A diverse group of ageless alien beings that have protected humanity for the past 5,000 years re-unite to save the world from their creator in Eternals, the latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that marks a genuine departure from the previous 25 films. For better or worse, this one is something different.
Past MCU films have been nothing if not consistent, and deftly balanced superhero action, well-drawn characters, and light comedy to produce something in line with the original comics. But that sense of world-building fun has been largely drained from Eternals, a deeper, more spiritual film than those that have preceded it.
Unfortunately, Eternals’ ambition is far too grand for single film, even one that crams as much as it can into a running time pushing nearly three hours, and by the end we’re left with a thinly-sketched portrait of eleven new Marvel superheroes and the intelligent design behind the entire Marvel universe.
Eternals stars Salma Hayek as Ajak, the leader of an immortal band of aliens created by the God-like Arishem to protect the human population of Earth from Deviants, alien monsters who pop up every few centuries to attack mankind… for some reason.
The Eternals have protected Earth for 5,000 years, but they cleared out all the deviants around 500 years ago. Since then, they’ve split up across the world to carry out their own lives, awaiting further instruction from Arishem.
There’s also Thena (Angelina Jolie), a warrior goddess who can manifest magic weapons out of thin air. She’s developed Mahd Wy’ry, Eternals’ brand of dementia, and now attacks her fellow Eternals when the script calls for it. Gilgamesh (Don Lee), who can create magic fists that punch real good, has looked after her in rural Australia for the past 500 years.
Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) has fashioned himself a Bollywood superstar over the years, continually reinventing himself as his own son. He can create orbs of energy to shoot as projectiles at opponents. Druig (Barry Keoghan) can control people’s minds, but it doesn’t seem to help all that much as the Eternals are forbidden to interfere in the affairs of mankind.
Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) is proudly billed in promotional material as the first deaf superhero, which has little to do with her abilities; she’s another Quicksilver/Flash clone, and Eternals doesn’t do anything creative with her super-speed on the level of X-Men: Days of Future Past or Justice League. Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) can invent tools, and instantly manifest his inventions; he also has a husband and son in modern-day America.
Sersi (Gemma Chan), the de facto lead of the movie, lives in modern London with boyfriend Dane (Kit Harington). “I once turned a rock into water,” she tells another character in an attempt to explain her superpowers. You’d think that after 5,000 years she be a little more concise when describing her abilities.
After about two hours of screentime, Eternals’ script (credited to director Chloé Zhao & Patrick Burleigh and Ryan Firpo & Kaz Firpo) has thinly but sufficiently sketched out each of these eleven characters brand-new to the MCU. It’s also tackled a backstory that (less sufficiently) details the religious theology behind the Marvel universe, the nature of God(s) and men and the eternal beings in-between.
That leaves about half an hour for Eternals to deliver a story, and it’s the usual superhero save-the-world stuff. Here, however, the waters are so muddied with fantastic ideas and profound sentiments that we don’t even know if the world should be saved.
Madden’s Ikaris, who suffers a Last Temptation of Christ-like crisis of conscience, and McHugh’s Sprite, who goes through the millenia without aging like Homer in Near Dark, come off the best. “Why has Arishem made me like this?” Sprite asks at one point, a question that each of the other Eternals should be asking themselves.
But instead of asking questions, struggling to find answers in God’s plan, or overcoming personal doubts, the rest of the Eternals know exactly what to do when they defy the creator they have served for the past 5,000 years. Their resulting fight to save the world comes off as perfunctory, and their own stories lack any real depth.
The grace and vision with which Eternals has been composed, however, makes up for a lot of the storytelling faults. Ben Davis’ cinematography beautifully captures locations across the globe and lend the film a kind of otherworldly feel that could not be replicated through special effects. The majestic score by Ramin Djawadi, returning to the MCU for the first time since 2008’s Iron Man, is among the finest in the franchise. And Zhao’s matter-of-fact storytelling manages to distill a story of incredible scope into a digestible feature film.
There’s no denying that Eternals is something different for Marvel, and something that doesn’t work as well as what has come before. But for a series that is in dire need of a new direction and fresh ideas, the attempt to do something of such spectacular scale is almost good enough.