Movie Curiosities: Eternals
Yes, I know it’s been a little while, but I’ve been exhaustively busy opening up my own show. I’m happy to report that ticket sales are great, the reviews have been swell (Seriously, the Willamette Week review got posted a few hours ago as of this typing, and I’m over the fucking moon!), and I’m still accepting tax-deductible donations to help defray the costs of production. If you’re willing and able to chip in, I’d be more than grateful.
Anyway, the show is now open and I can use some of my former rehearsal time to catch up on film reviews. A futile effort, as Hollywood has consistently tried to cram two years’ worth of cinema into the twelve months of 2021, and this year’s Oscar season looks to be even more chaotic and overstuffed than usual. Still, I want to give it my best effort, and of course the first one off my list just had to be Eternals.
Here we have a Marvel film made after The Dark Knight and Black Panther. It was also a film that had the good fortune to book director Chloe Zhao just before her historic Oscar run for Nomadland.
Comic book movies have long scraped against awards film respectability in their ongoing domination of greater pop culture, but this might very well be the first comic book movie specifically made and marketed as Oscar bait. As if that wasn’t bold enough, Marvel chose to make their big awards push with the Eternals, a comic book property made at the height of Jack Kirby’s trippy, spaced-out, incoherent phase (as with their DC siblings, the New Gods).
This is a bold move by any standards. Something Marvel could only do at their current world-conquering height, and maybe not even now. Little wonder the film came out to such a controversial reception — it’s perhaps inevitable that something so inherently bizarre and ambitious wouldn’t be universally well-received or understood. On the other hand, the MCU has repeatedly come under fire for being formulaic and churning out one identical origin story after another, and now the PTB are getting lambasted for bringing us a film that (for better or worse) is most certainly unlike anything else we’ve ever seen from the MCU up to this point.
Seriously, people, what do you want?
Anyway, the premise begins all the way back before the beginning. Long story short, it was a group of cosmic all-powerful beings called the Celestials who created the Infinity Stones, the stars and planets, and all of the universe itself. Trouble is, as mortal sentient beings evolved into existence, so did a race of nasty cosmic predators called “Deviants”. Thus the Celestials created the ageless Eternals, a race of warriors and scholars who could nurture sentient life and protect them from the Deviants.
I hasten to point out that this is told to us in the opening text crawl, and at least part of that will be exposed as a lie as the plot unfolds.
Our story focuses on ten such Eternals under the purview of a Celestial named Arishem (voiced by David Kaye). Let’s run down the roll call, shall we?
- Salma Hayek plays Ajak, the wise and compassionate matriarch of the Eternals. She has the power to heal herself and others.
- Gemma Chan plays Sersi, our de facto protagonist for the movie. She can transmute matter — so long as it isn’t alive, she can turn pretty much anything into pretty much anything else. (e.g. stone into wood, lead into gold, metal into water, you name it.)
- Richard Madden plays Ikaris, who was Sersi’s lover for about five thousand years before they broke up with the rest of the Eternals (more on that later). Ikaris can fly, he can shoot laser beams from his eyes… he’s basically Superman. In fact, there’s one truly bizarre moment in which a character explicitly mistakes him for Superman.
- Kumail Nanjiani plays Kingo, the sympathetic comic relief of the group. He can fire energy beams from his hands.
- Lia McHugh plays Sprite, an eternally youthful trickster with a gift for storytelling. She can project illusions.
- Brian Tyree Henry plays Phastos, the resident engineer. He crafts the gadgets and weapons that not only help the Eternals, but also help to advance humanity’s development.
- Lauren Ridloff (an actual deaf actress) plays Makkari, a deaf mute among the team. She’s also a speedster, one of the rare few Marvel characters in the company’s entire history who could give the Flash at DC a run for his money.
- Don Lee plays Gilgamesh, a gentle giant and one of the strongest beings in all the cosmos. (Sorry, buddy, but Hulk strongest there is.)
- Angelina Jolie plays Thena, arguably the fiercest warrior of the bunch, capable of generating all manner of energy shields and blades. Alas, Thena suffers from “Mahd Wy’ry”, a kind of dementia brought on by so many eons of mental stress.
