What to Watch Verdict
Though 'Eternals' aims high, its success rate is far lower than is ideal and results in an uninvolving, alienating story.
With an Oscar-winning director at the helm, this film looks distinctive compared to most MCU entries
The set design and visual effects are, mostly, high points
Kumail Nanjiani and Brian Tyree Henry stand out in the ensemble cast
The attempt to balance world-building and character development is a struggle from the get-go
The core battle between Eternals and Deviants is inherently dull
The key lead characters are lifeless
For a film about saving humanity, this feels distant and emotionless
Even now, after living through more than a decade of unending success, it's difficult to quantify just how big the Marvel Cinematic Universe is. What started out fairly modestly with the 2008 adventure Iron Man has now turned into such an influential hybrid subgenre of science-fiction, action and fantasy that you can't avoid superhero films no matter how hard you try. The MCU is permeating the entirety of Western cinema, and its true auteur, producer Kevin Feige, is no doubt interested in moving beyond the typical superhero film.
It is to his credit that the umpteenth MCU film, Eternals, does not feel like the standard fare with capes and superpowers. Here is a film co-written and directed by a distinctive auteur in and of herself, the Oscar-winning director Chloé Zhao, whose most recent effort, Nomadland, won last year's Oscar for Best Picture. Here is a film with a proudly diverse cast, in terms of gender, race and sexuality.
But here is a film whose surface-level attributes seem intended to mask the emptiness underneath. Yes, Eternals breaks a few notable barriers for the MCU, barriers that should have already been broken. There is indeed a sex scene in this movie and there is a gay superhero, too — no tiptoeing around the potential, because you even see said hero kiss his husband. These details are all true and they are all worth pointing out because in these ways and others, the MCU is trying new things. It's good to try new things. But what Eternals should have also tried was creating a story and characters worth a damn beyond the laudable efforts to make a superhero film look like the audience paying to see it.
In the beginning, as the opening text notes, there were deities known as Celestials, who oversaw the universe with the aid of superpowered aliens called Eternals, from the planet Olympia. The Eternals watch over the planets and denizens of the universe, staving off the attacks of bloodthirsty creatures called Deviants. Most pressing, the Eternals, who are led by Ajak (Salma Hayek), are tasked with keeping an eye on the humans of Earth, from as far back as 5,000 BCE, and ensuring their safety in the face of the Deviants. Over the course of 7,000 years, the ageless Eternals grow closer to humans, both emotionally and spiritually, before eventually having their existences upended.
To say more would be to reveal some of this opaque film's secrets, but it's also true that to say more would be akin to one of this film's many lengthy info-dumps. The most positive way to look at it is that Eternals is trying to do a whole lot in the span of 157 minutes. (That includes, of course, 10 minutes of end credits as well as mid- and post-credits scenes guaranteed to make sense to comic-book die-hards and very few other people.) Aside from watching the Eternals, who also include Ikaris (Richard Madden), Sersi (Gemma Chan), Kingo (Nanjiani) and Phastos (Henry), on their latest adventure against a series of Deviants who have awoken from a lengthy slumber and are now hunting our heroes specifically, there's also the business of introducing the audience to these characters as well as establishing their world.
It does not help matters that Zhao seems understandably less interested in mounting action sequences in which the Eternals show off their powers and more so in placing the characters in verdant landscapes, everywhere from Babylon to South Dakota to a fiery volcano. The plot machinations of an MCU movie being what they are, it soon becomes clear that the Eternals — who have been separated from each other for centuries for reasons that become clear in flashbacks interspersed throughout the present-day action — must reunite to stave off a threat that could endanger the whole of humanity. Those storytelling gears grind quite heavily this time around, though.
Zhao and cinematographer Ben Davis are much more comfortable in highlighting the surprising lack of CGI in a Marvel movie; by itself, a movie that doesn't have too much CG isn't worth praising simply for existing, but that's how low the bar is set now for Marvel. Conversely, the third-act climax leans heavily on pyrotechnics and computer wizardry, though the latter seems lacking especially in a few fight scenes that seem more like video-game animation from the mid-2000s. Yet even Zhao's predilection for outdoor photography, put to such remarkable use in Nomadland, eventually sours. Some shots in Eternals end up looking like this year's most buzzed-about Super Bowl commercial, which may indeed be different from a Marvel movie without being satisfying.
It doesn't help matters that the one aspect that typically marks every Marvel movie — a forceful amount of humor that pushes to the point of glibness — is largely absent from Eternals. Much has been made about the fact that comedian and actor Kumail Nanjiani bulked up to play Kingo, who's equally at home as a modern Bollywood star as he is as one of the Eternals. And while Nanjiani is easily one of the best parts of this film, it badly needs him to be more present. The same is true of Brian Tyree Henry, whose technology-focused character Phastos is a fascinating creation who is mostly absent for the first 90 minutes.
Instead, Eternals focuses much of its energy on the centuries-spanning romance of Ikaris and Sersi (and yes, the former character's name is pronounced like the mythical Icarus of flying-too-close-to-the-sun fame). Madden and Chan are very pretty people, so pretty that they get to be the focus of the much-discussed sex scene, which takes up three shots of film and takes less time than it will take for you to read this sentence. But their performances — or just the writing of their characters — are not up to the task of leading this film.
At one point in Eternals, a few of the eponymous superpowered individuals muse about who may lead the Avengers now that both Captain America and Iron Man are gone. Nine years ago, the MCU pulled off what felt like a magic trick. After introducing most of the Avengers in their own films, they were brought together in an epic adventure that balanced action, comedy, science-fiction, romance and drama very effectively, helped in large part by charismatic lead actors, a fearsome but entertaining villain and believable world-ending stakes. Eternals has one thing the 2012 Avengers did not have, and that is a more notable visual style. (No one should argue that Joss Whedon is a particularly memorable visualist as a director.) But Eternals is missing all of the ingredients that made that first Avengers work.
Now that we're in Phase Four of the MCU, it's hard not to see conversations like the one in this film, where the Eternals wonder who might be the next leader of the Avengers, and imagine that this film is essentially an audition tape. If that is the case, we can only hope that someone else will crack the characters creatively. Right now, none of them are Avenger-worthy.
Eternals will be released exclusively in theaters on Nov. 5.
Josh Spiegel is a freelance cultural critic who has been published in Slashfilm, SyFy, ScreenCrush, The A.V. Club, The Hollywood Reporter, The Washington Post and others. His favorite films include Singin’ in the Rain, The Rocketeer, Pinocchio and A Matter of Life and Death. His favorite TV shows include Ted Lasso, Only Murders in the Building, Deadwood and Lost. He lives in Phoenix with his wife, two sons and too many cats.