Does Marvel’s latest ensemble hit the mark?
Eternals follows its titular group of superpowered beings as they protect humanity throughout the last 7000 years of history against alien predators called Deviants, at the bidding of cosmic beings the Celestials. Superhero films are starting to replace YA dystopian films as my least favourite use of proper nouns.
It feels like Marvel were trying to directly one-up the DCEU Justice League with this film, which seems unnecessary given Marvel’s domination of the superhero genre for the last decade or so. Half of the members even share the same superpowers: Ikaris and Superman are super strong, fly, and shoot lasers out of their eyes, while Thena and Wonder Woman are Greek-based warrior women. Phastos and Cyborg control technology; Makkari and Flash move at super-speed. There’s even a line pointing this out about halfway through, so it’s not like the similarities passed them by. The whole thing smacks of insecurity.
Eternals is far too long, sitting at 157 minutes. Even though there’s something like 10-15 new characters and 3 new species to introduce, and a story spanning the entirety of recorded human history, the film does a pretty darn good job of conveying it all to you. Unfortunately, it does this by having characters spew exposition at you non-stop for two hours at the cost of developing characters. It creates this flat, plodding pace, such that the climax sort of sneaks up on you rather than building towards it.
Along the way, they also forgot to provide payoff for what character development there was – Kro’s growing sentience went absolutely nowhere, that Kingo and Karun’s documentary went absolutely nowhere, and that Thena’s Mahd Wy’ry attacks went – you guessed it – absolutely nowhere. I wonder how much of this is rewriting artefacts and how much ended up on the cutting room floor.
The film also takes a step back into Age of Ultron territory by spending a heck of a lot of time on setup for future Marvel properties, to the detriment of Eternals itself. Kit Harington’s character Dane Whitman has no place whatsoever in this story, yet he takes up a significant portion of the screen time because he’ll be important in future movies. It seems like they could have easily remedied this by making Dane the audience insert character who asks all our questions and gawks at the magic powers, but the Eternals fly off without him and fill in their backstory with unprompted flashbacks.
The acting is fair across the board, though thanks to the multitude of characters and the ruthlessly plot-efficient script, no one gets the chance to really wow with their performance, and they rarely express more than one personality trait and one quirk. Richard Madden as Ikaris probably turns in the best performance but only by a small margin. Though props must be given to Marvel for not shying away from openly gay superheroes; it’s a small step but a vital one.
The visual effects are near flawless from start to finish, apart from a couple of rubbery-looking bodies. Likewise, the fight scenes are creative and flashy, making good use of the 9-or-so different superpowers to hand. However, they’re all limited by not knowing the Eternals’ limits – we don’t know whether they get tired or how much force it takes to injure them, and it’s unclear how much effort it takes for, say, Thena and Kinga to make their glowing thingamies (I do not care what they’re actually called).
Eternals is plagued by Marvel’s signature bathos – undercutting moments of heightened emotion or tension with jokes. It stands out more than elsewhere in the MCU by being aggressively unfunny. Apart from one throwaway joke about saliva beer that got a good laugh out of the audience, the comedy painfully failed to land. Many moments are ruined by that most vexing of Marvel tics (see Sprite’s monologue near the end).
Eternals is at its best when it’s unafraid to be sincere, most notably in the scenes when an Eternal reaches their breaking point over humanity’s many atrocities. Druig and Phastos crying over the genocide of the Aztecs and the Hiroshima atomic bomb are the only genuinely affecting moments and it’s a shame there weren’t more of them when they had all of human history to work with.
Ultimately, it’s a film that feels tugged in too many different directions and as a result lacks an identity of its own. It’s fairly jokey, but it’s not as funny as Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s got a variety of superpowers, but it’s not as creative as Infinity War. It’s aesthetically pleasing, but it’s not as visually interesting as Thor: Ragnarok. It’s just not very good.
What’s that? Harry Styles is playing Thanos’ brother? I take it all back, this is a perfect movie. 10/10.