Out today is “Eternals,” the latest ensemble film from Marvel, featuring a diverse, all-star cast and directed by Chloe Zhao. “Eternals” introduces a host of new characters and a even more questions about the new direction the franchise will take in a post “Infinity War” universe.
“Eternals” focuses on a group of god-like heroes from the planet of Olympia, all roughly based on Greek mythical figures. The team first arrives in ancient Mesopotamia to defend humans from Deviants. Throughout history they intermingle, defend and influence civilizations, clashing over how much or little to meddle in human affairs. When the Deviants return after a centuries long hiatus, the Eternals must reunite to save humanity, only to find that they may be as vulnerable as the ones they set out to protect.
This film has a ridiculously packed cast: Angelina Jolie as Thena, Salma Hayek as Ajak, Gemma Chan as Sersi, Kumail Nanjiani as Kingo, Richard Madden as Ikaris, Don Lee as Gilgamesh and Brian Tyree Henry as Phastos. Newer faces include Lia McHugh as Sprite, Barry Keoghan as Druig and Lauren Ridloff as Makkari, the MCU’s first deaf/hard of hearing hero.
This movie went in some new directions and took some really big swings. The film overall has a darker tone than past Marvel films. If “Justice League” was DC and Warner Brothers attempt at the levity of “The Avengers,” this film feels like Marvel’s angsty teenager phase. “Eternals” is just a bit more grown up than past MCU films: the violence is much more graphic, the romantic relationships are more spotlighted (there’s sex!), and the overall themes of the movie are just a bit darker, more ominous.
First and foremost, this film is incredibly long at about 2 hours and 40 minutes, and I felt every moment. The chemistry between the cast was very hit or miss: Lee’s Gilgamesh and Ridloff’s Makkari could hold together the whole team with light banter, quippy fight scenes and emotional heft. Madden’s Ikaris saps a lot of that lightness from the screen. Ikaris is a very Superman-like figure, both in power and appearance, and serves as a kind of “cheat code” that turns everything a bit more boring. The relationship with the most focus is that of Ikaris and Sersi (Chan), but Madden’s leading man is so flat that the other Eternals need to drag their leader along for the plot. Bar none, the highlight of the film was Kumail Nanjiani. Kingo paired with his assistant Karun (Harish Patel) carry the levity of the film. “Eternals” would have been a much different (and, in my opinion, better) film had Ikaris’ leading man role been scrapped in favor of more screen time for Kingo. Instead, the audience only gets sparks of light between the storm clouds of this movie.
A final major issue this film doesn’t know how to grapple with is one that Marvel (and all action films) seem woefully unprepared for: representation vs diversity. The cast of this movie is tremendously diverse. However, just as “Black Widow” had some stretches of Hard to Watch violence against a predominantly female cast, “Eternals” handles clumsily the suffering and conflict encountered by its characters of color. As mentioned, the Deviants in this film are an otherworldly creature more like those of “Pacific Rim” or “District 9” than anything seen before in the MCU, and the depictions of the Deviants brutally torturing the heroes are pretty rough. Diversity in casting is really important, but it doesn’t necessarily feel like a big win if those diverse characters mostly show up to be brutalized, particularly when not even an almost 3 hour runtime can afford much development of each member of the ensemble. “Eternals” is also just not equipped to deal with the thorny matters of colonialism and war crimes that it attempts to tackle, leading to really dicy moments of a white character manipulating an Indigenous village into conformity and a Black character taking responsibility for the bombing of Hiroshima.
I can’t say I’m necessarily even disappointed in this movie as a Marvel fan because it felt so divorced from the style and ethos of the MCU as we know it. It is disappointing to have a great director like Chloe Zhao and a truly heavy hitting cast fall mostly flat in the process. Over the years, “The Avengers” films have been accused of replacing quality in the series with sheer quantity of recognizable faces and characters. “Eternals” proves that quantity can only go so far.