Eternals review: The Marvel universe hits its limits

Chloé Zhao’s 2020 film NomadlandThe story begins with only a few lines of text. This sets up a world of losses. In January 2011, a sheetrock plant close to Empire, Nevada is closed. In six months’ time, Empire’s zip code is discontinued. It’s a ghost town. It is a stable environment, but it’s constantly changing. Sometimes with terrifying and destabilizing speeds.

Eternal, Zhao’s follow-up to her acclaimed Academy Award-winning film, also begins with explanatory text. This time however, it’s more lore than story, about beings from another planet brought to ours for a purpose the audience won’t fully grasp until the end of the film. This film seems to be withholding, and even a bit threatening. Eternal It should.

Marvel Studios has released a new film that is both a puzzle and an experiment. Eternals This project is both a formal ambition and expands on the MCU’s boundaries. Zhao deliberately breaks from the well-established Marvel formula to tell a more sweeping and mature story — the sort of story the filmmaker is known for. Through the eyes of the most varied cast of superhero blockbusters, the script captures seismic shifts in the world in six short months. EternalsHowever, it is haunted by this formula and keeps settling for the old when trying to teach us something.

The Eternals are assembled on a beach in a scene from Marvel’s Eternals.

Photo: Marvel Studios

EternalsThe film is also at the mercy of one of the most egregious premises in Marvel Comics’ history. This makes it a rare exception in the vast collection of iconic characters that Jack Kirby created. Even the considerably streamlined film version can’t lay the groundwork without heaps of exposition: The Eternal, the film’s opening text describes, are superhuman champions from a world called Olympia, dispatched to Earth by a cosmic god named Arimesh, a Celestial, in order to defend humankind from the monstrous Deviants. Throughout history, the Eternals have been here, helping humanity by fighting off Deviants and slowly providing technological advancement — to a certain point. Because the Eternals have another mandate: They cannot interfere in Earthly conflicts that don’t involve the Deviants.

This is the reason the film gives — in an actual conversation, between characters — for The Eternals taking a raincheck on Thanos’ genocidal rampage or any of the horrors and atrocities of the past. It’s a bit hard to swallow, especially when the film goes to great special-effects lengths to depict historical moments of mass destruction. To the film’s credit, part of EternalsThe narrative arc of a character’s struggle with this morality is the story. It is a misfortune to put this dilemma in the hands of characters who have lived thousands of year.

In the present day, however, it’s pretty easy for the Eternals to follow this mandate. All of the Deviants on Earth have been wiped out, but instead of being offered a ticket to their home, Olympia, they’ve been effectively abandoned by their god and gone their separate ways, living in secret among the people of Earth. After the exposition, Sersi (Gemma Chan), and Sprite, (Lia McHugh), are both living in London, where they work as teachers and 12-year-olds. A not-so extinct Deviant also appears to be strong enough for killing Eternals. When the Superman-esque Ikaris (Richard Madden) arrives to help fend the Deviant off, a mini Eternals reunion becomes a full-blown road trip to get the family back together and figure out what’s going on with the Deviants.

Kingo fires a laser into a Deviant’s gaping maw in Marvel’s Eternals

Image: Marvel Studios

You can find more information here EternalThe film is both a travelogue and historical epic. As Sersi, Ikkaris, and Sprite reunite with their seven other “siblings” across the globe, the film flashes back to pivotal moments of their time on Earth, reflecting on their relationships with each other and humanity. They’re in Mesopotamia in 5000 B.C. kickstarting the Bronze Age; then they’re in Babylon in 575 B.C. seeding the wonders of the Hanging Gardens; then they’re in 1575 Mexico waching in shock as genocide Spanish colonists murder the people of Tenochtitlan. In cross cutting from one era to another, Zhao begins to emphasize place more than anything else — even action scenes seem to fade to take a backseat, a momentary interruption to the interpersonal drama of the Eternals as they question their role in the places around them. The two fall in love, sometimes with one another and others. Their god Arishem, the Celestial, rejects them both. Most of the film is filled with doubts, as they are unsure what to believe or do.

