REVIEW – ‘Eternals’ bites off more than it can chew

One of the biggest criticisms lobbed at the Marvel Cinematic Universe is its persistence with sticking to the tried and true “Marvel formula.” In most Marvel Studios films (particularly first outings of new superheroes), we meet our down on their luck protagonist who soon discovers their hidden superpower which attracts the attention of some ungodly antagonist who forces our new hero to overcome insurmountable odds and ultimately save the day. Now that you’ve read it, you can see how many Marvel films it applies to, right?

To be fair, this generic plot arc could be applied to literally hundreds of action films, but it’s worked incredibly well for Marvel for over ten years and they’ve rarely stepped off this well-worn track. When Marvel Studios tapped Academy Award-winning director Chloé Zhao to helm Eternals, it looked like this may finally be the film to shatter the formula. In many ways, Eternals is unlike any MCU film thus far. However, that’s not necessarily a good thing.

While the diverse ensemble cast brings impressive (and overdue) representation to this franchise and its ambition and scope are both hugely admirable, the end result is muddled by an exposition-heavy plot that takes itself far too seriously and pacing problems that cause the film to drag for considerable periods of time. There are moments of visual and narrative brilliance, but it’s ultimately a film that bites off more than it can chew.

The film centres on the titular group of ten super-powered alien creatures who were sent to Earth 7,000 years ago by Arishem (voiced by David Kaye), their Celestial master who instructed the Eternals to watch over the planet and protect it from an evil race of murderous beasts known as Deviants. Strictly forbidden from intervening in events involving human conflict (hence why they were nowhere to be seen during Thanos’ reign of terror), the Eternals instead guide humanity’s development and encourage our natural evolution.

After spending centuries fulfilling their mission to rid the globe of every last Deviant, the team went their separate ways. Cut to present day and we find manipulator of inanimate matter Sersi (Gemma Chan) living a simple life in London with her human boyfriend, Dane (Kit Harrington) and fellow Eternal Sprite (Lia McHugh), an illusion master stuck in the form of a 12-year-old child. When a powerful (and presumed extinct) Deviant attacks the trio, they’re saved by the reemergence of Sersi’s former love Ikaris (Richard Madden), the most powerful Eternal who can fly and project cosmic energy beams from his eyes.

With no choice but to get the band back together, the gang set off around the globe to reunite the Eternals and stop the potential Deviant uprising. On their checklist we find the group’s former leader Ajak (Salma Hayek), who is blessed with the ability to self-heal and acts as the line of communication between the Eternals and Arishem; Thena (Angelina Jole), an elite warrior who can form weapons from cosmic energy; Gilgamesh (Don Lee), who is endowed with superhuman strength; Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), a deaf hero who possesses super-speed; Kingo (a typically scene-stealing Kumail Nanjiani), a cocky show-off who can project cosmic energy projectiles from his hands and currently lives the life of a hugely famous Bollywood star; Druig (Barry Keoghan), who can manipulate the minds of humans; and Phaistos (Bryan Tyree Henry), the group’s uber-intelligent inventor who now lives quietly in the suburbs with his husband, Ben (Haaz Sleiman) and their young son, Jack (Esai Daniel Cross).

For all its flaws, Eternals is still a landmark moment for diversity in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and that has to be cause for celebration. From race and gender to sexual orientation and special needs, this film shatters preconceived notions of what normally constitutes a superhero protagonist. Just the fact two of its leads are both “women of a certain age” would be groundbreaking enough for this genre of cinema. It’s a group of characters who represent humanity in such varied ways and that kind of representation can only be seen as a good thing.

While lacking in blockbuster filmmaking experience, Zhao is the perfect choice to challenge the status quo of the Marvel universe, particularly after her historic wins at this year’s Oscars. She’s a director with a penchant for human drama, and that’s inherently what we find hidden amongst a whole lot of fantastical sci-fi gobbledygook. Zhao knows she has to deliver action set pieces, but she’s mixed them amongst an ambitious narrative that focuses on conflict, guilt, power, and love.

