Eternals Won’t Please Everyone, But It’s Absolutely Worth Watching (Non-Spoiler Review)
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is one of the most successful franchises of all time. By now, I’d be stunned if anyone who likes movies hasn’t seen at least one or two. Many film fans see everything Marvel puts out, with many trying to see the projects as soon as possible to avoid spoilers. This is all to say; we know what to expect from these movies. There’s a formula. It often gets placed into a different genre, say a spy thriller for The Winter Soldier or a sci-fi comedy for Guardians of the Galaxy, but at the end of the day you know the movie will culminate in a giant blowout action set piece. You know the movies will feature quips aplenty, easy to root against villains, and a familiar color palette. Much has been made about how Eternals breaks from that format and is wildly different for the MCU. That’s *mostly* true.
Chloé Zhao, the Academy Award Winning director of Nomadland, was always going to bring something different to the table. She usually works in a sandbox that is (comparatively) quite small, intimate, and character driven. Add to this that she’s dealing with deep cut, obscure characters; and you’ve got a critically acclaimed filmmaker with a rope long enough to do her own thing. She definitely took advantage of the freedom to make something more unique, but make no mistake, it still features plenty of MCU hallmarks. To be honest, it’s when the movie reminds you that it’s tied to the larger MCU that it works the least for me.
That doesn’t stop me from actually enjoying this movie a great deal. From the very beginning, and yes I mean the first seconds, the movie establishes its own tempo. We get a cold open (a scene that in this case takes place before the Marvel logo) that gives us key backstory quickly. It may be jarring for some people, as what it sets out to establish will reshape how we see this universe. It’s painting on such a large canvas that it can feel distanced from all the other stories. It makes many of them feel so tiny, and when MCU references come up they can feel insignificant to what the current film is dealing with. As a byproduct of that, everything in the movie works best when it’s fully focused on telling the story of the Eternals themselves and the issues they must confront.
This often does feel like a well done science fiction flick that once upon a time would have been made as its own franchise. It reminds me of when movies like Independence Day and Armageddon could get made simply because a studio trusted a filmmaker to deliver on a blockbuster concept. Part of me really does wish this was its own separate franchise the way that Nolan’s Batman trilogy was. It works as is, but you can feel how it may have taken some bolder swings if it didn’t have to fit in with what a bunch of other movies (and now TV shows) have already established. I know this is based on comic books and that comes with certain expectations, but I would have been fine with less action, or at least with it spaced out even more than it is.
This movie isn’t anywhere near as action packed as Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, but it still has plenty of CGI throw downs. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed these set pieces once they got going. However, there was a time or two where I was engaged in the discussions and character beats that were taking place, only for an action beat to begin and for me to feel disappointed and be taken out of the moment. In one instance it even felt a bit abrupt, as if the filmmakers strongly felt they needed to get some action in or they’d lose some of the audience. Again, once these got going I found them entertaining since they are well directed, easy to follow, and give different characters in the ensemble the spotlight. The action in the beginning of the movie and during the climax felt the most natural. Yes, that means like most superhero movies this film barrels towards a big action climax.
One of the things that kept me most engaged is the narrative flow of the film and how it reveals the overarching plot (which the trailers don’t give away). Zhao uses a lot of flashbacks, set during different points in history, and at first this felt a bit off for me. We’re just beginning to be introduced to the characters and their current dynamics in modern day before we suddenly taken back to the past. It can feel a tad disconnected at first, but by the halfway mark it all started to click really well and this method began to pay off through the rest of the film. This is because there are a few reveals that play more effectively this way. Also, once you understand how much ground there is to cover, you realize it would have been a mess to tell this story in linear fashion. The scope of these characters’ lives is incredibly vast, and it’s a big ensemble to boot.
The leads me to one of best things about Eternals: the cast. There’s no weak link here. Kumail Nanjiani as Kingo is a major standout, as he provides the bulk of the film’s humor in a very organic way. He’s probably the most typical type of MCU hero in Eternals, but he also fits right in when the characters are having heavy debates about humanity. One of the best arcs in the film belongs to Angelina Jolie as Thena. Her role in the story is intriguing for a multitude of reasons, and Jolie doesn’t miss a beat. Her physical gifts go beyond the action scenes, as she reminds us how much depth she can display with her eyes alone. It’s what she can express when saying very little or even nothing that really impresses.
