Despite bringing on Academy Award-winning director Chloe Zhao, Eternals is surprisingly Marvel’s weakest film since The Incredible Hulk. Zhao’s three low-budget indie films simply did not prepare her for a special effects-laden mega-budget movie and it clearly spiraled out of her control. Zhao has cited Terrence Malick as an inspiration. If only that made it onto the screen because if Eternals suffers from anything, it’s a lack of vision. Malick is one of the most visionary of filmmakers and his films are often contemplative with a sense of wonder. Eternals could have used a lot of that as it is extremely ambitious, covering the origin of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But instead of showing this to us, Zhao does it all by telling in big exposition dumps.
In Eternals, Celestials are immensely powerful cosmic entities that shepherd life across the universe. They use immortal aliens with superpowers called Eternals to fight against Deviants that prey on life on different planets. The ten Eternals on Earth are Sersi (Gemma Chan), who can transform matter; Ikaris (Richard Madden), who flies and shoots energy from his eyes; Sprite (Lia McHugh), who generates illusions; Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), who shoots balls of energy from his hands; Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), who invents superior technology; Thena (Angelina Jolie), who forms spears, swords, and shields out of energy; Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), who has super-speed; Gilgamesh (Don Lee), who has super-strength; Druig (Barry Keoghan), who can control minds; and Ajak (Salma Hayek), the leader of the Eternals who has super-healing. The story is about the Eternals learning a deep dark secret of their own and that they must save mankind from more than Deviants. This is told by jumping around the globe in flashbacks across 7,000 years of human history.
The source material comes from another visionary, Jack Kirby, who had a hand in creating many of Marvel’s most famous characters and whose pet project in the 1970s was Eternals. Strangely though, the only thing the script retains from the comics is the relationship between the Celestials, Eternals, and Deviants. Nearly every other detail is changed. All the characters have very different personalities except for Thena. In the comics, Sersi is a flamboyant party girl. In the movie, she’s passive and demure. Druig goes from malevolent to benevolent. (Changes in Ikaris and Ajak would amount to spoilers.) The Deviants, mostly reduced to barely sentient monsters, are generic and boring. Kit Harrington appears as museum worker Dane Whitman but is only awkwardly shoehorned in as a teaser for the Marvel superhero he will become. He has little to do with the overall plot and disappears early in the film. Only Nanjiani’s Kingo, who is a Bollywood star and the film’s comic relief, and McHugh’s Sprite, who is stuck in the body of a child, have any kind of lived-in feel. Tyree Henry’s Phastos comes close but is limited by 90% of the character’s behavior being reluctance.
Despite being 2 hours 37 minutes long, Eternals feels rushed, like it’s trying to squeeze a ten-episode series into one feature film. The biggest problem though is that Zhao is content to tell the story through spoken exposition instead of imagery. In the comics, Celestials don’t speak and retain a sense of mystery and awe. Here, both the head Celestial, Arishem, and the Eternals themselves are too anthropomorphized, and their story is conveyed through speech. Arishem needed to be the equivalent of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s monolith. The usual mid- and post-credits scenes are disappointing. One is used to introduce two Marvel C-list characters and the other is a poorly put-together teaser.