The Eternals are Marvel’s newest superteam — a group of beings so powerful, they could easily throw down with the Guardians of the Galaxy and the Avengers if it ever came down to it.
Sent to Earth thousands of years ago by their creators, the ultra-mega-powerful Celestials, the Eternals have watched over humanity from the shadows, protecting intelligent life from the murderous Deviants.
When Iron Man returns the missing half of Earth’s population during the events of Endgame, the planet reaches peak population. That initiates a world-ending event — the Emergence. The Celestial seed buried in the Earth’s core begins to tear apart the planet apart in a violent birth that will inevitably consume all life energy.
The Eternals is a visually beautiful film that tries, but fails, to lay down some deeply profound conflicts. Over the course of its 157-minute runtime, it manages to somehow fail to plumb those conflicts in any real meaningful way.
Much of the movie’s first half pings jarringly back and forth between the past and present, in the hopes of manufacturing connections between the various characters and audience. We’re introduced to Ajak (Salma Hayek), the group’s leader and mother figure, who has the power to heal and has the only direct line of communication with the lead Celestial, Arishem.
Ikaris (Richard Madden), the group’s Superman, shoots eyebeams, flies, and has super strength. As Ajak’s right-hand man, his defining characteristic is his zealotry to the group’s mission. To Ikaris, the Celestials orders are to be followed to the letter, and all prompts passed from Arishem through Ajak are law.
Sprite, Kingo, Phastos, Gilgamesh, Druig, and Makkari round out the cast — and for the most part are instrumental in developing the plot. But the truly notable characters are Gemma Chan’s Sersi and Angelina Jolie’s Thena who shoulder the main conflicts and carry the film’s perspectives.
Working as a teacher, Sersi has embedded herself deep into human life along with Sprite (Lia McHugh) who masquerades as a student at Sersi’s school. Sersi and Ikaris were a thing in the past, but she has since moved on after he suddenly ghosted her.
Sersi’s ability to change inanimate matter helps her play defense against the various obstacles in her path, but it’s her heart for humanity that makes her the perfect replacement as leader of the Eternals when Ajak is killed by a Deviant. Unable to choose between the imminent birth of the Celestial Tiamat and the humans she’s come to love, she decides to search for a plan to stall the Celestial’s birth.
Thena, on the other hand, gives the movie its most resonant character. Stricken with Madh W’yry, Thena has become a liability to the group. Having lived for far too long, her brain can’t handle the amount of memories she’s obtained which leads to bouts of extreme violence when she can’t tell the difference between friend or foe. Because Thena also happens to be the team’s deadliest fighter, Ajak decides it’s best to wipe Thena’s mind clean in order to keep the disbanding team from being hunted down one by one. That’s when Gilgamesh (Ma Dong-Seok), the team’s most physical force and a match for Thena’s fighting prowess, offers to keep Thena company for the foreseeable future.
It’s through Sersi and Thena that the film’s convoluted plot filters. The birth of a Celestial at the cost of human lives leads to a conflict with no perfect solution, and while it could have been a profound plot point worthy of being examined, the Eternals movie can’t handle the load. Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) literally peaces out in the middle of the movie because he can’t betray the Celestials who have lied to the group about their true mission — allowing humans to grow without interference produces conflict. And conflict creates technological breakthroughs that increases the human population until there’s enough essence to birth the Celestial seed ready to be birthed.
Unable to come to terms with the reality of their mission, Ikaris betrays the group and kills Ajak’s death in a plot that ultimately leads to the group’s rejoining together, the empowering of a Deviant to cognizance, and the ultimate death of the Celestial Tiamat who is frozen in place by Sersi who has — conveniently — gained the power of transmuting sentient matter thanks to the Celestial’s bond during Emergence.
It’s all connected, and it’s all so counterintuitive. Ikaris’ plan to kill Ajak and then have the Eternals come together in order to waste their time hunting a Deviant only leads to their collected ability to prevent the Emergence through a solution that feels plucked out of thin air — the uninspired uni-mind. In effect, the group’s togetherness harnesses the power of all into one, but it’s Tiamat’s bond with the Eternals that gives Sersi the to cause his own death, and poor Ikaris — unable to come to grips with his decision to kill one of his masters — flies into the sun.
It’s ironic, but hardly poetic. It just feels so forced and mechanical. When you place characters in difficult situations, it’s the testing of their mettle that produces development. We learn who people are when things get hard, but Eternals takes that notion and turns it into something this side of ridiculous.
Not only is Sersi left alone to walk towards a volcano in the middle of an ocean, she has to do it after she’s been impaled through the gut by Sprite’s sudden, but obviously inevitable, betrayal.
Frodo, eat your heart out.
On paper, it screams “Epic!” but the finished product takes itself way too seriously and spends a lot of time going through the motions in order to try and create some pathos. It feels slapped together and unnatural. A part of me thinks the filmmakers didn’t have everything in concrete place as the movie was made, and after reading about Lauren Ridloff’s experience of watching the finished film and being disappointed with the cuts, I feel like that’s what really happened.
And that’s really unfortunate because I think the Eternals could have been a great film. I especially liked Ridloff’s Mikkari and her chemistry with Barry Keoghan’s Druig, which wasn’t in the script but was added due to the film due to the undeniable spark the characters had.
It’s evidence of what could have been, but Eternals is what we get — dull, overproduced, and utterly humorless. It embodies Marvel fatigue while trying too hard to be anything but.
In its effort to be the emotional core of a new phase in the MCU, it spends way too much time demanding attention.
Directed by: Chloé Zhao
Screenplay by: Chloé Zhao, Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo, and Kaz Firpo
Starring: Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek, Kit Harington, Kumail Nanjiani, Lia McHugh, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Ridloff, Barry Keoghan, Ma Dong-seok, Harish Patel, Bill Skarsgård, and Harry Styles