REVIEW: The Eternals Is Imperfect, But It’s a Fun Film With A Charming Cast

A white man with black hair in bright blue armor is standing close to an Asian woman with black hair in bright green armor. Her hands are on his chest and their gaze is romantic.

The Eternals, Jack Kirby’s cosmic tale of space gods, was always a weird choice for an MCU adaptation. Kirby’s psychedelic colors and bombastic designs are a poor match for the pseudo-realistic militarized costumes of our current heroes. When you think “adaptable” you don’t really think Eternals. So how did the MCU version fare? Well, it doesn’t quite live up to the high expectations set by hiring Choé Zhao fresh off her Oscar win for the visually striking Nomadland. But while it has problems, I’ll admit I enjoyed it as an increasingly-weird popcorn flick with a fun cast of characters that I hope make their way into the wider universe.

Light spoilers ahead: details some of the story but no plot twists or reveals.

Eternals

Chloé Zhao (director and screenplay), Patrick Burleigh (screenplay), Ryan Firpo and Kaz Firpo (screenplay and story), Ben Davis (cinematographer), Craig Wood & Dylan Tichenor (editors)
Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Kumail Nanjiani, Lia McHugh, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Ridloff, Barry Keoghan, Don Lee, Harish Patel, Kit Harington, Salma Hayek, Angelina Jolie (cast)
Marvel Studios
November 4, 2021

A movie poster showing a cloudy sunset, the silhouette of a flat spaceship 3/4s of the way down, backed by the sun. The silhouettes of superheroes, different heights and sizes, are on the ground below the ship. The actors' names are all listed above the ship, and the dark ground has ETERNALS written in gold.

We open the film with the team meeting for the first time, exchanging names and getting suited up in an enormous, generic spaceship. They’re Eternals, assigned by the Celestial Arishem to protect the Earth from “Deviants,” a scourge of animalistic monsters who are picking off the nascent human population before they’ve gotten a chance to thrive. Celestials create populations, worlds, galaxies, millions of lives, and Arishem is the one with an eye on Earth. Tasked with defeating the Deviants and subtly helping humanity thrive, they’ve also been given a mission to not interfere with humanity’s conflicts. It’s okay to tell campfire tales to the humans they live amongst, but they can’t gift ancient peoples advanced technology or stop their wars.

Our story thankfully gets to the meat of the Eternals problem quickly — once Sersi’s boyfriend (Kit Harington) is in on the secret, he immediately asks where they were during Thanos’ invasion, or every other human atrocity, for that matter. Gemma Chan plays Sersi as an empathetic immortal who seems to have a deep love of humanity and lives among them (similar to her comics character) and it’s clear that she feels haunted by the thousands of years she’s witnessed, not totally certain nonintervention was the correct choice — and truly this is the central moral question of the whole film.

Conceptually, a team of superpowered immortals who have been on Earth since the dawn of man would be difficult to seamlessly add to a shared universe that already spans 25 previous movies and a handful of TV series, and while the script does its best to avoid falling into the trap of attributing all great wonders of the world to ancient aliens, it never digs deeply enough into the themes that are seeded throughout the story. The concept of evolution — as a person, species, and planet — is a core of the story but doesn’t quite get fully integrated into the various subplots being bandied about. It feels like there are steps missing in some of the storylines, though it never drags or feels too long.

The first quarter of the film has some rough dialogue, not helped by the amount of exposition that needs to happen.  The script feels weakest when it focuses on the Deviants storyline. They’re presented as a threat that has re-emerged after thousands of years of supposed extinction. Designed in a way that sounds cool on paper — reptilian forms made up of writing vines that can be used to fight — the execution is grey and muddy, less biological and certainly less sentient than the beautiful Eternals, a standard Marvel trick to keep you from sympathizing with the species the Eternals essentially exterminate. Besides the lack of pseudo “Incan” iconography, it’s the largest departure from Jack Kirby’s original comic, but not the only one. Sersi is much different than the brassy dame in the comics, and the costume designs are far more subdued than the bright primary colors of Kirby’s cosmic art, though several take their forms from their original counterparts. The Celestials, too, are based on Kirby’s designs but do not replicate them.

Lauren Ridloff stands as Makkari, wearing a red and grey suit.
Sophie Mutevelian/Marvel Studios

The focus on evolution is also a definite nod to Kirby’s run, and the story borrows from various attempted Eternal storylines that came later, with nods all the way up to Jason Aaron’s recent Avengers. Some of the intrapersonal relationships are shuffled, but Sersi’s interest and immersion in the human race is still there, as is her awesome power of matter manipulation. But instead of being able to also transform the bodies and faces of her enemies, her power is limited to non-beings — plants, minerals, dirt. Each Eternal, in fact, has their own separate powerset, which is handy both for visual clarity during the fight scenes. Their powers, deployed in fun and interesting ways, also act as reflections on each character and their own priorities and strengths, a neat way to streamline the characterization.

