‘Eternals’ vibrant plot full of big ideas held down by MCU-enforced technical weaknesses

Ugh, why does it have to look so flat and sad and boring! Images courtesy Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

4/10 Eternals has long been built up as a shift in direction for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and boy, is it ever. There’s a new production mentality, a new story mentality, new story directions and relaxed series rules. It’s more of a lateral move than a step up, the series’ signature terrible action scenes and visual design is still here, but instead of being the point like in Black Widow and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, they now feel like vestigial organs that could eventually be shed.

Eternals’ marketing painted a deceptive picture of its plot and I’m not sure what is or isn’t a spoiler, you’ve probably already seen it anyway, whatever. Consider this a spoiler review.

***

In the beginning, the celestial Arishem (David Kaye) sends eight angel-like immortal beings, dubbed “eternals,” to Earth, where they protect the indigenous population from wild alien predators called deviants. They arrive 5000 B.C. in Mesopotamia and take their sweet, sweet time, partying with humans and embedding themselves into our myths and legends. When they finally finish getting rid of the deviants in 1521 A.D., they split and hang around the globe while they await further orders, but after the mass destruction and restoration related to Thanos and The Avengers, the emergence, which will destroy the planet, begins, and the eternals must reassemble to stop it.

Eternals is hamstrung by some astonishingly bad sequences, mostly around its opening and closing acts. The movie starts with a baffling barrage of bizarrely edited establishing scenes, then it calms down for a couple of hours – the total runtime is 157 minutes, which immediately makes it the second-longest entry in the MCU – before a traditional CGI nightmare of a climax. In a movie that’s primarily focused on introducing several new characters for future properties, you still have extraneous players to serve as red-herring villains and tease even more future properties. I hate the eternals’ costumes and the gold lace CGI motif for their powers, those design choices just don’t do it for me.

What Zhao does control, along with co-writers Patrick Burleigh and Ryan and Kaz Firpo, is the dialogue, and that needed a lot more work. Whatever language they’re speaking, writing more distinctive dialogue would have gone a long way toward making the eternals more distinctive characters. Instead of sounding like immortal angels who have walked the earth for 7,000 years, they sound like quippy and extremely online characters in a superhero movie that desperately needs to catch on with viewers.

These are all decisions that esteemed writer/director Chloé Zhao probably didn’t make. Marvel is infamous for controlling the look of its movies and the editing of the action scenes, to the point that they told a potential director for Black Widow – a job Zhao was in the running for – “Don’t worry about the action scenes, we will take care of that” in the spy movie they were asking her to make. These things not going to get better no matter who’s directing, because the director isn’t the problem, it’s series arch-producer Kevin Feige.

Zhao’s fame after directing Nomadland, which dominated 2020’s depleted festival circuit to become the most internationally decorated film in history, was a coincidence, of course – she was hired just before Nomadland’s production, and Eternals had wrapped several months before Nomadland’s release – but it would have been marketing malpractice to make her central to the campaign. However, she was much more involved in Eternals than most directors get to be in Marvel projects. She said she’s always wanted to work with Marvel and actually came to them with a pitch, and it seems like she even got to make some casting decisions, which is a huge deal in series like this where actors usually outlast directors.

What Zhao has made here is she’s made a DC movie – not in the sense that the MCU is different form the DCEU, though she says she was inspired by those films as well, but in the sense that Marvel and DC comics have been different from each other going back to their inception. Where Marvel has always been set in the real world and about realistic people, DC is a long-term fantasy about godlike characters who are frequently correlated with the Greek pantheon, a dynamic that splits the companies right down the middle. Marvel’s most iconic character is a broke photojournalist from Queens, and almost all of its heroes are based in New York. DC’s biggest icons are an alien who can punch out God and an heir who can outspend him, both of whom have their own fictional megacities that were clearly inspired by New York, and it even has its own president and political system.  

The main thing I was dreading going into Eternals was the cinematography. These massive horizontal shots of all the new characters that were central to the marketing, making the screen look like it’s in the process of closing like a clamshell, combined with the awful design choices and color grading, made it look flat and ugly even by the MCU’s horrid standards, but those are barely there in the final product. I should have had more faith in cinematographer Ben Davis, who is Matthew Vaughn and Martin McDonagh’s guy – he’s been the cameraman on some of my favorite films.

The explosion of films based on both comic companies have mostly towed these lines, with MCU stories told mostly at human scale and DCEU told as a legend, but Eternals flips that script. This is a movie about characters who speak directly with God, who are modeled and named after mythological figures and cited as the basis of these myths in the story world. This is mostly housed in Greek mythology, but there also multiple direct references to the Arthurian cycle and the Book of Genesis and the idea of Arishem as the God of Abraham. Everything that drives me crazy about the MCU is still here, but Eternals has new ambitions that aren’t present in the rest of the series.

That may be a lot of the point of those big horizontal shots, the mythmaking angle, and it’s certainly a big point of the diverse cast of characters. The eternals number the MCU’s first Middle Eastern lead character in Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), its first Hispanic lead in Ajax (Salma Hayek), its first openly gay lead in Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) and even its first deaf lead in Makkari (Lauren Ridloff). Additionally, Thena (Angelina Jolie) has late-stage dementia, upping the representation ante even further. The big horizontal splashes aren’t just presenting Marvel’s new toyline, they’re presenting a pantheon, graphically framing this multiracial, multi-oriented and multi-abled cast as equals.