But it’s this kind of ambition that is ultimately this film’s undoing. Even with a running time of almost two-and-a-half hours, it’s simply trying to do too much at once. We’ve never met any of these ten characters previously, which causes Zhao to spend much of the film drowning in backstories and scenes of heavy dialogue to establish who they are, what they can do, why they’re on Earth, what they’ve been up to for the last few centuries, what they’re up to now, and the complicated relationships in the group where the power dynamic seems to shift at every turn. If that’s exhausting to read, it’s can be just as tiresome to watch. It’s almost like viewing an entire Phase of the MCU condensed into one film.

By using one film to introduce so many new characters, Zhao is saddled with attempting too much character development in a short space of time. Several characters are introduced and then given very little to do for the next 90 minutes before returning for the final battle. One character even decides to just tap out of taking any part in the climactic finale only to re-appear when it’s all over. It’s confounding moments like this that make you realise this film is juggling too many balls at the same time and most of them are seemingly stuck in mid-air.

Zhao takes a non-linear approach to her storytelling, which is a curious and occasionally interesting decision. But it also causes the film to repeatedly jump to exposition-heavy flashbacks that often cause the pacing to grind to a halt. Just when you think the narrative is finally progressing somewhere, we have to pause and head back to the past to understand what’s coming next. It’s akin to reading a novel by starting with chapter one, then jumping to chapter 17, then back to three, and so on. That’s a problem when the chapters aren’t equally interesting, leading the film to suffer from long periods of genuine dullness.

With such a crowded ensemble cast, it’s essentially 156 minutes of every actor attempting to make the most of the time they’re given. Both Nanjiani and Henry inject some desperately needed levity into the serious narrative, particularly the former whose blustering Bollywood persona is a breath of fresh air. Nanjiani struggles to handle his character’s more dramatic beats, but Zhao takes full advantage of his natural gift for dry humour. Hayek and Jolie bring some gravitas to proceedings, but they both feel terribly wasted, particularly Jolie who barely utters more than ten lines of dialogue.

Harrington is saddled with the thankless (and, for now, pointless) boyfriend role. But, if you know your Marvel lore, you’re aware his character will have more to do in the future. Keoghan plays Druig as aloof to the point of disinterest, but he is blessed with a meatier backstory involving his frustration and guilt over being forced to watch humans constantly destroy each other while knowing he could solve all their problems with his powers. The film tries achingly hard to create an epic love story between Sersi and Ikaris, but even the usually charismatic Chan and Madden can’t save such disappointingly bland characters.

On the insistence of Zhao, much of the production was filmed on location and shunned the use of green screen where possible. The end result is genuinely beautiful and blesses the visuals with a natural authenticity we rarely see in the Marvel universe. While it’s dizzying watching the characters zoom around the globe on their quest to locate each team member, it does allow Zhao to film in numerous stunning locations that allow Ben Davis‘ immersive cinematography to soar. Zhao’s muted colour palette won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it does create stellar juxtapositions when the usual bright comic book colours burst through.

Zhao has sought to bring something different to this saga and her visual style is completely unique. She delivers the bombastic action required but admirably attempts to shake up the formula with a deeper focus on character. If only her ambitions matched the final product. Eternals seeks to be the next Avengers without the momentum and groundwork of previous chapters. That in itself is an impossible task. There’s enough here to keep you engaged and there are several setups for future adventures that will be better served without the need for expository introductions. Eternals is far from the worst of the MCU but it’s nowhere near the greatness it might have been.

Distributor: Disney
Cast: Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Kumail Nanjiani, Lia McHugh, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Ridloff, Barry Keoghan, Don Lee, Kit Harington, Salma Hayek, Angelina Jolie, Harish Patel, Haaz Sleiman, Esai Daniel Cross
Director: Chloé Zhao
Producers: Kevin Feige, Nate Moore
Screenplay: Chloé Zhao, Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo, Kaz Firpo
Cinematography: Ben Davis
Production Design: Eve Stewart
Costume Design: Sammy Sheldon Differ
Music: Ramin Djawadi
Editors: Craig Wood, Dylan TichenorTom Eagles
Running Time: 156 minutes
Release Date: 4th November 2021 (Australia)