We get multiple flashbacks that pop with lush colors, bright contrasts against the muted palette that hangs around many of the “present day” scenes. This is Zhao’s first film without cinematographer Joshua James Richards, and while her visual direction is still strong in some scenes I didn’t find it an enormous departure from the Marvel “house style.” Cinematographer Ben Davis has worked on four previous MCU films (Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Doctor Strange, and Captain Marvel) but has also done work on more naturalistic films like Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, for which he was nominated for a BAFTA. Here, he and Zhao seem to split the difference between the CGI-heavy fights and the landscapes of both ancient and modern Earth, but he doesn’t quite nail the sheer breath-taking scale needed for the more cosmic shots.

These flashbacks attempt to integrate the Eternals into humanity’s history, and they’re hit or miss. The best scenes focus on the intra-Eternal relationships, and Chan and Richard Madden especially have a sweet chemistry together. Beyond that, these flashbacks are ways of showing how the Eternals disagree amongst themselves about their orders regarding intervention into human conflict. We see Druig (Barry Keoghan) turn against their leader Ajak (Salma Hayek) during an enormous battle between the Mayans and Spanish conquistadors, proclaiming the Eternals witnesses to a genocide. And once the last monster is vanquished, they decide to go their separate ways while they wait to be called back to their home planet, Olympia.

The most egregious flashback has already gone viral on Twitter, a scene where Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) is on his knees in wreckage of Hiroshima after the atom bomb attack, asking “What have I done?” It’s meant to be a stark escalation of the Eternal’s previous disagreements, showing the stakes have continued to rise. It is also meant to demonstrate the moment where Phastos turned his back on humanity entirely, too horrified by their capacity for violence and overcome with guilt due to his own part in guiding their technological growth. Though I do not think the scene meant to imply Phastos was literally working with J. Robert Oppenheimer et. al. to develop atomic weaponry for the US military (the only piece of technology we actually see him develop and decide to gift to humans is…a plow), the fact that that reading is even possible shows how badly the scene failed at achieving its goals. And regardless of its intended purpose, the whole moment is crass and exploitative of a very real human tragedy. It’s objectively the worst scene and it’s honestly surprising that this version, so dissonant from the rest of the film, made it into the final cut of the film, especially from a filmmaker like Zhao.

The editing is also incredibly choppy, not just with regards to the flow of the film, but in inconsistencies in individual scenes.  These problems are most noticeable in the early half of the film; but the film does eventually find its groove, and even rewards your suspension of disbelief by the last act, pulling some satisfying twists that I found to be a fresh departure from the usual Marvel three act fare.

The cast, always Marvel’s strong suit, is really what makes any of this work at all. The actors are all committed, and their group chemistry is fun and easy to sink into if you’re able to overlook some technical flaws and missteps. The characters themselves don’t quite have enough time to individually develop fully, but have enough material to work with to create organic feeling relationships and the sense of history between them is well-established. Gilgamesh (Don Lee) and Thena’s (Angelina Jolie) battle-forged partnership is the one I desperately wanted more insight on, and one that doesn’t rely just on jokes to establish rapport.

Ma Dong-seok plays Gilgamesh, who sits at a table with the rest of the Eternals.
Marvel Studios

It’s the character interactions that make up the most compelling parts of the film, as they all had their own motivations, loyalties, and information surrounding the Celestials’ plans for Earth and the rest of the universe. Very rarely do you get heroic figures arguing against saving the world, and I would have sacrificed some of the Deviant storyline for more of the cosmic philosophizing. While I’m sure there will be takes about how this is all a metaphor in favor of American military interventionism, it’s at least ALSO about very forcibly grabbing your own destiny from those who would weaponize you, and despite the long runtime I really wanted more time to really dig into that idea in depth.

I also enjoyed the body diversity between our heroes that made for visually distinctive fights; Phastos is surely the first fat hero who doesn’t have to listen to a single on-screen fat joke. Keoghan’s Druig is going to be absolute catnip for fangirls, a morally conflicted little shit with dark hair and a penchant for romance. And despite having the worst scene of the movie as part of his backstory, Brian Tyree Henry is giving far more to this movie than the script gave him. He’s particularly fantastic in a scene where Phastos is being recruited by Ikaris and Sersi in the home he shares with his husband and son —the reason he decided to live amongst humanity again — and later in another key scene with Madden in the third act.

Chan is radiant as the de facto lead Sersi, and got the most complete arc out of the crew. But she felt a little too closed off, in a way that paralleled the restraint of Zhao’s direction. I think that restraint is what both kept this movie from entirely falling apart but also kept it from being something truly different or weird, especially as the third act crescendoed into cosmic battle and some truly intriguing twists in the lore made themselves known. (Obviously to be continued in the sequel.)

So, if all you want is a cast of beautiful people fighting and kissing, this is your popcorn film. I was drawn in by the backstory of Sersi and Ikaris, and honestly really enjoyed Kingo’s (Kumail Nanjiani) arc and valet (Harish Patel, absolutely killing it). His comic relief and Lee’s relaxed home chef take on Gilgamesh added personality into a dour MCU plotline once again focused on the end of the world.

Despite its pedigree, the Eternals has its problems, but I ultimately had a good time — it’s a fresh enough spin on the Marvel formula with a charming cast that I’d watch a sequel.

Kat Overland

Kat Overland

Small press editor Kat Overland is a displaced Texan now living in Washington, DC, where she is perpetually behind on reading her pull list. She's a millennial, Latina, exhausted, and can often be spotted casually cosplaying America Chavez and complaining.

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