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Eternals (2021)

Eternals Currently The Lowest Rated Marvel Movie on Rotten Tomatoes -  Disneyland News Today

DIRECTOR: Chloe Zhao

CAST: Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek, Kumail Nanjiani, Barry Keoghan, Brian Tyree Henry, Lia McHugh, Lauren Ridloff, Don Lee, Kit Harrington, Harish Patel

REVIEW:

In its ongoing quest to further expand its cinematic universe and prove there’s still fresh places to go and life left in the franchise post-Infinity War/Endgame, Eternals represents another risky departure by Marvel Studios, but while this worked for, say, Guardians of the Galaxy, this might represent a rare significant misstep by the studio which has seemed a virtual box office King Midas for the last decade plus. While not a complete failure—in fact, it has admirable qualities, though it ends up feeling somewhat less than the sum of its parts—Eternals is plagued with issues, some of which come from trying to fit it, like a square peg in a round hole, into the greater MCU, while others are its own self-contained pacing and narrative problems.

The set-up takes quite a while to unspool. As explained by portentous opening text, the titular Eternals are essentially a team of immortal superheroes created by the Prime Celestial, Arishem (if the Eternals are pseudo guardian angels, that would make Arishem their “god”), and sent to Earth 7,000 years ago to defend it from the Deviants, monstrous alien predators. The ten Eternals—at least the ones stationed on Earth—are Sersi (Gemma Chan), who can manipulate and change inanimate matter, her ex-lover Ikaris (Richard Madden), who like Superman can fly and shoot laser blasts from his eyes, legendary warrior woman Thena (Angelina Jolie), who is suffering from mental illness, Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), who can throw energy projectiles, Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), a futuristic engineer whose projected blueprints become reality and has long given a helping hand to mankind’s technological development, illusionist and trickster Sprite (Lia McHugh), whose body remains eternally childlike, speedster Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), who could give The Flash a run for his money, mind-controlling Druig (Barry Keoghan), powerful Gilgamesh (Don Lee), and their leader and mother figure Ajak (Salma Hayek), who has healing powers and is the only one of them with a direct “line” of communication to receive instructions from their god Arishem. The Eternals are under orders not to interfere with humanity in any way except protect them from Deviants, and once the last of the Deviants are defeated—sometime in the 1500s—they’ve got a lot of time on their hands. Left without a clear mission and not recalled home, they’ve assimilated into humanity in different ways, although their immortality sets them apart; as two examples, Sersi is a history professor in London, where she’s dating colleague Dane Whitman (Kit Harrington), while Kingo is a Bollywood movie star accompanied by his long-suffering but eager-to-please valet Karun (Harish Patel). But when their supposedly vanquished ancient enemies the Deviants return, the scattered Eternals are forced to get the band back together. And complications ensue when they uncover the full truth about Arishem’s plans for Earth, and the team fractures about whether to support or oppose them.

As you may have gathered by it, Eternals gives us a lot of backstory and set-up to unpack, which doesn’t always leave a lot of room for finer points of character development. The introduction of a band of immortal superheroes who are retroactively revealed to have been here all along raises all kinds of questions and continuity issues, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the movie has trouble answering them satisfactorily. The glaring question/plot hole is where they’ve been through everything that’s previously happened in the MCU (most prominently when Thanos erased half the population of the universe), and the explanation for the Eternals’ inaction up to this point feels a bit handwavey and contrived (for that matter, so does the reason why their ancient enemies the Deviants are suddenly back). There is a sense that Eternals might have worked better in its own universe unconnected to the wider MCU. Not only is it thinly-connected (apart from an obligatory brief Avengers mention), but any deeper connections feel like they’d be difficult to draw (it’s a little harder to imagine The Eternals teaming up with The Avengers than the likes of Shang-Chi). With Eternals adding a whole new crowded roster of characters to the MCU, there’s a sense that the MCU is getting a little too crowded.

Eternals' Box Office: Marvel Film Opens Internationally With $7.6 Mil -  Variety

And therein lies another problem, one perhaps more serious for this movie in itself; trying to throw ten brand-new superheroes at us and give most of them at least a perfunctory backstory feels like Eternals is trying to do too much for one movie. None of the characters feel like they receive more than perfunctory development (perhaps inevitably when they’re all competing for screentime which is stretched thin among them), meaning we don’t really care as much as we’re clearly meant to. When Marvel began assembling The Avengers, it took time and care to introduce each superhero with their own individual solo movies to ensure they were well-established before teaming them up onscreen, in contrast to when DC played a rushed game of catch-up with the misconceived Batman v Superman and Justice League, which rushed a batch of characters into their big team-up movies without properly establishing them. Unfortunately, Eternals has followed more the DCEU model than the MCU one. Even the likes of Gemma Chan’s Sersi, who is clearly meant to be the “lead”—insofar as there is one—is thinly-developed and doesn’t establish that much depth or personality. A betrayal, followed by a reconciliation, falls victim to truncated character development; more time to breathe for the arc of the character in question might have helped their shifting allegiances feel better-motivated and less arbitrary. There are various scenes in the mix that are effective and even affecting, but frustratingly there are also any number of scenes and thematic issues that feel like they should be more poignant than they are. There could have been real poignancy in Thena’s plight, or Sprite being relegated to spending eternity in a childlike body (likened to Peter Pan at one point) and harboring an impossible unrequited love for Ikaris along the way, or in each Eternal struggling in different ways to assimilate into humanity (and those who do form substantive attachments, like Phastos and to a lesser extent Sersi, wrestling with the knowledge that their mortal loved ones will inevitably age and die while they stay the same), but all of this is given short shrift. Likewise, the “lead” Deviant Kro’s motivations could have been interesting, but this ends up going nowhere, leaving him a nothing villain who exists solely as a plot device to bring the Eternals together and supply a couple action sequences (a waste of his voice actor Bill Skarsgard in the process). One wonders if some of this might have played better and gotten more room to breathe if stretched out over the span of a Disney + miniseries instead of a movie.

