The powers that be in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have been masters at making moviegoers care about characters relatively few people know. Once they got past undeniably popular ones like Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and Hulk, making lower tier characters like Black Widow, Hawkeye, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man, and more equally as popular was the result of strong marketing and solid storytelling.
Now that we’ve entered Phase 4 of the MCU master plan, though, some cracks are developing under the weight of it all. Black Widow was entertaining enough, but felt like it came too little, too late for Scarlett Johansson’s now-deceased character. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings featured some spectacular set-pieces, but an overabundance of CGI. Now comes Eternals, featuring a group of all-powerful beings with a mission to protect Earth.
That group includes … deep breath … Ajak (Salma Hayek), who has healing powers; Sersi (Gemma Chan), who can change matter with her hands; Ikaris (Richard Madden), who can fly and shoot lasers from his eyes (no, he’s not Superman); Thena (Angelina Jolie), who can create any type of weapon out of thin air; Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), who shoots blasts from his fingers; Sprite (Lia McHugh), who can alter the look of reality; Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), who can conjure any type of machinery; Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), who has super speed; Druig (Barry Keoghan), who can take over people’s minds; and Gilgamesh (Ma Dong-seok), who has super-strong fists.
They were sent to Earth over 7,000 years ago by a Celestial named Arishem to protect humans from the invasive Deviants, a group of shape-shifting creatures. The catch is, that’s their entire mission; no matter what other bad things happen to humans (say, Thanos) or humans try to do to each other (like genocide), the Eternals are forbidden from interfering. The struggle between their mission and their collective conscience is what drives the story of the film.
Written and directed by Chloé Zhao (Nomadland), with writing help from Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo, and Kaz Firpo, the film is a sprawling epic with scenes ranging from modern-day to ancient Mesopotamia, with multiple other stops along the way. It attempts to include everything from existential questions about the fate of humanity to individual romances, with varying degrees of success.
When it comes to the personal feelings of the Eternals, the film is stuck between two worlds. Since they are close to immortal, they tend to keep their relations to humans at a distance. But it becomes clear that human feelings are part of who they are, especially the longer they linger on Earth. Zhao and her team do their best to sell the emotions of the group, but it’s sometimes difficult to match up their words with their actions.
Ultimately, it’s just too many characters for an introductory story. Only a few of them truly stand out, and with the film running over two-and-a-half hours, there is too much time for the audience to ponder if certain characters’ powers are all that useful. Combine that with the fact that their individual stories are meted out in drips and drabs, and it’s difficult to empathize or relate to any of them.
Much of the action involves people pointing or conjuring with their hands, things that only look slightly less ridiculous because of the CGI. Few of the fight scenes measure up in any meaningful way to those of previous MCU films. Zhao, who is known for her internal stories, just can’t seem to get across the scope that the big set-pieces deserve.
One nice thing is that the film features a cast that’s diverse in its skin color, gender, and level of fame. Six of the 10 characters are non-white, half are women, and only Hayek and Jolie could be considered stars. Even if we don’t get to know any of the characters that well, due to the overstuffed roster, the diversity allows the filmmakers explore avenues other MCU films haven’t, including a same-sex relationship.
Perhaps Eternals will gain traction the more we get to see what the rest of the MCU’s Phase 4 involves. On its own, though, the story lacks the excitement that audiences have come to expect from Marvel films.
Eternals opens in theaters on November 5.