When it comes to their respective cinematic universes, so far the primary difference between DC and Marvel has been this: DC paints in broad strokes, mythic legends and stories under a contemporary setting. Marvel keeps things mostly focusing on character. Of course, both switch it up from time to time, but that’s been the general dynamic, even during Infinity War/Endgame for Marvel, and Shazam!/Birds of Prey for DC.
Eternals is Marvel doing the DC thing, where the saga eschews the intimacy of character and goes Big Picture — so much so that much of it was shot with IMAX cameras — and it’s the first time that Marvel seems to be chasing “prestige,” going so far as to bring in Academy Award winning director Chloé Zhao to helm. Zhao, hired before her Nomadland win, brings her formidable talents and vision to the MCU, telling a several thousand-year story and covering an awful lot of ground.
Eternals in the Marvel Cinematic Universe was inevitable; this is a mythology, after all, and mythologies need a religion. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby may not have had that in mind when they first put ink to paper, but eventually a deeper exploration of this world they created needed to happen, and Jack Kirby was especially up to the task, creating a universe full of Celestials, Eternals, and Deviants, forming a solid backbone to their body of work.
Stan Lee knew what made their characters tick, but Jack Kirby knew the universe they lived in, and filled it with all kinds of imaginative flights of fancy, only limited by the margins of the paper he created it on. It is a long way from an industrialist building a suit of armor, or a high school student bitten by a radioactive spider, but they all reside in that universe.
Eternals spans thousands of years, as immortal beings, created by the godlike Celestials, steward Earth and humanity. The Eternals are there to shield humanity from the Deviants, monstrous otherworldly creatures that serve as inspiration for our myths and legends. So do the Eternals: Sersi (Gemma Chan), who can change the physical aspects of anything; Ikaris (Richard Madden), our Superman equivalent, who can fly, has super strength, and energy vision; Thena (Angelina Jolie), the goddess of War and a relentless warrior; and Ajak (Salma Hayek), who has unprecedented healing abilities but more importantly, leads them and is the communication conduit to the Celestials.
There’s also Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), who shoots energy orbs and in his spare time is the world’s best known celebrity; Sprite (Lia McHugh), forever trapped in a 12-year-old’s body and has the power of illusion; Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), who can invent anything, for any task; Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), who has ultrafast speed and reflexes; Druig (Barry Keoghan), who can manipulate the mind of any human on the planet; and Gilgamesh (Don Lee), a warrior with fists that can demolish anything and anyone in his path, and a longtime companion to Thena.
Despite their vows of non-interference, the Eternals have still managed to guide and nurture humanity in their different ways, entering our histories, becoming part of the fabric of our religions and myths. However, their time here has taken its toll on all of them despite their immortality; Thena suffers from visions of past wars, and only Gilgamesh can still her violent heart. Druig has seen humanity destroy each other, and has decided to take an active role. Phastos has given humanity the tools to succeed, only to see them use those tools to destroy themselves. Their choices have shaped our reality.
It has been many years since any Deviants threatened humanity, and the Eternals live quiet lives on Earth, not interfering, not even during the Blip when Thanos erased half of all life in the universe. But the events of Endgame have changed things. The Deviants have returned, stronger than ever. Ajak is suddenly attacked and killed, leaving Sersi in charge. The Celestials have taken new interest in Earth, and the Eternals’ time may be ending. They must now choose to be a part of the world they have stewarded over the millennia, or abandon the world that they have all grown to love.
Eternals works best when we are dealing with these characters’ struggles and conflicts, and all the performances are up to the task. Everyone will have their favorites – mine is the work of Angelina Jolie and Don Lee, as Jolie’s Thena suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and Lee’s Gilgamesh is her steady rock over many years. They are each other’s anchor and have a nice chemistry together, and Jolie makes her struggles feel real – Thena may be an immortal being, but a forever war has taken its toll upon her and she carries it like a weight.
Kumail Nanjiani is the source of much of Eternals’ humor, while Brian Tyree Henry and Barry Keoghan give us much of the film’s heart. Henry’s Phastos is weary but cannot help but love these humans even as they struggle, while Druig’s anger dominates his behavior and Keoghan fills him with righteous fury. Gemma Chan and Richard Madden are the center for much of Eternals’ narrative thrust, but they each have their own passions and wants.
It is the scope of Eternals’ story, however, that gives us the film’s main structural issue – this story would have been better served as a limited Disney+ series along the lines of WandaVision and Loki. While Eternals is a gorgeous-looking movie, filling the IMAX screen with beautiful imagery that looks remarkable in a theater, this is an intricate story with a lot of moving parts, and it needs the time to tell itself properly. Even at an almost three-hour running time, Eternals is telling a story that spans millennia and it took many writers over 60 years of comics mythology to attempt to tackle.
You feel those almost-three hours, too. Much of Eternals is spent in conversations with characters laying out the rules of the world and their motivations within it, and this is something that modern television excels at, but which blockbuster cinema still struggles. The last act gives us these characters in conflict, and while we’ve seen this down well by Marvel before, this time, after this deep examination of the underpinnings of this Marvel Cinematic Universe, it feels routine and anticlimactic.
Telling that story requires a different sort of attention than we have seen so far, someone with vision and a unique sensibility that can challenge the audience’s perception of the larger story. A fiercely-independent filmmaker like Chloé Zhao seems perfectly fitted for the task. Indeed, the best stuff in Eternals happens when Zhao breaks us free of the template these movies have shared for more than ten years now, when we get a look at the machinery behind all the legends and myths, and can see the larger universe with perspective.
Eternals also falls trap to the same rhythms we have seen before, with many characters punching other characters and waving their arms about making CGI magic. Those story beats are the blood and bones of these movies, and I understand the difficulty in breaking the pattern. When Zhao does, we get compelling storytelling, impressive visuals, and a deeper vision than we have seen before. But Eternals struggles more than it doesn’t. The main conflict of the film is not in these characters – it is between Zhao’s independent streak and the corporate needs of Marvel Studios.
I am certain that Eternals will be very important in the Marvel films to come. So much of the films we have gotten since Endgame have been Marvel setting stakes for future films and television installments. At some point, Marvel has to deliver on everything it has set up so far. Until then, I expect we will get much more worldbuilding, but at some point you have to let that world spin.
Eternals is not a bad movie. It is ambitious and tries hard to be different from the rest. However, it is ultimately unsatisfying in that most of the film is full of promises for other stories to come. Let us hope those promises are not empty ones.
ETERNALS MOVIE REVIEW RATING: 6.5/10
Marvel Studios’ Eternals opens in theaters on November 5, 2021.
Alan Cerny has been writing about film for more than 20 years, for such sites as Ain’t It Cool News, CHUD, Birth Movies Death, and ComingSoon. He is a member of the Houston Film Critics Society since 2011. STAR WARS biased. Steven Spielberg once called Alan a “very good writer” and Alan has the signed letter to prove it, so it must be true.