- Barry Keoghan rounds out the crew as Druig, who can control minds.
Looking at that cast list, you may be wondering about Kit Harrington, here playing a mortal named Dane Whitman. Honestly, he may as well not even be in the film. The film makes a huge deal about positioning him in a love triangle with Sersi and Ikaris, but no, he’s got maybe two minutes of screen time in total and fuck-all to do with the plot. There’s an intriguing end credits stinger that sets him up as a player elsewhere in the MCU, but that’s it.
(Side note: I’m skeptical that a D-lister like the freaking Black Knight could be a major player in the MCU, but I would’ve said the same thing about Shang-Chi a year ago, so I guess anything’s possible.)
It’s a shame, because Dane Whitman was ideally placed as a mundane comic relief character who might have provided a more grounded and human take on all the cosmic craziness around him. Instead, that job falls to Karun (Harish Patel), the personal valet to Kingo. Though admittedly, Patel does the job far better than Harrington would have done, as it’s clear to see who has the better comedic chops.
But I’m getting WAAAY ahead of myself.
Anyway, the Eternals came down to Mesopotamia somewhere around 5,000 BCE and they’ve been living among us ever since. In fact, many of them served as direct inspiration for figures in myths and legends through antiquity. The only catch is that while the Eternals could prevent humanity from going extinct and nudge them in more progressive directions, they’re forbidden from directly interfering with any human conflict unless Deviants are involved.
All things considered, the Eternals had a good thing going until the 1500s, and then a lot of things happened in quick succession. For one thing, the Deviants on Earth had successfully been hunted to extinction, which left the Eternals wondering what to do next and why they were still here. Secondly, this is right about the time when Thena started losing her grip, making her a threat to herself and others.
But the big one was a little thing called the Spanish Inquisition. Druig took it especially hard, knowing he could use his mind control to prevent wholesale genocide, and all that’s stopping him is the will of the absent gods that made him. He directly exposes an existential crisis for the Eternals, openly asking why they can’t or shouldn’t directly interfere with human affairs now that the Deviants are gone and their mission is apparently over. What else are they supposed to do with their unlimited time? Do the Eternals have free will, and should the humans have it? What if humans were just a failed experiment to begin with?
These are all huge questions, and the Eternals all have their own opinions. Thus they all agree to go their separate ways and live as mortal humans for the next five hundred years. Sersi goes on to work as a teacher, Gilgamesh volunteers to serve as Thena’s caretaker, and Kingo becomes his own dynasty of Bollywood stars (posing as his own son, grandson, and so on).
I’m loathe to spoil exactly where we meet all the Eternals, but Phastos deserves special mention. Here’s a guy who completely and totally lost all faith in humanity after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Yet he went on to find a beautiful family with a loving husband and an adorable young son (respectively played by Haaz Sleiman and Esai Daniel Cross). That’s right, folks: After all the queer-baiting and broken promises, the madmen finally did it. Marvel and Disney finally followed through and gave us a sincere and heartfelt effort at queer representation. What we have here is a loving and authentic portrayal of a same-sex marriage, acknowledged by all the characters without ever demanding justification or explanation. It’s not a huge thematic point, it’s not crucial to the plot, but it’s easily prominent enough that any Chinese censors would have a hell of a time cutting around it. I absolutely love that Marvel and Disney finally found the guts to take that step.
In point of fact, a lot of ink has already been spilled about the diversity of the cast, and I must concur that it’s a powerful strong point in the movie’s favor. It makes a huge difference to see the entire human race shepherded by a pantheon as eclectic as the human race itself. Plus (as with any superhero team-up film), there’s a central emphasis on themes of cooperation, setting aside differences to work together against a greater threat, and so on. That theme is so much more potent when it’s about heroes of all races, sexual identities, ages, disabilities, etc.
Anyway, the plot gets going in the present day. After 500 years, Deviants have inexplicably started resurfacing. Worse, they’re inexplicably much more powerful and they’re going directly after the Eternals instead of hunting down humans. Worst of all, Sersi and a couple of her fellow Eternals go to seek counsel from Ajak, only to find that she’s apparently been killed by the Deviants. Which means that not only have they lost their leader, not only have they lost the only Eternal who can heal the others from mortal injury, and not only is Salma Hayek out of the movie (aside from a few flashback scenes), but it’s now firmly established that there’s a looming threat powerful enough to kill the freaking Eternals.