Framing is a huge part of Marvel movies now, especially the ones focused on putting over minority characters, and we know from history how important that is, but Eternals goes further than that. One of the central historic points of white supremacy has been the idea that God is white and our mythology is about white people, so seeing Gilgamesh played by not a white man, not even someone from Arabia, but South Korean Don Lee directly confronts all the ideas around the colonization of various world mythologies.

In addition to taking clear inspiration from DC movies, Zhao seems to have drawn a lot of her imagery from video games, particularly “Injustice: Gods Among Us” and “World of Warcraft,” two games with which Eternals shares extremely specific plot points and imagery.

But at the same moment, these characters are speaking English. Even in this movie that’s deliberately railing against imperialism in some profound ways, for practical reasons, that consequence of the English Empire is still there. Realistically, the eternals should have their own language, and I get why they didn’t go to the trouble of developing that, but it is absolutely jarring to listen to them drop into Babylonian and Nahuatl to speak to locals in flashbacks and then switch back to perfect English, the modern version of which didn’t start developing until 6,500 years after their arrival on this planet, in private.

That’s another thing that stands out, the story structure and strangely limited number of settings. Eternals is non-linear, with the storyline of Sersi (Gemma Chan) gathering the other eternals in the present day running roughly parallel to the story of them all hanging out through prehistory told in flashback. I don’t think they made quite the right decisions splicing these together, so this is another area where a little polish could go a long way, but I’d need a second look to be sure. It feels strange in hindsight, that these people’s 7,000 year journey all over the Earth is condensed to three relatively quick scenes in Mesopotamia and Mesoamerica. It recalls other Marvel productions, Black Panther also had this problem, where the movie seems much smaller than the story world that’s being advertised.

Eternals is also a major departure in that it directly tackles contemporary politics in a way that Disney almost never does – this is a big, superhero-sized abortion movie. Instead of lawmakers and a disinterested public weighing a pregnant woman’s health and autonomy against a developing fetus, the eternals are asked to weigh an entire planet and every life on it against a new celestial, who we are told will go on to create millions more planets and civilizations if it is born. The moral weight of existing life is set against potential life at massive scale, with a tangible god character weighing in on the side of potential life. Eternals, which comes down hard on the pro-abortion rights side of things, gracefully shifts the question from one about raw numbers of lives given or taken to one about free will, what meaning life has beyond its own propagation and what point there is in serving a god who doesn’t have your best interests in mind.

Where Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice asks fearfully, “Oh no! What if God is real?” and Justice League shrieks in terror, “Oh no! What if god isn’t real?” Eternals calmly asks, “What if God is sort of a dick, and he doesn’t seem to know what he wants or how to pursue it?” Arishem uses Earth as a farm and eternals as his farmhands, but he doesn’t have them take care of it – in fact, they are under specific instruction not to do anything to help humanity thrive other than removing one specific breed of predator. The apparent endgame is to cull it to propagate other comparable planets and civilizations. Will they be culled themselves? Are the lives in Arishem’s downline meant to grow for their own sake, like stocks? A habitable planet in the hand is worth however many in the bush, and Arishem doesn’t even seem to want the one he has in his hand anyway.

The opening and closing action scenes are terrible, but the one in the middle is a big step up, with a seamless transition from the talkie scenes, a fitting tone and tons of character and story moments. Zhao said The Revenant was another big inspiration here, and it comes out clearly in this scene. The uptick in quality here is another thing that makes me think and lament that she didn’t have much input over the opening or closing numbers.

Separately, Eternals also has some expansive thoughts about sex and gender. While most Marvel movies are averse to sex as part of the series design, Eternals makes a point of most of its characters pairing off, with two of them even seeking out human partners. There’s a wide range of relationship dynamics as well, from Ikaris’ (Richard Madden) boyish, nervous approach of Sersi to Druig’s (Barry Keoghan) assertive embrace of Makkari to Gilgamesh’s doting care for Thena. The film houses not only the series’ first gay kiss, but its first sex scene since 2008 and even the uncomfortable preteen horniness of Sprite (Lia McHugh), who has been stuck in her child form all these millennia. With its pairings and its insistent focus on them, Eternals graphicallydecouples love and sex from not just reproduction, race and gender, but from species and even hormonal drives.

Eternals is also another global warming movie. The plot is first set in motion by straggling deviants coming out of melting glaciers – this why they actually start to assemble, the real plot is just happening at the same time – and it mostly drops the climate change angle from there, but at the climax, the anti-abortion rights faction, the eternals who think the potential for life is more important than the millions who will die in the emergence, literally fight to passively allow the world to end, and what seemed like a coincidence suddenly doesn’t anymore.

All the lore and nonsense gets in the way of what Eternals really wants to be about – people hanging around, being alive and having a good time, and then having difficulty coming together to save the world because it turns out that half of them just don’t want to.

Does Eternals pass the Scorsese test? Is this “cinema?” Zhao certainly thinks so, and we already have movies like Guardians of the Galaxy that clearly rise above the mire of the MCU – those are also passion projects for which director James Gunn has gotten special permissions to break from Marvel’s style and make movies that come from him personally.

Eternals is not a good movie. It needs to be rewritten and reedited and some parts of it need to be redesigned and reshot, but it is something meaningfully different with clear assertions about what it means to be human and alive in the world, and that’s a lot more than I’ve come to expect.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

 

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