In fairness, there are any number of strong moments in the mix, even if the movie adds up to something less than the sum of its parts. The historical flashbacks (taking us to ancient Mesopotamia, Babylon, the Gupta Empire, and the Aztecs, along with a visit to the blasted ruins of 1945 Hiroshima) are striking, and the amount of time-jumping and globe-trotting sets Eternals apart from the typical MCU formula. Two musical montages, one to Pink Floyd’s “Time”, one to Skeeter Davis’ “The End of the World”, are well-chosen and effective. The character who is eventually revealed as the surprise villain—of sorts—is effectively and compellingly presented as more misguided and semi-tragic than a conventional “bad guy”. In fact, the overall existential questions about the rightness of wrongness of Arishem’s true intentions for Earth and humanity—including such familiar questions as whether the ends justify the means, and how much death is justifiable in the name of creating new life—has some nuanced gray area. Naturally, we come down on the side of saving humanity, but it’s possible to at least give some intellectual consideration to the opposing perspective of the “villains” (one may recall Thanos’ unshakable conviction that his genocidal actions were cosmically justified and for the “greater good”). In what amounts to a progressive step for Disney/Marvel, Brian Tyree Henry’s Phastos is an openly gay man with a husband and children, and the couple is allowed to share an onscreen liplock. A heterosexual couple—Sersi and Ikaris—also gets the honor of supplying the MCU’s first sex scene (albeit a tame one that doesn’t push the PG-13 rating). Perhaps surprisingly for the director previously best-known for Nomadland, which was as devoid of special effects or action sequences as any movie can be, Chloe Zhao handles both effectively here.

The cast ensemble does the best they can, and trades banter and one-liners with ease, but having screentime divided up among ten “main” characters doesn’t leave any of them enough room to really stand out. Those who come closest are Gemma Chan’s Sersi and Richard Madden’s Ikaris mainly because they have the most prominence, and Kumail Nanjiani’s Kingo and Brian Tyree Henry’s Phastos because they provide the most comic relief (though Henry in particular also gets a number of more serious dramatic moments), while the most thankless role of them all falls to Don Lee, who’s little more than backup muscle. Incidentally, this isn’t Gemma Chan’s first trip to the MCU; she previously played the henchwoman Minerva in Captain Marvel, but her makeup there means casual viewers probably won’t notice her being reused in a different role (at this point, so many actors have popped up in the MCU at one time or another that it starting to “recycle” actors might become inevitable). Ironically the biggest “name”, Angelina Jolie, could be said to have one of the more thankless roles, while the second biggest name, Salma Hayek, is relegated to playing the benevolent motherly figure. Kit Harrington’s appearance here gives him the chance to briefly reunite onscreen with his Game of Thrones brother Richard Madden, but his character is as superfluous as they come (although the name of Dane Whitman will mean more to fans of the comics than to casual viewers). In fact, for a “human point of view”, Harish Patel as Kingo’s faithful valet Karun earns the highest points, at least from a comic relief standpoint.

Eternals has admirable qualities—there’s something admirable in itself about a movie trying to be a departure from conventional “comic book movie” formula, even if it’s with mixed results—but the result is overlong, not helped by a sluggish pace (the two and a half hour runtime feels like four hours), and the movie tries to do too much for any of it to feel like it adds up the way it should have. Despite coming onboard with Oscar-winning “serious filmmaker” credentials (albeit for a movie about as far away from a superhero movie as imaginable), one has to question whether Chloe Zhao was the best choice for the job. She makes a good-looking movie, and when many directors do a fairly interchangeable “hired gun” job in the cookie cutter studio formula system, she seems to have managed to hang onto some independence and there are times when her indie sensibilities seep through in wide open windswept shots, use of natural lighting, and actual on-location filming, but Eternals ends up being a bit of a mess, an at times beautiful mess, but messy nonetheless. There’s a lot of squandered potential for something more striking, more unconventional, and more powerful lurking underneath, but the filmmakers never fully figure out how to bring it to the surface. It’s not an unmitigated disaster, or really even a “bad” movie, but it remains to be seen whether this latest introductory installment for a new batch of Marvel superheroes will generate much excitement.

* * 1/2

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