Eternals is fast becoming the most polarizing Marvel film yet. Negative and positive reviews are flooding in with no clear consensus emerging. Here at Flickchart we’re all about making hard choices, but sometimes even we can’t make up our minds. So instead of one review, you get two: bloggers Connor Adamson and Kyle Larkin do battle below, pitting review against review in order to best represent the array of views out there… and perhaps to decide the fate of Eternals on the Flickchart global chart?
No. It’s you who does that, by ranking it on your own Flickchart. Still, you should read on!
With nearly 13 years and 25 movies to their name, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is showing no signs of slowing down. In fact their slate is more bloated than ever, with Eternals being their third of four movies to be released in 2021, and another six movies scheduled to be released over the next two years. As Kevin Feige and Co. continue to redefine what a booming franchise can mean, the question that looms is whether the winning formula that brought them wild success through the end of Phase Three will carry momentum into a largely uncertain Phase Four. That famous formula, criticized by many for being algorithmic or cookie-cutter, hasn’t really failed the studio yet. Now, they get to add a new ingredient to that superhero recipe, as they hope recent Best Director and Best Picture winner Chloe Zhao can add some prestige to the franchise.
What the MCU has done particularly well compared to their competition and Marvel’s own past attempts is turn obscure characters (to general audiences, at least), into big-screen, household names. It began with Iron Man, continued with Ant-Man and Doctor Strange, and proved fruitful as recently as September with Shang-Chi. Perhaps the best example of this, and the closest comparison to Eternals, is James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy. Both are team-ups originating somewhere in deep space, with a heavy focus on dynamics and humor. But the comparisons end there, as the atmosphere of Eternals is far less quirky, and the immortal alien race spend the vast majority of their time on Earth. An ancient Celestial named Arishem has sent the Eternals and their various powers to Earth to guard humanity from the deviants, a beastly species hellbent on killing all. After nearly seven millennia the Deviants are thought to be eradicated, so following some bickering the Eternals go their separate ways while they await instruction from their master to return home.
This ambitious scope sounds exciting, and a director like Chloe Zhao, who has shown a skill with handling actors and telling intimate stories, might seem poised to deftly balance 10 new characters and build them up in a meaningful sense. So, how did it turn out?
Fresh off the highs of Nomadland — a film known for its raw depiction of reality and stunning shots in real locations — some of the hype surrounding Eternals was about whether Chloe Zhao’s style would translate. Perhaps a raw depiction could ground a story about superheroes from space. One of the first rumors that spread after Zhao signed on was her request to film in real locations again, and her request was realized in a way the MCU had yet to experience. Because of the nature of the plot, Zhao was afforded the opportunity to film in many beautiful locations around the world. At this point, there may not be many people better equipped to do that. Nearly every scene was an exquisite feast for the eyes, showcasing indelible shots of Earth’s breathtaking vistas. It’s just unfortunate how many of those shots had overly-long, above-the-shoulder close-ups of characters looking forlornly into the distance.
Eternals does feel like a unique MCU film in a very direct way. It carries multiple hallmarks of Zhao’s directorial language. There are gorgeous landscape shots throughout the film, featuring barren South Dakota plains, contact with cosmic god-like entities, wistful beaches crashing with waves, and solitary figures framed against the destruction of a civilization. In moments where the camera sits back and shows off Zhao’s eye, there is a stoic beauty to this film in a way unlike any other Marvel movie.
Acting and Characters
Salma Hayek, who plays the de facto leader Ajak, turned one of her better performances in years. And Jolie, though subdued in a somewhat lesser role, punctuated each scene she was in. Ma Dong-Seok and Kumail Nanjiani brought a lot of life and heart, but it was veteran Indian actor Harish Patel who deserves a ton of credit for balancing out the weightier scenes with his humor. Allowing a lesser character to shine and surprise the audience in the few moments they get is another trademark of the MCU formula; when it works, it is the charm and soul of the franchise. Here, thankfully, it adds a level of relatability to yet another story about powerful beings protecting everyday people from the big baddies.
Zhao’s handling of the characters works in many ways, but has significant flaws. Due to the huge number of characters, only some get fully-realized arcs. The film tries its best to balance all of the arcs, but ultimately it’s overwhelmed by the sheer amount of content. The first half is fairly shoddily edited, intercutting development from across all of human history, showcasing our heroes living in various key empires. Yet these scenes cut from one to another without much rhythm, and the dialogue suggests that many more scenes were likely cut, probably contributing to this haphazard feeling. Even when the film picks up the pace after a second act twist, it can’t escape the feeling of being overstuffed.
