Marvel fatigue has reared its head again. It appears that in the wake of the hugely delayed release schedule that means by year’s end we will have experienced eight separate Marvel products across film and TV, alongside the endless stream of trailers for what’s to come next year and the incessant theorising that comes with it, the weight of it all is starting to bear strain on the shoulders of even the hardest of Marvel fans. Eternals, its newest venture that dives deeper into the cosmos than the franchise has ever dared, is the unfortunate bearer of the brunt of the opposition. Whatever you think of the Marvel formula, Eternals appears to be the first real signs of the most successful franchise in cinema history running out of steam.
Responsible for protecting Earth from the Deviants, an extra-terrestrial threat that arrived on Earth 7000 years in the past, the titular Eternals are the unseen force for good on Earth. Living on earth for hundreds of years in the wake of wiping out what was thought to be the last batch of Deviants, their leaders Sersi (Gemma Chan) and Ikaris (Richard Madden) are stunned to learn their natural enemy has returned and must reunite their long-disbanded batch of heroes to send the Deviants back from whence they came.
The first problem – of which there are many – is knowing where to begin. Eternals has a claim of being an arguably bigger film, conceptually speaking, than even Avengers: Endgame. Where Endgame had over a decade of build-up, established character dynamics, stakes, and even a distinctive style (not to say Marvel films have a discernible visual flair, but it has one in the sense that they all look the same), Eternals attempts to reach the same cosmically overwhelming heights as rebooting half the universe without having met any of these characters before. Not only must Chloé Zhao (Academy Award-winning director of Nomadland) introduce a whopping ten Eternals to follow, she has 7000 years of lore to establish, explain how the fate of the word hangs in the balance and throw in a late second act twist to throw the knowledge you had until that point up in the air and re-establish the stakes again. Eternals is so overloaded with content that it all becomes too much, and you begin to wonder whether this was a Justice League tier mistake of doing too much too fast, a first for a franchise notorious for meticulously setting up its films years in advance. Having said that, despite being overloaded with content and information…why is Eternals so lifeless?
Part of that answer comes from its characters. With so many to introduce, it’s understandable that some would leave bigger impressions than others. Gemma Chan’s Sersi, for instance, a ground-breaking role as an Asian woman being the lead character in a Marvel film, is at least memorable. Chan’s performance is one that works tidily with Zhao’s personable approach to filmmaking and the weight of being the reluctant leader of the Eternals is heavy on her shoulders. Sersi is a customary change of pace for a Marvel superhero, with her decidedly non-violent, visually delightful matter-changing powers. Kumail Nanjiani is fun as the comic-relief, Kingo, though one must wonder how annoyed he would have been to get so impressively jacked for a character whose powers boil down to finger guns. Brian Tyree Henry has funny moments, but his character is worth far more than that as the inventor, Phastos, someone whose entire modus operandi is to save the world for his husband and son. Gilgamesh and Thena (Don Lee and Angelina Jolie respectively) share the film’s best dynamic as Thena struggles with self-control and Gilgamesh her mega-powerful minder. Jolie is the most nuanced of the performances as Thena is a threat to both herself and everyone around her, creating some genuine internal conflict for Jolie to sink her teeth into.
Conversely, the young Sprite (Lia McHugh) has poorly established motivations, resulting in baffling character decisions as the film reaches its conclusion, and a character arc that fails to register as anything meaningful despite the apparent enormity of the moment for the character herself. Makkari and Druig (Lauren Ridloff and Barry Keoghan), while interesting when given their very limited moments, have so few moments that their characters feel painfully underdeveloped and leave you longing for more time with them, particularly after so much time was handed to Richard Madden’s Ikaris, a charisma vacuum of biblical proportions. Ikaris, a role heavily influenced by Henry Cavill’s performance in Man of Steel per Chloé Zhao, is preposterously wooden throughout, failing to register a single emotion even during some of the film’s attempted emotional beats. At one point, it was a genuine theory of mine that his character would turn out to be an AI creation because his performance was so robotic, but despite the good work opposite him from most Eternals, particularly Gemma Chan, this performance sticks out like the sorest of thumbs.
Characters are left playing second fiddle for much of the film due to the gargantuan story Zhao has decided to tell. Eternals is a globe-trotting adventure that covers 7000 years of history with so much to cover that several sections – including a brief scene in which the Eternals save Babylon from Deviant invaders – could have been whole films on their own. Certainly, when the film’s real plot (shock horror when the Deviant angle was merely smoke and mirrors in Eternals’ grand designs) is revealed, there are moments of genuine wonder as the film reaches some cosmically overwhelming heights. Guided by the Prime Celestial, Arishem (at this point, don’t ask…), a 10-minute voyage through exposition dump city is saved by some impossibly massive visuals, some big enough to incite feelings of the genuine insignificance of being human in the context of the universe (there are some bafflingly cool visuals in which a Celestial towers over an entire planet and even punches through a planet’s core). This middle portion is when Eternals hits something resembling an identity, some balls-to-the-wall cosmic insanity by which to be impressed and overwhelmed, but it gets so caught up in telling an Earth-bound story that the moments of cool fade further and further into the distance in favour of longing looks at the horizon.
And yet, all is not completely lost with Eternals. When it is simply allowed to be a Chloé Zhao film, some great ideas come to the fore, and characters discuss the dire consequences that befall them. Genuine concern over what is right and wrong and shared openly, and the moral dilemma of saving one planet versus allowing many more universes to literally be born was deftly handled, especially when it comes from the so-called comic relief character, Kingo. At its best, the characters’ conversations hold some of the best and least cliché-ridden dialogue the MCU has ever seen, but at its worst, it’s a dreary, monotone slog through dense exposition in less than interesting spaceship interiors. It feels like a film constantly in-battle with itself, one half of which being a personal study of humanity and our relationship with our home written by an Academy Award winner, and the other half is the CGI-filled blockbuster dying to see alien goo splattered on our heroes’ faces and setting up the rest of the series to come.
When it does hit the familiar Marvel beats, it does so relatively well, with the Amazon rainforest fight sequence landing the best, showcasing all the Eternals’ abilities individually and creates a genuinely fun set-piece that homages The Revenant’s bear fight when Ikaris struggles beneath the claws of a winged Deviant. Its final battle, a merciful change of pace that doesn’t involve heroes stopping things falling from the sky (an all-too-common occurrence in any Marvel fare) as the internal conflicts come to the fore in a tidily shot Eternals battle on the beach in the shadow of a sleeping Celestial.
Herein lies the fundamental problem. Eternals has so much happening throughout that it’s impossible to focus on one thing at a time. Characters are trying to be set up alongside their rivalries to one another, an entire universe of information is being dumped upon you with some overwhelmingly large-scale consequences for the world and universe as we know it, and Chloé Zhao is trying to make the film she so wants to make within the Marvel universe while battling a frustrating inability to deviate from the 30-property-deep entity that is the MCU. It’s a frustrating, occasionally fun, at points brilliant, frequently tiresome journey that never manages to reach any of the potential it so clearly had. Maybe the critics do know what they’re talking about.
Eternals is available in cinemas now.