Adapting Eternals would always be a tall order for Marvel Studios. Among the hundreds of properties in the publisher’s library, they’ve been one of the most complex and least successful in their half-century of existence. Forget your weakling who just hates bullies, your inventor who learns to use his heart only after installing a new one, your party prince who chooses to protect people rather than look down upon them. Eternals is about 10 wayward angels who must decide whether or not saving humanity is worth spitting in the face of God. It’s a biblical story with the pacing and tenor to suit it. Endless exposition and multiple millennia-spanning love stories ask audiences to connect with something much less grounded than the studio has ever delivered before. Many won’t.
It’s the biggest swing yet from Marvel Studios, and although it doesn’t always achieve its aspirations, it’s refreshing to see the world’s leading action studio try to infuse its universe with bizarre 1970s sci-fi concepts without diluting them. Compared to the studio’s largely mediocre post-Avengers: Endgame output, Eternals proves they have more worlds to explore … even if the result is a bit messy and not be the crowd-pleaser to which fans are accustomed.
An expository scroll opens the film, explaining how the Celestials (essentially space gods) seeded the universe with life. Then came the Deviants, who want to kill intelligent life. So Celestials created the Eternals to defeat them. Hailing from the planet Olympia, our Eternals have lived on Earth for over 7,000 years. They have interacted with humans while protecting them from Deviants. However, they are forbidden to interfere in conflicts between humans, as their secondary mission is allowing intelligent life to flourish on its own path, to become something more.
Our 10 Eternals are a team, each imbued with a particularly useful ability for achieving their God-given objectives. Five are fighters: Ikaris (Richard Madden), Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), Thena (Angelina Jolie) and Gilgamesh (Don Lee). They protect humanity. The other five are thinkers, with powers more intellectual in nature: Sersi (Gemma Chan), Sprite (Lia McHugh), Druig (Barry Keoghan), Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), and Ajak (Salma Hayek). No single Eternal is capable of fighting a Deviant on their own without a struggle, so they must operate as a team to succeed. That’s a lot of characters, but the script and extended running time — in what is by far the franchise’s longest non-Avengers film — gives them each clear relationships and chances to shine in the story. The all-star cast doesn’t hurt, either.
It’s important to understand that, as a franchise, the Eternals are perhaps the least successful property Marvel Studios has decided to adapt into a big-budget action-adventure film. In the comic books, Jack Kirby created them after leaving Marvel for DC (where he created his seminal Fourth World) and subsequently returning to Marvel after DC failed him. This isn’t a creation from the same generation as his classic 1960s work like Fantastic Four; Kirby’s return to Marvel brought him the opportunity to create his own stuff, and Eternals was his way of exploring the “ancient alien” ideas on which he was personally keen. They weren’t meant as a cornerstone of Marvel cosmology, but they became important as future writers pulled the concepts into new stories. These days, you can’t throw a rock in a comic shop without hitting something about the Avengers fighting Celestials; in fact, the current comics relocated their base of operations into the head of a dead one. Such was the potency of Kirby’s ideas. The Eternals themselves have always been a tough nut to crack, but thankfully director Chloé Zhao and her co-writers don’t sacrifice their inherent weirdness in the process of trying.
And this is a weird movie, at least by the standards of Marvel Studios. This isn’t a solo film about a character dealing with his or her daddy issues, or an ensemble like Guardians of the Galaxy, where the ostensible team is fundamentally driven by the arrested development of its lead white male man-child … with daddy issues. The only daddy here is God itself, I guess, but at least it’s an upgrade.
If any character is the lead, it’s Sersi, whose ability to transmute matter is more of an artistic talent than a weapon to wield. Chan plays Sersi as a quiet, thoughtful woman. She loved Ikaris in their past, but they separated hundreds of years before the present day; she’s now dating a human named Dane (Kit Harington) and loves living among humanity. She believes in us even when we don’t deserve it. Unlike other Marvel heroines, Sersi’s ultimate moment of power and self-actualization isn’t depicted as a use of violence. Sersi is simply a new kind of Marvel hero. This is a new kind of Marvel movie.
Still, 10 characters and a massive new cosmic mythology is quite a lot for audiences to take in. Zhao’s much-deserved Best Director Academy Award for Nomadland caused a lot of chatter about whether her slower, more methodical storytelling would mesh well with Marvel Studios, which tends to keep its talented directors within the bounds of their genre-defining in-house style. Superficially, Eternals is certainly prettier and more organically shot than many of Marvel’s other material, although the big greenscreen moments at the end feel just as recognizable. It doesn’t feel cheap in the same way some of their more recent releases do. Where Zhao seems to bring her sensibilities here is in the character relationships and the slowed pacing relative to other Marvel films.
There are only a few big action sequences to think of, and thankfully the climax isn’t just gray CGI sludge. This is a Marvel film where most of the movie is characters talking to one another, and it’s a welcome change, particularly because the characters are talking about whether or not they should turn against God. Their conflicts don’t go quite as far as I’d like, but there is at least a healthy dose of misanthropy to certain characters’ perspectives on the ethics of letting God destroy Earth, which is refreshing.
Then again, most audiences don’t go to the movies, much less Marvel movies, to watch characters sit around and wonder whether they should kill the almighty. It’s a topic that interests me, particularly in the sci-fi realm, but frankly, Eternals feels destined to be met with mixed reception by the larger general audience. The story is long, talky and not focused in the way the other Marvel films are. Although it nods at other properties, it features no cameos by known Marvel characters. The implications of the new Celestial mythology are massive and change the mechanics of a Universe many have grown comfortable visiting a few times a year.
And, frankly, as much as this review is positive, the movie is far from perfect. There are pacing issues. It uses flashbacks as a crutch, but not to the same embarrassing degree as Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, and some information feels introduced later than it should’ve been. The Sersi / Ikaris relationship is supposed to drive the story but isn’t quite central enough. Although they get their moments, this is hardly a deep-dive into any of the characters and their lives (this does include Marvel’s first legitimate LGBTQ+ representation, however).
Worst of all, the ending continues a trend with Marvel Studios straight-up attaching what should be post-credits stingers to the final moments in their films. It’s frustrating, and more perplexing here, because the tease sets up one of the fundamental conflicts the Eternals face in the comics right at the end of their origin movie with little explanation. The Disney+ shows are already just six-hour teases for their new movies; the movies don’t need to tease the Disney+ shows.
Eternals isn’t one of Marvel’s best and it’s nowhere close to its worst. It’s not even close to the worst thing they’ve put out in 2021; it’s clearly the best of the big-screen bows thus far. The scale and scope of its ambitions will make it a hard sell to audiences who value the traditional emotional clarity of the series’ storytelling thus far, but it will find a vigorous fanbase over time. This is an epic, strange story about angels, gods and all sorts of crazy science-fiction ideas that won’t appeal to most people … just like the comics.