Eternals is an exercise in trying to create a meaningful, organic, heartfelt story but putting too much in one movie. This particular Marvel movie involves a group of individuals who are essentially gods watching over the earth and its many conflicts until they are called to complete a mission by their leader. The Eternals consist of Sersi (Gemma Chan), Ikaris (Richard Madden), Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani, Sprite (Lia McHugh), Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), Druig (Barry Keoghan), Gilgamesh (Don Lee), Ajak (Salma Hayek), and Thena (Angelina Jolie). If that sounds like a lot of characters for one story, you would be correct, yet, there are still others as well.
The Eternals have watched over earth for thousands of years. Their job is not to interfere unless instructed, except for taking down the Deviants. This race of aliens lives specifically to suck the life and energy out of the humans around them. Being the peaceful protectors of the earth, once having dealt with the Deviants, the Eternals leader, Ajak, suggests the team members live their own lives until they are needed. Everyone follows through with this plan until the Deviants return.
There is so much more I could say about the plot of this movie that I’m just going to keep holding back. Writer/director Chloe Zhao works very hard to have the audience value the team, their purpose, and how they indirectly and directly impact history as it unfolds throughout time. The whole movie feels like one massive history lesson about how significant events in world history could have been avoided. It’s incidents like the atom bomb and major conflicts within the Aztecs and the Bronze Age before it that are heavily referenced to give the audience a sense of scope. This is not bad writing as it takes us along for the ride with these people and gives us an idea of the tough decisions they have to make throughout history.
The problem is that none of their lack of interference really feels that engaging. Most of the time, as individuals, they often complain about how tired they are to watch over the planet, whereas someone like Sersi exhibits more qualities of human nature the more time she spends with any particular population within the world. As a reviewer, I love the internal struggle within Cersi not to get involved. Gemma Chan does a wonderful job of really selling to the audience the hope that human beings are capable of. Unfortunately, no matter how hard she tries to communicate humans’ ability to demonstrate attributes like forgiveness, care, and consideration of one another, she tends to be proven wrong.
Specific team members don’t really get that much time with the group, so any member of the audience has very little time to really truly get to know them. A good example of this is the character of Sprite. We know that throughout most of the present day, she is an accomplice to Sersi, but the film is so stuck on the idea of getting the Eternals to accomplish their mission that we don’t really understand her needs and desires until the film’s final act. Just that one character showcases that there were too many ideas in the kitchen about what humanity should represent when looking at immortal gods who watch over us. Thena doesn’t get much to do which is a shame because you have all that star power in Angelina Jolie that is completely wasted because we don’t know what her purpose is other than to fight.
Sersi is also stuck with a love plot within this Marvel movie. She is clearly in love with Ikaris, but she feels so bound by the duty to protect the earth’s population that she eventually lets that romance go. For someone who cares so much about one of the other team members, that doesn’t seem like something that a sane individual would do. That’s not a level of personal sacrifice that I would expect from watching a superhero film. While that breaks convention, it doesn’t grow the character overall.
When you come to a film like Eternals, you expect both character growth and plot progression in a way that feels organic. This film is entirely story progression-based with no character growth until the third act. Normally, worrying about that aspect of a movie would be the last thing on my mind. Still, they use up so much time explaining why certain events happened the way they did that it left me wondering when I would actually truly get invested in someone’s personal journey. This is ironic considering Zhao was hired after being continually honored for a film that focused on a character’s journeys through life.
The characters that spoke most to me were Sprite and Sersi. Both women were working hard to find their place in the world. The only negative is that Sprite didn’t get the opportunity to do that, despite the strong work from Lia McHugh. I didn’t expect someone so young to be so compelling in a major blockbuster, but I was most intrigued by the little bit of a story on the page. I expect great things from this actress in the future.
Richard Madden, while compelling, was pretty dull, to say the least. I wanted more fun moments between him and Gemma Chan. Kumail Nanjiani was relegated to being the court jester of the entire movie, and that seems like a complete waste given the amount of time he spent working out to be in good shape for this project. The worst offense was casting Salma Hayek as a lead and then cutting her out of the movie 20 minutes in. She is a phenomenal performer, and the story relegated her character to flashback scenes.
In the end, as far as Marvel movies go, this is absolutely at the bottom of the pile. I hope a sequel can rectify the mistakes made with this first entry. I am not itching to go back to see the Eternals again, but I think some characters are worth more exploration and exploration. We’ll see if the movie makes enough money to get that next adventure going.