Before seeing the film, I had been looking at Eternals with a mixture of apprehension and excitement. I’ll confess I’ve grown mostly weary of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s storytelling formula. But Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings proved that the MCU still had the capacity to surprise and delight me. Plus, Eternals looked to be the strangest film Marvel Studios has released so far. When you factor in its diverse cast and Chloé Zhao stepping into the director’s chair, fresh off of her Academy Award wins for Nomadland, Eternals had more than enough to intrigue me.
It was at about the halfway point that my intrigue washed away, replaced by confusion and incomprehension. To watch Eternals is to watch a film that is at war with itself. Unable to decide if it wants to be a slow-moving character study or a big-budget studio blockbuster. What it winds up being is a mess.
The messiness begins with the title heroes. The Eternals are an immortal alien race sent by the all-powerfu Celestials to Earth seven thousand years ago. On a mission to protect humanity from an alien threat known as the Deviants. Apart from that, the Eternals are explicitly instructed to not intervene in human affairs.
This is meant to explain their absence from Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame, yet we’re only twenty minutes into the film before we already see one of the Eternals, Phastos (Bryan Tyree Henry), designing a steam engine to give humanity in the future. Soon afterward, we see the Eternal Sprite (Lia McHugh) telling the Odyssey to a rapt audience of prehistoric humans. These inconsistencies could possibly be waved away with compelling drama. But the film is sorely lacking in that department as well.
The star-crossed love between the Eternals Sersi (Gemma Chan) and Ikaris (Richard Madden) is the film’s main focus, but the pair have not a spark of chemistry between them. Both are fine actors, but Chan and Madden both give very awkward performances here. With wooden line delivery and few emotional changes. The fact that these two are supposed to be in love with one another only further drives home the stiffness of their performances.
The only Eternal who truly feels alive is Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani). As an Eternal who’s made a living as a Bollywood star, we see someone who has learned to enjoy life. And form expressions beyond the occasional furrowed brow or forced smile. It’s yet another example of an Eternal intervening with human affairs, but at least Kingo’s flagrant rule-breaking is entertaining. Of course, he is abruptly and perplexingly jettisoned before the film’s action-filled climax.
But “action-filled,” of course, does not mean “exciting.” The Deviants are nonentities, and the Eternals’ battles with them are dull. Most of them are simply blasted or punched into defeat. More than anything, the action sequences feel more like grudging obligations that Zhao must fulfill when making a superhero movie.
You can occasionally see the film Zhao originally envisioned. Shots of arid desert landscapes, lushly beautiful islands, and colorful nebulas in the cosmos show that Zhao is still a master of her craft when it comes to capturing beauty. It’s a shame it was all done in service for a story that is both rote and confusing, leaving me wholly unsatisfied.