However EternalsIt is cynical to the point of being dangerous. Every time a new character is introduced, the ones we’ve previously met re-explain the story, and the same agreements and disagreements play out. Zhao gives the film the space it needs to shine. Zhao’s best moments are Kingo (Kumail Najiani), who is a Bollywood superstar and wants the movie to be about Kingo saving the planet with his insanely powerful finger guns. Phastos (Brian Tye Henry), an Eternal inventor who has, out of guilt at accelerating human technology to the point that atomic warfare is possible, retreated to quiet life with his husband and son.

The film’s cast is too big to give every character a fulfilling arc, but the film’s script by Zhao, Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo, and Kaz Firpo devotes most of the film’s runtime to its least compelling characters. With her vague ability to transform inanimate matter into one form or another, Sersi is de facto the protagonist. However, she is also an inconsistency: Her life of pretending to exist and being with Dane, her historian boyfriend (Kit Harington), and her larger purpose which she begins to question but only after she is forced to. It’s almost like the Eternal take their vow of nonintervention so seriously that they also refuse to drive the film’s plot.

Sersi (Gemma Chan) stands on a beach in Marvel’s Eternals

Photo: Sophie Mutevelian/Marvel Studios

Much has been made about what Chloé Zhao brings to the MCU as a filmmaker, largely stemming from Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige gushing over her insistence that EternalsThe film was shot in real places and not on soundstages. It is unique, yet strangely hollow. It’s as if, in order to accomodate the needs of a Marvel blockbuster, EternalsThe most natural of environments could be used to stage the action: A forest, desert or beach. You can make a soundstage from large, open areas. However, it is not recommended. When it’s time for the naturalism of the film to give way to artificial action, the result is surprisingly demure — with one spectacular exception at the very end, Eternals’ action is quite small; a strange contrast to its grand scopeIt is. When the heroes “suit up” for their final fight, it almost feels wrong, or reluctant.

The pat descriptors Marvel executives like Kevin Feige append to MCU films don’t hang so neatly on Eternals. Genre-shorthand fails to convey what viewers should expect. It does not contain heists, spycraft, strange new worlds or hidden fantasy realms. EternalIt’s a slow-moving documentary about how hard it can be to see your loved ones again after being separated. It’s two and a half hours full of people many thousands of years old going from place to place and talking about the good old days.

After over a decade of the MCU formula’s dominance, it’s easy to mistake Eternals’ deviance for profundity. Sometimes films about difficult situations can be hard to watch. Unfortunately, Eternals isn’t bold, merely incongruous. It is simpler to explain: EternalIt is chaotic.

Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), Sersi (Gemma Chan) and Sprite (Lia McHugh) stand in the forest in civilian clothes in Marvel’s Eternals.

Photo: Sophie Mutevelian/Marvel Studios

It’s a movie concerned with conveying scale, about big ideas and forces that move on a geologic timetable beyond any one life. This movie explores a morality which transcends the concerns of just one individual or one planet. With purpose, time and distance are almost meaningless. Under these circumstances, Marvel produces a lot of content and is criticized. The company’s plot-driven blockbusters are overwhelmingly concerned with the present, and to an arguably greater extent, what’s next.

Eternals considers where we are, where we’ve been, and how much it’s changed us, if at all. These ideas are mostly internal and are difficult to translate into superhuman brawls set in dark environments, where all the beauty and wonder of the world can be resold. Every fight is like tether pulling Eternals When it’d rather fly, it returns to the ground. Each scene expounding on the cosmology of the MCU does more for movies we haven’t seen yet than it does for the one we’re watching.

These ideas can only be achieved by movies that are big enough: difficult conversations with cosmic implications with no clear answer and angry confrontations to an uncaring god. And whether or not we should adjust our moral compass as our reach and perspective expands. A film has to create an atmosphere where these questions are relevant, both to the characters and their audience. Zhao accomplished this in a couple of lines. Nomadland Eternals, however, just isn’t big enough. Perhaps the Marvel Cinematic Universe just isn’t big enough.

EternalsPremieres will be in theatres Friday, November 5.

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