should do was extremely fascinating to me. While the characters themselves don’t have a lot of personality, depth, and development to them, the conversations and struggles they have in comparison to leaving with humans almost makes up for that aspect.
Eternals explores themes of choice and free will, the evolutionary impact of humanity, and believing in the best of others. When Zhao wants to convey these themes both through conversations and introspective character moments, she absolutely rises to that occasion. There’s a thought out there that if humans were to move to another planet and change the evolutionary trajectory of that planet, potentially depriving of its resources or acceleration it to greatness, should they? Do humans or any extra terrestrial race for that matter have the right to influence an environment so drastically. That’s a question that’s at the heart and center of this movie and the slower more nuanced moments where its being explore made this an extremely engaging and thought provoking mental experiment in the dangers of humanity. On the flip side, we also see the characters wrestle with their influence on humanity and whether humans are destined for chaos and destruction or can they be something better. I love seeing these themes, especially in something like a Marvel movie where it would never be the right medium to explore such a high concept.
However, that exploration of themes is bogged down by the fact that it is , in fact, still a Marvel movie. There are many instances where the film jarringly switches from its high concept thinking piece to big CGI action of Ikaris shooting lasers out of his face or having big CGI aliens appear. Marvel movies tend to have that big budget action packed feel to them, but I never felt like that was in line with the tone of what the film was initially going for. There seems to be two conflicting tones and ideas of what this film should’ve been. I don’t think blending the two together was a smart choice and it should have sticked to its guns on the slower more methodical thought experiment and move away from big action set pieces.
Furthermore, the film is bogged down with exposition heavy scenes that drag out the run time. We learn about the plot through characters explaining things over and over again rather than experiencing the impact of that stakes through the characters. While some exposition is needed to introduce 10 new characters audiences has never heard of, I definitely believe more visual storytelling could have happened especially when you have Chloe Zhao at the helm. The exposition become tired and boring so much so that I started checking my watch during these sequences, a first for me in a Marvel film. This hurts the film’s overall pacing as well when you have so much exposition that will easily put audiences to sleep. This is further exacerbated by a lack of character development, making the audience feel minimally invested in what’s going on. The film easily could have cut back on the exposition, developed its characters and themes more, and cut the runtime down to make this a more manageable watch.
Etnerals is definitely setting up for a bigger role in the MCU moving forward, and this introduction serves as an intriguing yet often bland overview of what will happen moving forward. The concept of Etnerals is more exciting than its actual execution, and I wish the film just stayed the course in doing something different rather than trying to fit the mold. When its being introspective and challenging the audience with deeper questions, the film excells! Unfortunately, those moments don’t happen too often in a Marvel film making it feel like its trying to have its cake and eat it too. The characters and plot could have used a little bit more work, but I appreciate the overall themes and messages that were at least attempted at, even if not quite to the level it should have been. I wouldn’t recommend you go see this in theaters just yet and would wait for Disney+. Hopefully, when the Eternals do return, it will have a little more impact and meat to it that’ll have us invested for the long run.