Naturally, Sersi and company decide to go globetrotting to get the band back together and stand united in the face of this new existential threat. Unfortunately, the film quickly loses sight of the Deviants when an even bigger threat comes into play. Seriously, the Deviants (most especially Bill Skarsgaard, here voicing and mo-capping the biggest and baddest of the Deviants) are mostly here because we can’t have a comic book movie without fight scenes, and we can’t have a fight scene without ugly faceless baddies to slap around. In particular, I could swear the filmmakers threw up their hands at the start of the third act and said “What’s that? Angelina Jolie wants something to justify her being here? Fine, let her beat up Bill Skarsgaard for a while, see if that makes her happy.”
In point of fact, the fight scenes in this picture are sadly unimpressive. The choreography is uninspired, and half the fight scenes are so dark that it’s way too difficult to even see the action. Still, the filmmakers did at least put in an effort to show the various power sets used in creative and versatile ways, and I can respect that.
The good news is that when the Deviants are back-burnered, they’re at least replaced by a greater threat that’s much more interesting. (In other words, this is like Shang-Chi in reverse.) I’m loathe to go into spoilery details, which is a damn shame because the Eternals are caught in a moral and existential dilemma that only gets more compelling with more consideration. Suffice to say that the Eternals have to choose whether they’re going to let Earth blow up and watch the entire human race perish, or put the fate of the universe in jeopardy and stop the creation of countless other species and planets every bit as vibrant as ours.
Yes, the “trolley problem” is a classic and well-trod theme in the MCU, but this is a neat new twist on the idea. It also helps that by virtue of the premise, the filmmakers, and the actors involved, this is examined on a cosmic scale with heart and intelligence, all of which serve to heighten the stakes and dramatic tension astronomically.
I think the rest might be summed up with a comparison to The Old Guard, another action movie about immortal and ageless warriors who’ve been around for pretty much all of human history.
- Eternals is longer than The Old Guard by a good half-hour.
- Eternals has a cast of ten major players, while The Old Guard has a roster only half that.
- Eternals features massive extended flashback sequences, while The Old Guard is mostly limited to modern-day Europe with brief flashbacks.
- Eternals is literally cosmic in scope, with grand explanations regarding the cosmic deities that created the Eternals and humanity, and why. With The Old Guard, we stay firmly planted on Earth and the exact notion of how and why the main characters are immortal is a recurring mystery.
Eternals spends most of its time exploring huge philosophical questions by literally exploring the grand cosmic depths of the MCU. The Old Guard explores many of the same questions when its characters turn inward and search their own souls. While Eternals has a much longer runtime, so much of it is spent exploring ancient history and the furthest stars without leaving enough time to examine its own characters in nearly as much detail.
Bottom line: Eternals casts its net much wider, but The Old Guard casts its net much deeper. And the latter film did so without compromising the action or making the fight scenes feel extraneous to the greater plot.
Still, there’s something to be said for the sheer ambition and scale of Eternals. In terms of pathos and thematic depth, everyone on all sides of the camera went all-in on pushing the limits of what’s possible and acceptable in superhero cinema. The entire cast is wonderful, and I’m overjoyed to see Gemma Chan prove herself as a capable leading talent. It’s almost a shame that we needed bland fight scenes with CGI monsters to break up the pacing and qualify it within the superhero genre, because the moral dilemmas at the heart and core of the plot were more than compelling enough.
It’s tough to deny that the film is overlong and padded out. I’m disappointed that the film stretched itself out so thin that there wasn’t any room to examine these huge questions any deeper. But considering the bugfuck source material that these filmmakers had to work with, getting from there to here is a tremendous accomplishment in itself. I personally commend the filmmakers for this grand experiment so far removed from the typical MCU comfort zone, and I thought it was a perfectly acceptable film even for all its faults.
But is it good enough to get Chloe Zhao her second Oscar in as many years? HELL NO!
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