On paper it’s an intriguing idea – take a generally unfamiliar Marvel Comics Jack Kirby creation, married to a soon to be Oscar winning director, mix in some key ‘Game of Thrones’ actors and the show’s composer, and see what happens. This interesting mix of talent and source material had the potential to be either a transcendent piece of art or a colossal disaster. Perhaps the biggest surprise regarding Marvel’s ‘Eternals’ is that it turns out to be neither – rather, the movie consists of a conventional meandering narrative with too many characters, whose excessive running time is really felt on first viewing. ‘Eternals’ is not a bad film, it’s just not overly compelling – a collection of ideas not fully realized to their potential.
‘Eternals’ opens with an expository scroll that teases a superhero epic beginning at the dawn of man. It’s no coincidence that the Eternals’ ship (these immortal beings are not from Earth) evokes the impossibly stark lines of the monolith from ‘2001’ (the screenwriters have cited Kubrick’s masterpiece as inspiration). In the opening sequence, a sleekly clad cadre of super-powered beings, led by Salma Hayek’s Ajak, fend off CGI beasties who are attacking a group of pre-historic humans. It’s a busy scene with some inspired elements like the presentation of each Eternals’ power and their assured banter, even though the threat is less than inspired (the Deviants are little more than gooey blobs of amorphous tendrils in the shape of predatory animals). Interspersed throughout the film are flashback scenes that intend to develop the various characters and their influence on mankind through the ages.
The main story is set in present day MCU, which means it’s post-Thanos’ snap, and ‘Endgame’ return. Centering on Gemma Chan’s Sersi, an antiquities expert working in a London museum, the action kicks off immediately with the reappearance of a monstrous Deviant, which she and fellow Eternal, Sprite (played by a teenage Lia McHugh – yes, this is an adult trapped in a young woman’s body subplot circa 1994’s “Interview With a Vampire”) attempt to fend off. Unfortunately this happens in the presence of Sersi’s current beau, Dane Whitman, and the scene is punctuated by the return of her long, long, long lost love, Ikaris. That these two vying for her affection are also played by Kit Harington and Richard Madden, creating a de facto ‘Game of Thrones’ reunion, is not lost on an audience awash in intellectual property. As the Deviants are supposed to be extinct courtesy of the retired Eternals, this development serves as the narrative propulsion / re-entry / reunion of this band of anti-interventionists.
It would seem like a great setup, and many of the personalities and actors that make up ‘Eternals’ are generally interesting, but the leads at the heart of this story lack the big, compelling personalities of the MCU’s best. As a result, the story feels inert, albeit with sprinklings of excitement from Kumail Nanjiani’s Kingo (Eternal who used his idle time to become a Bollywood star throughout the decades), Bryan Tyree Henry’s Phastos (the techie Eternal who settled down to have a human family in the movie’s only bit of emotional connection), and Barry Keoghan’s Druig (an Eternal with the power to control minds, a talent used in the film’s most challenging and interesting ways). Unfortunately the successful nuggets can’t overcome the sum of the film’s parts, especially when taking in account the talent of ‘Eternals’ main driving force, director Chloe Zhao. Up until this point, the Oscar winner has specialized in presenting very specific societal niches with nuance and no small dose of beauty, as she did with the wanderers of ‘Nomadland’. In hindsight, her unique touch of intimacy presented with some degree of detachment may be what keeps the audience from fully engaging with the aloof characters presented in ‘Eternals’. Therein lies the biggest problem, as both on screen and on the page, these godlike beings and those they serve may not translate well into a Marvel Universe grounded in relatable heroes with clear goals . . .
Directed By: Chloe Zhao
Written By: Chloe Zhao, Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo & Kaz Firpo
Running Time: 156 min.
* * (out of four stars) -OR- C