After 25 films, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s tried and true formula is all too familiar. The epic Infinity Saga has come to a close, Earth’s mightiest heroes have ventured into the world of television, and the experimental Phase 4 is off to a mixed start.
The latest big screen adventure, “Shang-Chi,” marked a step back towards solid ground, and now the long-awaited arrival of “Eternals” has been met with extreme criticism.
“Eternals” is a lot, and it’s OK to call it too much. There’s a ton of exposition and character development to simultaneously unload, all while also trying to establish conflict and craft a gripping plot. But is it the atrocious stain on the MCU it has been made out to be? Not at all.
While every piece may not fit perfectly, the good news is that the story director Chloé Zhao is trying to tell and the characters she is using to tell it are compelling and worth investing in.
Spanning millennia from Earth’s creation all the way to present day, “Eternals” introduces 10 ancient aliens tasked with protecting the planet from monstrous known as Deviants who prey on humankind. While these heroes boast a wide range of powers and have been around throughout the entirety of human history, they have been instructed by their planet-building Celestial leader, Arishem, never to interfere unless Deviants are involved.
After ridding the world of all the Deviants, the Eternals are now free to live amongst the people they’ve protected for so long. Some, like Sersi (Gemma Chan) or Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) find love amongst the humans, while others find fame like Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani). Still, the majority live in isolation with their powers, as Thena (Angelina Jolie), Gilgamesh (Don Lee), Ajak (Salma Hayek), Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) and Druig (Barry Keoghan) stick to the shadows.
But when Sersi and fellow Eternals Ikaris (Richard Madden) and Sprite (Lia McHugh) are attacked by a new Deviant in present day, the team is forced to reunite in order to save the planet from a Celestial attack.
For most of its runtime, “Eternals” doesn’t feel like just another entry in the MCU. It’s clear Zhao came into this with a vision, and while certain Feige-sized boxes had to be checked off, she was able to divert from the traditional blueprint. The biggest detour comes in the form of the film’s conflict and antagonist. There isn’t necessarily a centralized big bad to face off against, instead much of the conflict comes from feelings of betrayal and mistrust within the group of Eternals themselves. With characters as intriguing and compelling as these we have just met, that sets up plenty of interesting relationships to explore.
The cast itself is certainly the most diverse to helm an MCU picture yet, and it works beautifully. Each character left me wanting more, and they were all introduced and distributed in a way that never felt overwhelming — which is an accomplishment considering there are 10 Eternals and a few extras to get to know. Chan is impressive leading the way, Nanjiani is the scene-stealer everyone has claimed him to be, and Henry and Keoghan deserve a whole movie a piece.
What’s unfortunate about the cast is that its weakest link is one of its most prominent characters. Madden’s Superman-esque Ikaris is front and center in multiple ways – in a romance with Sersi, in the plot to save the world, and as the de facto leader of the Eternals. For someone was charismatic and charming as Robb Stark from “Game of Thrones,” that warmth is absent here. While the Eternals may not be human, they’re meant to feel as if they are – but Ikaris is the only one who doesn’t. As the MCU breaks ground with its first ever sex scene (gasp!) between two supposed lovers, it’s impossible to feel a true connection or chemistry between Madden and Chan or their characters. Instead, the subtle and teased relationship between Ridloff’s Makkari and Keoghan’s Druig is far more compelling and deserved more exploration.
At a lengthy 157 minutes, it still feels as if “Eternals” was rushed presenting everything it wanted to explore. Getting to know the characters – both who they once were and now are – understanding the Celestial, Deviant and Eternal lore, setting up a world-ending disaster and subsequently saving the day is a lot to ask for, and a nearly three-hour movie would never have enough time to rightfully unpack everything here. While it never would have happened, a 10-episode “Eternals” would have easily been the greatest Marvel series to hit Disney+ yet.
The rampant criticism and Rotten rating truly don’t make any sense, as something this caliber with “Captain America” or “Iron Man” as a part of the title would at the very least earn a solid 75% on Rotten Tomatoes. If anything, expectations were too high for a project dubbed “the next ‘Avengers,'” that happened to be helmed by an Academy Award winner. It’s certainly not as jaw-dropping technically as the lofty expectations for Zhao’s take on the MCU, but there is still more than enough here to help set it apart from the typical Marvel look and feel.
All things considered, “Eternals” hits on far more than it misses – and if a bit of inconsistency is the cost to see this franchise deviate from its typical formula, then that’s a price worth paying.
“Eternals” opens in theaters on November 4, 2021.
Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Raleigh, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.