'Eternals' review: Chloe Zhao can't make sense of convoluted Marvel misfire
Courtesy of Marvel Studios
What seemed like the perfect marriage of filmmaker and studio, Oscar winner Chloé Zhao (“Nomadland”) and Marvel Studios, turns out to be one of, if not, the biggest misfires since the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) began. Zhao, a unique, more than qualified filmmaker can't reign in a narrative that bounces all over the place, spins in several different directions, and runs an eternal runtime of 2 hrs and 37 minutes. It’s a rare blemish for both creative entities, and not even an electric ensemble, decent special effects, and the first openly gay character in the MCU could steer this metal blob of a ship.
Not for lack of ambition, “Eternals” is trying to set itself up as perhaps the next cosmic Avengers now that Iron-Man and Steve Rogers are out of the picture. Zhao was put in the tough position of juggling a dozen characters while interweaving them into the greater fabric of the MCU. Certain performances get their chance to shine (Kumail Nanjiani, Gemma Chan and Brian Tyree Henry), others (Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek, and Richard Madden) are left in the dust.
“Eternals” aims to unearth new events that have taken place within the MCU. This involves jumping between timelines throughout history including the Hiroshima bombing and the battle of Babylon in 500, BC in which the Eternals always stood idle, watching these moments manifest. The Eternals, we eventually find out, are immortal superheroes who have lived on earth since the dawn of creation. When asked why the Eternals, who from what the movie tells us are a strong bunch capable of anything, didn’t intervene when Thanos decided to wipe out half of humanity, the answer is less than satisfactory.
The squad includes Ajak (Hayek), Sersi (Chan), Ikaris (Madden), Thena (Jolie), Klingo (Nanjiani), Sprite (Lia McHugh), Phastos (Henry), Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), Druig (Barry Keoghan) and Gigamesh (Ma Dong-sok). Trying to keep all of them straight and their non-linear storylines is easier said than done as the heroes discuss backstories ranging from failed romantic courtships to making sense of why and how they were created. Zhao, who co-wrote the script with three other screenwriters, barley gets the surface level of these characters before backpedaling into a CGI snooze fest where the Eternals battle creatures called Deviants, a deadly and evolving predator not far removed from those seen in “A Quiet Place.”
You see, the Eternals sole purpose is protecting human civilization from Deviants, which I guess are the only living thing our heroes can unleash their powers upon. Most of the Eternal gang struggle with an inner moral conundrum on whether or not to interfere with historical events considering they’ve seen a-lot of bloodshed and genuinely want to help. Which makes the whole “we couldn’t interfere with Thanos” excuse even more far fetched. As for their powers, few are noteworthy, even by Marvel standards. Ikaris can fly and shoot lasers out his eyeballs (one kid appropriately dubs him Superman though Madden has nothing on Henry Cavill); Ajak can heal, and Phastos creates new technology almost instantaneously. When the time comes for the inevitable Deviant throwdown, all these powers are so generic and lifeless, you don’t care who they belong to.
Zhao brings pedigree into the MCU canon, but the “The Rider” director can’t lock down a clear identity. “Eternals” is lacking a human and emotional component despite having one of the better MCU casts of recent memory. It doesn’t help that the film is constantly shifting and maneuvering between international locations and timelines, always thinking ahead (fans should be aware there are two post-credit scenes) but never taking a breather to establish a sense of camaraderie. Angelina Jolie is practically absent the entire movie, save for a couple punches during the bombastic climax, and Nanjiani, one of the funniest comedians working today, is never given a moment to highlight those chops.
It all comes down to world-building, something Kevin Feige and the brass at Marvel have perfected over the years. Sure enough, your knowledge of “Eternals” will probably help later down the line (which means, regardless of the quality, you almost have to watch to understand references), but for arguably the first time in the MCU canon, there’s an entry that takes audiences for granted. How can you ask viewers to stay invested in characters when their own film doesn’t? Fans will look past those flaws, understanding “Eternals” is but a stepping stone into a newer, brighter future. For Marvel’s sake, I hope they’re right.
ETERNALS opens in theaters Friday, November 5th.