Courtesy of Marvel

November 22, 2021

‘Eternals’ is Worth Every Overcrowded Minute

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(Warning: major spoilers ahead!) At first, Marvel’s Eternals staggered onto the big screen under abysmal ratings from critics and a horde of ‘review-bombers’ enraged by the film’s diverse cast and LGBTQ+ representation. The film now, however, seems to be getting fairly positive audience reviews, praised for its existential ambitions. On the heels of the widely-successful Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, fans are wringing their hands over the lackluster response. 

I, at least, unrepentantly enjoyed Eternals, despite my problems with it. While an overcrowded spectacle with pacing and subtlety issues, Eternals directed by the talented Chloé Zhao was redeemed by its cinematography and soundtrack, and the chemistry of its ensemble cast that made their characters vulnerable and charming. The film forecasts the future of the MCU: cramped, convoluted and beautifully strange. 

First and foremost, I think that Eternals should have been two films, or have been twenty minutes longer. There were two interwoven threads that did not give the other enough space to be cohesive. One was flashes throughout human history of the Eternals, an ageless band of super-beings that protect Earth from creatures called Deviants, each with characteristic powers like summoning cosmic energy weapons or casting illusions. Almost too casually, scenes of Babylonian greenery and colonial violence give us a vacillating taste of the Eternals’ long lives, deified in different mythologies, watching but not interfering unless Deviants are involved (more on that later). 

Eternal’s other thread is the MCU’s present-day, post-Endgame, when the Eternals discover that their protection of humans in the service of a Celestial named Arishem has actually been incubating a Celestial in the Earth. After five-hundred years, they get the band back together from across the globe, only to be fractured again by disagreement over how to deal with the Emergence. 

Enough weight could not be given to the emotional arcs of many of the Eternals, making most plot twists feel like a punch to the gut, but a few prompting a shocked laugh (probably not the intended impact of one character flying into the sun). The film tries to fit in so much dazzling visuals and action that some dialogue feels contrived, if only because of how abruptly we are hit with an introductory montage, like that of Sersi (Gemma Chan) and Ikaris (Richard Madden) falling for each other. (Still not sure why we needed the awkward sex, but fans may have overreacted a little.) 

 Eternals also had a telling-not-showing problem, especially with humans. In one facetious scene, the genius inventor Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) whips up an engine because humans are not advancing fast enough for him, only to be chided by fellow Eternals into devising a more period-appropriate plow. Not until halfway through the movie, when we see Phastos’s love for his human husband and son, do we get any sense of his tangible connection to humans. In general, it is an overly abstracted desire among Eternals to protect and nurture. Kit Harrington’s Dane Whitman is likable but often absent, so it’s really Kingo’s (Kumail Nanjiani) valet, Karun (Harish Patel) with his comic devotion to filming everything, that reps for us humans. 

Kingo himself, in all his vanity and swagger, is great. He is the font of humor, though I wish he hadn’t conscientiously objected to the final battle. I must also give some ink to Lauren Ridloff’s mischievous Makkari who, despite less screentime than the others, can add my heart to her magpie collection of artifacts she amasses onboard their starship. Not only is it exciting to see a deaf actress and superhero in the MCU, but the breathlessly fast visuals of her super-speed  — and the way she does not hesitate to use murderous Ikaris as a punching bag — are some of the best parts of the film. I was also delighted by her chemistry with Barry Keoghan’s teasing but temperamental Druig who, speaking of, is tied with Makkari for my favorite character. 

Alright, there may be a discussion to be had about the Loki-to-Druig-fan pipeline, but I was invested in the moral dilemmas troubling a mind-controller who I’d assumed would be a bit wicked. In actuality, he gives voice to my own objections, clashing with Ikaris and the stern but motherly leader, Ajak (Salma Hayek), over their complicity in colonial genocide because of their non-involvement. Thousands of years of ruminating over the horrors of human conflict takes its toll. Standing horrified above Tenochtitlan as it burns, Druig’s solution is to play god; he walks everyone out of there (free will privileges revoked) to the tune of a hauntingly beautiful bit of soundtrack, starting a reclusive commune in the Peruvian rainforest. 

And so what comes of the dangerous arrogance in seeing history as a teleology, all things part of a necessary development? Was the film itself guilty of this in the way characters often treated technology as a measure of progress? Although Eternals dances with free will, I’m not sure this flawed idea of history was explored enough. 

On the topic of complicated characters, Sprite (Lia McHugh) is a strange one. I can’t decide if I empathize with her pettiness after being stuck as a child for millennia, or not. I am told it is understandable that one would turn traitor for Richard Madden, but backstab the genuinely wholesome Sersi? That’s where she lost me. Sersi is the grounding character, leading by example and not force, enjoying life among humans. I tend to overlook kindly protagonist types, but when she discovers that, as creations of the Celestials, they have all been synthetic pawns and never truly alive, something about Sersi’s unshaken gentleness makes her the accessible heart of the film. 

That leaves us with Thena (Angelina Jolie) and Gilgamesh (Ma Dong-seok aka Don Lee), both powerhouses whom I could not fail to mention. Thena is a great warrior struggling with a form of dementia, overwhelmed by memories of countless lives. Gilgamesh is her doting protector, baker-of-pies and friend, bringing her back from the brink. Their old married couple dynamic is organically likable. As with most elements of Eternals, given more screen time I would have been even more moved by the tragedy of their mutual dependence and Jolie’s performance as Thena grapples with loss. At least she slices and dices the forgettable Deviant leader, Kro. The intra-Eternals conflict creates more interesting tension than the Deviants, anyway. 

As I think is clear, so much is going on with these characters that I sometimes forgot to follow the plot. What’s happening again? Oh, right, Earth is an egg. Harry Styles is Thanos’s brother. And Kit Harrington has a whispering sword. Though lively, Eternals teeters under the weight of all it tries to set up for future stories, especially because most Marvel team-ups bring together characters that were already introduced at length individually. All things considered, however, Eternals does really well for itself. The universe is expanding faster than ever, but we are saved from whiplash by stories grounded in introspective, familiar motivations: to retain a sense of purpose, to grow, to protect, to make peace.

Charlee Mandy is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].