Inspired by the 1970s fascination with aliens influencing human history (kicked off by bestselling book Chariots of the Gods), Marvel legend Jack Kirby’s Eternals has always been a tough nut to crack. How does Oscar-winner Chloe Zhao (Nomadland) fare in bringing the notoriously difficult concept to blockbuster life in the Marvel Cinematic Universe?
The film opens with onscreen text explaining the Eternals and their origins, before launching into a battle between the Eternals and their sworn enemies, the Deviants. Their battle leads both parties to Earth, where they battle across the centuries until the Deviants are wiped out. Their mission completed, team leader Ajak (Salma Hayek, Desperado, The Hitman’s Bodyguard), encourages the Eternals to spread out and live among the humans as best they can, until the time comes for them to return to their homeworld.
With some choosing to go off in isolation and others electing to indulge in the human experience, centuries pass in relative peace. That peace is shattered when a Deviant attack in present-day London and the murder of Ajak force the Eternals to reunite and confront a millennia-old conspiracy with star-spanning consequences for every life on Earth.
With great power
The inherent difficulty in bringing The Eternals to the screen lies, not so much in the complexity of the concept (see any episode of Ancient Aliens), nor in the size of its cast, but in the notion that, as one character points out, undying superpowered beings have existed on the planet since time immemorial, yet somehow stood aside for events such as Thanos’ infamous snap, and the Holocaust.
Author Neil Gaiman’s 2006 comic reboot wisely sidestepped this by giving the majority of the characters amnesia until modern times, but the film’s explanation that the Eternals were only ever supposed to act if Deviants were involved is something of a cop-out. Given the empathy and affection they display here (see Gemma Chan’s Sersi in the classroom), it is difficult to imagine them keeping their heads down over the MCU’s last few alien invasions.
While the Guardians of the Galaxy films showed that audiences are willing to watch multiple, lesser-known characters if they’re presented in a compelling manner, perhaps having ten main leads was a bridge too far. The Eternals has no lack of talented performers, from Hayek and Chan (Crazy Rich Asians, Captain Marvel), to Anjelina Jolie (Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Maleficent), Richard Madden (TV’s Bodyguard, Game of Thrones), Brian Tyree Henry (Godzilla V Kong ), Kumail Nanjiani (TV’s Silicon Valley), Don Lee (Train to Busan), and Kit Harrington (Game of Thrones), but none are as immediately engaging (or memorable) as Star-Lord and friends.
The only actor with a spark of life in her here is Hayek, whose Ajak plays double duty as team leader and mother hen. Her affection for her people and the humanity they protect is apparent in her every scene, and her character’s exit leaves a gap that the script never really gives Chan a chance to fill. As it is, Chan’s Sersei only really comes alive in her all-too-brief scenes with Harrington’s (mortal) Dane Whitman; the rest of the time, her face is locked into a single facial expression, whether she’s learning of the Eternals’ true purpose (in one of many, many exposition dumps), to facing down the literal end of the world. Jolie (as Thena) and Lee (as Gilgamesh) fare somewhat better, due to both performers delivering a surprisingly tender mental health subplot with grace, but with only so much screen time to go around, something had to give.
Who wants to live forever?
It’s a shame too, as the challenges of immortals attempting to live silently through the centuries have always been fascinating to see played out onscreen. As explored by the likes of Highlander, Interview with a Vampire, Only Lover s Left Alive, et al, questions of morality, identity, lust, legacy, and obligation, juxtaposed against the relentless march of time and the mortality of those around them, provide no end of storytelling opportunities. And all of that comes before we even get to the question of the role the Eternals played in the development of human technology, mythology, and polytheistic beliefs.
Unfortunately, the screenplay, co-written by Zhao, elects to spend more time on the world-ending aspects of the narrative, rather than the incredible stories she could have told of the Eternals’ lives on Earth. But with 25 Marvel movies preceding it, let’s face it, quippy costumed heroes taking on the end of reality is hardly something we haven’t seen before.
Show versus tell
This isn’t to say that film doesn’t make attempts, but while it spends inordinate amounts of time discussing Celestials and Deviants, it spends far less showing us any reason we should care about the ones trying to stop them. Any character-building here isn’t so much performed by the actors as it is spoon-fed to us through clunky expositional dialogue. Did we really need Nanjiani’s Kingo explaining how he’s spent the last century posing as a dynasty of Bollywood stars, when it could have been a fun montage or vignette? How about Phastos (Henry) moving on from the trauma of ushering in the atomic age to finding a nice man, settling down, and raising a child in the suburbs? Faring the worst is Sprite’s storyline, which had the potential to be the most heartbreaking of all. As the Eternal cursed with the outward appearance of a child, actor Lia McHugh’s (Songbird) attempts at pathos are effectively negated when her character’s entire unrequited love subplot is spelled out to us in dialogue to set up the finale.
Big screen visuals
On the action and visuals front, the film is topnotch, with details and characters popping off the big screen in vivid detail. Zhao and Ben Davis’ decision to shoot in real-world locations, versus the green screen soundstages that Marvel has become known for pays off, with several sequences here bursting with vibrancy and texture that modern blockbuster CGI has yet to effectively replicate. When the film does turn to CGI in the third act finale, the scale and stakes combine to deliver something that’s actually pretty awe-inspiring in scope. As to how or why none of Earth’s other heroes get involved, is, of course, a question best left undeclared.
Post credits (SPOILER WARNING!) tease
With Black Widow, Shang-Chi, and now, The Eternals, Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is well and truly underway. As this film ends on a cliffhanger, audiences will have to wait until next month’s Spider-Man: No Way Home to see which direction the multiversal saga (now encompassing films and TV) will go next, but in the meantime, we get to ponder on the ramifications of The Eternals’ mid- and post-credits scenes.
In the mid-credits scene, we are introduced (by way of a verbalized CV) to Eros (Harry Styles, Dunkirk), brother of Thanos, and his companion, Pip (Patton Oswalt, Ratatouille), as they join Thena (Jolie), Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) and Druig’s (Barry Keoghan) quest to retrieve the kidnapped Sersi, Phastos, and Kingo from the clutches of Arishem. With a cockeyed demeanor and an assured swagger, Eros looks to be a major player in the battles to come.
Following the credits, Harrington’s Dane decides to embrace his family heritage by opening a case containing the fabled Ebony Blade, before an offscreen voice asks him if he’s sure about what he’s about to do. The voice belongs to none of other than Mahershala Ali, who was revealed at San Diego Comic-Con 2019 to be joining the MCU as vampire hunter Blade.
What do vampires have in common with Celestials and Eternals? Only Kevin Feige knows for sure!
The bottom line
Chloe Zhao’s adaptation of one of Jack Kirby’s complicated characters doesn’t always succeed, as the filmmaker’s grounded sensibilities clash at times with the MCU’s established blockbuster template, but when it does, it packs in astonishing visuals with sides of the Marvel Universe that one can’t help but be intrigued by. Despite the great cast, there is a feeling of a missed opportunity to the proceedings. Nevertheless, it’s undeniable that there’s a great movie to be made with these characters, and when that story is finally ready to be told, one hopes it won’t take three hours to tell.
The Eternals opens in Philippine Cinemas on December 1