Individual moments do work well, though. Eternals actually wrestles with meaningful philosophical issues, and while the dialogue can be hamfisted, the great cast does make each character resonate and feel unique in exploring their point of view. Richard Madden‘s Ikaris feels entirely different from Brian Tyree Henry‘s Phastos or Don Lee’s Gilgamesh. Kumail Nanjiani‘s Kingo is a highlight as a comedic character, bringing some levity to the proceedings. Gemma Chan is also impressive as the sort-of lead of the film. While not every character is equal, it is impressive that none of them entirely blur into each other.
Writing & Direction
In present day, the opening scenes focus on Gemma Chan’s Sersi, where it becomes clear she is to be the primary protagonist. Although she is certain she likes her new home, how her fellow immortals feel and what their future has in store is much foggier. Centuries of peace from a war unknown to most humans comes to an end early in the movie when a vicious deviant makes a surprise appearance. Barely escaping, Sersi and a couple of her compatriots realize it’s time to get the gang back together and figure out what’s going on. From there, the story meanders across the planet and through time, weaving the centuries-long tale and revealing piece by piece the patchwork that is the complicated relationship of the Eternals. The movie’s protracted runtime stems from this narrative structure, as there is much to explain and perhaps one or two characters too many.
Where the writing is cleverest is where it is explains how the names of Richard Madden’s Ikaris or Angelina Jolie’s Thena made their way into human mythology, or why the Eternals didn’t lend their talents when villains like Thanos were killing the people they were sent to protect. Where the script falters is its attempt to enrichen each character with an idiosyncrasy or tragedy, often stooping into melodrama. Zhao did a fine job giving each Eternal their time to shine, and the cast brought their own unique charm to each of their characters, but ultimately the necessity to swing the camera in that many directions was a disservice. If a few of the weaker characters were left on the writing board, everything would have felt tighter as a whole and the runtime could have been shortened.
The film does suffer from the common MCU issue, which is a weak villain. The primary villains are CGI monsters. And while there are some twists throughout the film, the Deviants are ultimately uninteresting, and time spent on them feels largely wasted. They provide action scenes, which are decent if not top-class, but little else beyond that.
There is also an overload of cheap CGI. Perhaps the pandemic is to blame, but the recent slate of MCU films have had some fairly shoddy effects, which is disappointing after the amazing work on Thanos. So many aspects of Eternals feature bad-looking CGI, from airplanes to cityscapes to even small, individual items. One might hope that the presence of a prestige director like Zhao would lead to a more deliberate use of built sets and props. Sadly, it feels like almost nothing in the film is practical apart from some of the location shooting.
Overall, the 26th movie in the MCU’s pantheon felt creatively fresh. The backstory and Arishem itself were interesting. The CGI was pretty (it better have been, considering they had extra time). The climax was exciting, and, if one ignores the basic physics of tectonic plates, fascinating to watch and ponder. Like most origin stories before, the door is left wide open for a thrilling future with endless possibilities. It will be intriguing to see how the Eternals fit into the machinations of Earth’s Avengers, and how they fit in amongst the rest of the massive-and-still-growing league of characters, if at all. Now that this new team has been established, it is easy to see that with some sharper writing there is a lot of room to improve and grow. How you feel about Eternals boils down to a your-mileage-may-vary metric. If you are experiencing franchise fatigue, it will likely sit low on your MCU chart. If you’re still following the series with great interest, it should sit somewhere in the middle of the pack. It is a worthy entry, nothing more, which is probably not what the studio wanted to hear after bringing in an auteur director.
Eternals can’t help but feel disappointing in some sense. If one was hoping for Chloe Zhao to make an elite new breed of MCU film, you were likely let down. There is a uniqueness here to be championed, as it entirely avoids many of the standard MCU tropes. The ambition and scope of the film are impressive, but it’s just unfortunate that Eternals struggles for air while trying to balance all of its information. It is a wonky, unbalanced work, bizarrely paced at times, and often you’re unsure how to feel. The clash of some of the formal brilliance with outright formal amateurism renders it one of the lower-tier Marvel movies.
Eternals is currently ranked 791/2452 (68%) on Kyle’s Flickchart.
Eternals is currently ranked 1349/2213 (39%) on Connor’s Flickchart.