Eternals is a flawed, somewhat frustrating film that contains some of the most interesting scenes in the MCU, swinging big and often missing, but nevertheless, undeserving of Marvel’s first “rotten” score on Rotten Tomatoes.
The movie features a massive cast, diverse and incredibly talented, but few manage to distinguish themselves from the crowd. Two of the main characters, Sersi (Gemma Chan) and Ikaris (Richard Madden) are completely absent of personality, while some of the side-characters prove unexpectedly endearing; I particularly liked Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) and Gilgamesh (Ma Dong-Seok), two of the most human out of the group of emotionally distant aliens, standing out despite their lack of screentime.
Another standout is Druig (Barry Keoghan), the most conflicted Eternal, who arguably has the most interesting storyline, and Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), whose narcissism and sense of humor pretty much carries the film, despite not being present during the third act, due to a philosophical disagreement that doesn’t seem to gel with the character’s personal convictions, at all.
Eternals is one of Marvels oddest experiments, a meandering, angst-ridden story with far too many characters and not enough personality; the film is imbued with a sensation best described as “weightless gravity,” hitting the audience over the head with a series of tragedies that are difficult to care about.
From the beginning, the film is hampered by its own history, with the characters having to explain why they never bothered to fight Thanos, or do anything heroic beyond killing Deviants, the shiny super-predators who provide fodder for action scenes.
A team of superhumans cursed with immortality, doomed to watch mankind make terrible mistakes, is a great idea with wobbly execution, that even leads to unintentional hilarity; I laughed out loud when one of the Eternals stands in the ruins of Hiroshima, lamenting how humanity has misused his technology (it goes without saying that historical atrocities feel incredibly out-of-place in a universe of talking raccoons and magic space rocks).
There’s also the tragic fate of Sprite (Lia McHugh), an adult doomed to remain a perpetual child, which was a magnificently disturbing idea in Interview With The Vampire, but here … just feels kind of goofy; there’s a similar feeling to the madness of Thena (Angelina Jolie), in that there is indeed an interesting problem, conceptually, but said problem is never fleshed-out enough for the audience to care.
Eternals is really bad at being poignant, and not great at being funny, but nevertheless, there’s a lot to like; the mythology of the god-like Celestials is explained, and the tragic purpose of the Eternals (and planet Earth itself) is revealed, giving both a surprisingly nihilistic origin. It’s all fascinating worldbuilding, if you like that sort of thing, although the film feels very distant from other Marvel movies, with the occasional reference to the Avengers the only strand connecting this story to MCU canon.
Director Chloé Zhao’s sweeping landscapes and more subtle use of CGI results in one of Marvel’s most beautiful and visually distinctive films. However, I don’t believe her naturalistic style was really the right choice for this movie (the original Eternals comics are pretty spectacular, featuring Jack Kirby’s gaudy, blocky, biomechanical artwork, which inspired the colorful aesthetic of Thor: Ragnarok).
Like most Marvel movies, Eternals should have taken a cue from Ragnarok, visually and tonally – the weight of the Eternal’s many responsibilities and tragedies could have been balanced out by the sheer absurdity of their very existence; there’s a lot of humor to be found in existential dread.
Overall, Eternals feels, oddly enough, like a live-action adaption of a dense anime series – there’s way too much stuff squished together, with a few standout moments of awe-inspired weirdness.
In fact, there’s a strange similarity between Marvel comics and the animated series Dragon Ball Z, in the sense that enemies just keep scaling up and up, each powerful new opponent putting the previous to shame, until the heroes are essentially fighting gods. We can see some of that here, with scenes featuring the Celestial Arishem, an all-powerful being of creation and destruction – when his true size is finally revealed, he’s quite a sight to behold.
However, I think that Marvel made a mistake by not featuring any familiar characters face such an opponent; part of the fun of Dragon Ball Z is seeing beloved characters evolve, facing greater and greater threats; Thor and Doctor Strange could surely do with a Celestial at some point in their storylines.
I don’t think Eternals deserves the title of Marvel’s first “rotten” movie (Thor: The Dark World, Captain Marvel, and Ant-Man and the Wasp could all be crowned the worst, depending on your perspective), but I can certainly see why critics were disappointed.
With Eternals, Marvel has stumbled trying to tell a more serious story, but nonetheless, there’s something fascinating about the failure.