I know what you’re thinking (it’s one of my many superpowers), “Is Eternals the worst Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) movie?” The answer may surprise you…no I’m not going to make you read 1000 words to learn that answer. Of course it’s not Marvel’s worst, Iron Man 2 and Thor: The Dark World still exist in this hellish reality do they not? Then as long as they’re around, Eternals can count its lucky stars. “So why the decidedly mixed response from critics?” Well, my dear reader, like a superstar’s relationships with their various paramours…it’s complicated.
But we get ahead of ourselves. The titular Eternals are ten godlike beings who have existed on Earth for seven millennia, each wielding incredible powers like transmutation, flight, super strength, mind control and casting illusions. They were sent to earth by the Celestial Arishem in order to protect humanity from a predatory species known as the Deviants. But remember, we are in the MCU, so these gods have basically been around for every horrible human conflict across history AND all the horrible stuff that has happened since Tony Stark decided to slap on mechanical armor. Oh but they were commanded by Arishem to ONLY interfere when Deviants were involved, so hands tied. Well, it’s a good thing that Deviants do show up to start killing all of them when the Eternals broke up for several centuries beforehand and the end of the world is coming in just a week. You know, typical superhero fluff.
That’s a nice bird’s eye view of the plot to keep the review focused, because this film thinks it’s denser than a neutron star when really it’s a very rushed form of epic story-telling in order to keep things at two and a half hours. Imagine putting together all three books of The Lord of the Rings into a single movie, that’ll give you a nice idea of how much stuff is going on here and how terrible of an idea it was to tell this particular story. You quickly realize that such a method quite simply cannot be done well. Hell, I just reviewed Dune where Villeneuve had to cut the source material in half just to keep things coherent.
To the credit of director/writer Chloé Zhao, things do make sense in this movie but you’re given precious microseconds to appreciate any of it. The film switches between flashbacks of the Eternals doing their jobs on Earth before their big break-up and the modern plot of them re-uniting to combat the resurgent threat of the Eternals all the while spouting exposition to keep you from getting lost. The first two-thirds of this film are badly edited to the point that you can tell whole scenes are missing from the theatrical cut. Frankly, I haven’t seen a hacking job like this since the theatrical cut of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (still can’t believe that was the actual title).
What’s frustrating is that unlike the aforementioned Batman v. Superman, I was genuinely interested in learning more about all of these characters and their various stories. Because you have some very interesting moral quandaries and situations spread about like the ethics of mind control; disbelief in a divine creator for giving you abnormal physical characteristics or a harrowing purpose; pretending you are the descendant of famous persons that were actually you because you can’t age; falling in love with ageless entities; memory loss due to living for millennia; losing in faith in humanity because of their monstrous desires; regaining faith through love, etc.
But again, you are given zero time to process any of it! Any one of the above themes or situations could make for a fascinating film, or just as an episode of a television series like Marvel itself is already doing with stuff like What If…? Cramming all of this into a two and a half hour movie (while also expanding the mythos of the MCU with new hero/villain teases AND adhering to the Marvel formula of sarcastic quips peppered alongside super-powered CGI fight scenes that all culminate in a big showdown) is just a fool’s errand.
I normally don’t harp as much on the plot and editing as I’m doing in this review, but it’s such a major issue that it took away my enjoyment of anything else this movie had to offer. Which is a shame because with big budget blockbusters becoming increasingly reliant on green screened sets, it was refreshing to see Zhao’s choice of camera angles and cinematography in various locations (oh yeah that’s another issue in that your heroes travel to a dozen locations around the globe in just a week so you zero chance to process your surroundings). Oh how embarrassing, I just found another gripe.
Okay, okay, I need to remind myself that there parts of this movie I liked. For instance, several members of this cast turn in some great performances. I really had fun with Don Lee (my man from Train to Busan), Richard Madden, and Brian Tyree Henry. Lia McHugh turns in a difficult and highly mature performance of a goddess trapped in the body of a young teenager, and I hope to see her in more productions. Meanwhile, Gemma Chan showed solid chops as the lead actress with the unenviable task of introducing us to the lives of the Eternals, their relationship with the Celestial Arishem, and her own complicated with love triangle with the characters played by Richard Madden and Kit Harrington…yes he’s in the movie too.
You may be surprised to see how little I have to say about Angelina Jolie. That’s because she’s barely in the damn movie despite how prominent she’s featured in all the marketing for this flick. And even when she’s on screen she has to play as someone who’s spaced the hell out for a very contrived plot-related reason that’ll take up another precious paragraph of your time. And she’s far from the only cast member to suffer this fate: Barry Keoghan and Kumail Nanjiani have pretty significant roles here but the movie bends over backwards to have them out of the picture for a good portion of the runtime. Ditto for Salma Hayek, who is criminally underused in this movie.
You know, I was way more positive about Eternals when I left the theater. But now that I’ve sat here to type out my thoughts, my opinion has only worsened. The frustrating thing is that I can’t in good conscience call this a “bad” film. As I said, there’s a lot of individual parts that I like and several parts I’d like to see given more time to be fleshed out. But the decision to tell this particular story with all of these characters in this way was simply a poor one. I accepted such grand storytelling in Avengers: Infinity War because I had time to know each and every member of the cast in various films that I had seen over the course of ten years. Trying to do the same thing with ten brand new characters (not counting the non-existent “antagonists” to use the term generously) is just baffling.
I was going to give this a MATINEE, but I realized I gave that rating to Dune, and I enjoyed that film far more despite my issues with it. So as it goes, it’s time for me to give my lowest rating to an MCU flick since I started writing reviews. Yep, this is a high…