“Eternals” was always bound to be weird.
First and foremost, the Eternals are the brainchild of Jack Kirby, the oft-neglected creative engine of Marvel, renowned and cherished for his creativity and wacky artistry. For reference, the visual designs of “Doctor Strange” and “Thor: Ragnarok” are heavy with the fruits of his labor.
It’s also got a truly gonzo, behemoth cast that throws together a dozen names from disparate corners of the acting world, including the likes of Angelina Jolie (“Come Away”) and Kumail Nanjiani (“The Lovebirds”) — that’s right, Angelina and Kumail, co-stars.
Perhaps most bafflingly, it’s helmed by director Chloé Zhao. Yes, the Zhao who just won Best Picture for “Nomadland,” a quiet indie film about the woes of a transient working class in post-recession rural America.
“Eternals” was always bound to be weird, most of all for a Marvel movie. And woefully, wonderfully, it is. There’s on-location shooting, with natural lighting and limited green screen! There’s absolutely no character from any other Marvel movie present! And … there’s sex! Chaste, tame, downright boring sex, but sexy sex times all the same!
The film is of biblical, operatic scale — opening with a title crawl, the film throws out colored and capitalized words to describe a Marvelized creation myth that will be the first of many moments of exposition. The Eternals, a race of immortal, preternaturally beautiful space gods, are sent to Earth by the Celestials, another race of space gods (these ones giant and not at all attractive), to safeguard humanity from the predatory Deviants — stringy space beasts that look like wolves and lizards and wolf-lizards and have the grimy, prismatic sheen of oil on water.
Their one rule: Only punch something if it’s a Deviant. Otherwise, sit back and watch as humanity develops across the millennia. The fall of Tenochtitlan? Not their problem. The dropping of nuclear bombs on Japan? Not the mission. Thanos snapping his fingers and murdering literally half of everything? That’s chump change — trust in the Celestials.
After thousands of years, a Deviant finally arrives in London and tries to bite off the head of Gemma Chan (“Let Them All Talk”). Bam — the film begins, time to get the band back together.
“Eternals” is a janiform creature: Each strength is matched by an imperfect foil, producing a film composed of conjoined blessings and curses left and right.
For one, there is a whole lot of talking. Zhao’s strength is quiet character dramas, and this sensitivity and focus on the tender and the personal is absolutely present in “Eternals.” Characters quip and squabble and break up and make up, communicating with each other clearly and without reservation. Sometimes this ventures into the cardinal sin of a visual medium — telling rather than showing, a crime Zhao rarely commits in her filmography. “Eternals” exposits like no other, frequently punctuating the film with awkward flashbacks that themselves are mostly the characters standing in a circle hashing it out, grinding the pace to a yawning halt.
It doesn’t help that the characters are thinly-drawn and weirdly poor acting abounds. With 10 Eternals and a few other supporting players, there is precious little screen-time to go around. Chan, who receives the lion’s share of minutes in her role as Sersi, a people-lover with powers of transmutation, struggles to emote in more than one way. Richard Madden (“1917”) does well as a brooding Superman clone but lacks any and all chemistry with Chan, with whom his Ikaris is supposed to be hopelessly in love. Don Lee (“Start-Up”) is fun to watch as Gilgamesh, a bruiser who fantastically bitch-slaps monsters with galore, but often fumbles the delivery of his lines. Lia McHugh (“Songbird”) barks her dialogue as ever-adolescent illusionist Sprite. Jolie as the mentally ill war goddess Thena; a gloriously buff Nanjiani as Kingo, a Bollywood movie star with finger guns; Lauren Ridloff (“The Sound of Metal”) as a super-speedy Makkari; Barry Keoghan (“The Green Knight”) as the jerkishly moralistic mind-controller Druig; Brian Tyree Henry (“The Woman in the Window”) as Phastos, a really good engineer that can make magic blueprints; and Salma Hayek (“The Roads Not Taken”) as Ajak, the healer and motherly matriarch of the team — are all charming and wonderful in their own ways, but have pitifully little to do.
If you got tired reading through that exhaustive gallery, well — yeah.
This lethargizing focus on feelings means that, despite most characters being more or less one-note, the film is completely character-driven — it’s all about people forming convictions and acting accordingly, never beholden to the plot. Everyone has a personal ethos, and it’s a delight watching them realize them in ways that run counter to what one has come to expect from Marvel fare.
“Eternals” still has some of the usual stakes and tropes of a Marvel movie — the world is ending (oh no!) and characters are wont to shout nonsense like forming a “uni-mind” and trying to stave off the “mad weary” (which is actually spelled “mahd wy’ry,” because of course it is). The CGI baddies are bland and boring and perhaps the biggest disappointment of the film, making little sense and acting in baffling, ultimately impotent ways.
Where “Eternals” begins to shine as maybe something special is in the locus of conflict. It’s not really about beating up some bad guy. These threats exist, but the dilemma isn’t external, it’s entirely internal — not a question of will our heroes save the day, but should our heroes save the day, how should they save the day. It’s ponderous, contemplative — what’s worth more, one life now or ten lives later? Which is nobler, loyalty to a cause or loyalty to those you love?
In some ways, “Eternals” is self-reflexive of the superhero genre as a whole. The Eternals grapple with the questions the audience often has looking in — why do super-powered folk primarily use their gifts to punch stuff? Can’t they — shouldn’t they — do more? The irony is not lost when Kingo’s valet, Karun (Harish Patel, “Jadoo”), who endeavors to filmically document the Eternals’ adventures, shouts, “We need action scenes,” as Kingo blasts monsters in the face with lethal and admittedly thrilling precision.
“Eternals,” is a thorny, philosophically rich, audacious sci-fi epic. Its greatest irony is that it’s overlong while all the while feeling unfinished — if only there were a little more development here, a few more minutes there. But within that ill-constructed chassis is a bounty. Under Zhao’s direction, it’s beautifully shot, the visual effects are beautifully rendered and by some miracle, it sidesteps the cacophony of Chrises and populates itself with faces and bodies that reflect the world we live in. It struggles under its own weight, but it does not crash. Flawed but meaty and, above all, interesting — a singular entry in the MCU.
The fact of the matter is that comic book movies and blockbusters at large are the most dominant genre on the planet, with a death knell nowhere in sight. “Eternals” takes big, ambitious swings. They may not land quite right, but if more blockbusters go the route of “Eternals,” cinema will be all the better for it.
Daily Arts Writer Jacob Lusk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: A quote originally attributed to Kumail Nanjiani’s character, Kingo, has been changed to instead credit Harish Patel’s character, Karun.