I have to bring up Don Lee here, who plays Gilgamesh. He shares many of his scenes with Jolie, and their dynamic is one of the most compelling. My only complaint in regards to these two is I wanted much more them together. Lee has a warmth and empathy that radiates off the screen, a quality that is greatly needed for his role. Brian Tyree Henry as Phastos is sure to be among people’s favorites, as the emotion of his character comes through really well, and his motivations are clear and relatable. Other major standouts are Barry Keoghan as Druig and Lauren Ridloff as Makkari. They both surprised me and have highlight moments. If there are leads, they’re definitely Gemma Chan as Sersi and Richard Madden as Ikaris. They fill their roles well, and Madden especially gets a couple big emotional moments, but overall they’re the anchors of the film who allow others to shine. Sersi didn’t have as much personality when compared to the other characters, and with her having the most screentime that’s a bit of a bummer.
This also leads me to one of the weaknesses of the film. There are so many characters that there isn’t much time for all of their stories to get fleshed out as effectively as I’d like. This is where the film could have benefited from a longer runtime. I know…then you risk people complaining that it is too long. I’d counter that many people are going to say that anyway and that those who like the movie would have been fine with more time to create a better emotional connection. I felt invested in the characters, but I wasn’t as emotionally moved as I should have been at times. At several points I understood how characters were feeling, but wasn’t feeling their pain with them as much as I wanted to. I honestly think the best version of this story is a massive 3.5 hour epic or a six part miniseries. However, that wasn’t ever in the cards.
Another thing that the movie could have done better is the handling of the “Deviants.” These are the monsters the Eternals have been fighting for thousands of years. It’s their return that sets our story in motion. Are they the best MCU villains? Far from it. Are the they worst? Not even close. The villains here work well enough, and there are some fun developments/twists in the movie that keep them interesting enough. They’re not completely surface level thanks to some deep ideas that get introduced, but those themes are far from fully fleshed out. Again I would say: only so much you can do when covering them heroes, the destruction of all of humanity, several side characters, and lots of new lore in a 2.5 hour film. The biggest disappointment comes towards the end for me, as I don’t think the interesting ideas in relation to the Deviants get paid off. The set up being slow was fine, I just wanted more of it and for the emotionally weight of those themes to hit harder. I do very much like the “twists” in the story, though. One in particular really adds some much needed personal drama to the proceedings.
Even for those who won’t end up clicking with everything in the movie, I really have to imagine the story beats will still be interesting to them and create great conversation. It’s deserving of being seen on the biggest screens thanks to not only how well done it is on the technical side, but also so that the various reactions from an audience can be felt. I applaud Zhao and her team for making this the most intellectually thoughtful MCU movie so far. I was surprised how much it actually worked for me, but I would have still been glad to support this effort even if it didn’t work for me at all. Pushing this genre in different directions is the only way it will keep audiences engaged. Even if those new elements can turn off some viewers, the good news is there’s a ton of these properties, and many will play to many different tastes.
I think some of this same ground has been covered in other genre movies, but these themes about creation and questions about humanity have never been delved into like this in a major superhero movie until Eternals. Do I think it would have been better if it had been a self contained story? Yeah, I do. There are some scenes dedicated to setting up things to come. If this had been its own thing, that precious runtime could have gone into the main story, and without being so worried about the franchise of it all, there definitely could have been some bolder choices made towards the end. I would have loved to have seen this same story as a grand 3.5 hour sci-fi epic. I really do see shades of a total masterpiece in here. That being said, I appreciate this movie a lot, because movie studios today absolutely wouldn’t have made something like this if it didn’t tie directly into a massive franchise.
All that being said, I still find their addition to this superhero mega franchise fascinating. I’m beyond curious to see how they will mix these characters in with those who we already know. Obviously with it being an MCU film, we also have to talk about the credit scenes. I’m happy to report they are fun and definitely worth sticking around for, even if one has some pretty unacceptably bad CGI (it took me out of the scene and would have looked dated even ten years ago). Still, both the mid credits and end credits scene are sure to excite many fans about what’s next and send them off speculating.
In the end, this is a rock solid movie with a great score by Game of Thrones composer Ramin Djawadi, strong performances from the entire cast, and really beautiful cinematography from Ben Davis. Eternals doesn’t do everything perfectly, but it strives to be something unique for this franchise and largely succeeds. Its lofty ambitions set it up to be judged more harshly than many of the other Marvel flicks, but that was a risk worth taking. It won’t work for everyone, but it’s absolutely something you should check out for yourself.