Eternals: Marvel's Worst Film Yet?
A SPOILER-FREE REVIEW BY HENRY HUNTER
Eternals is the latest and most divisive recent release in the Marvel Cinematic line-up and there’s been a lot of controversy surrounding its debut in theaters this past Friday. From stern critics to angry fans (and some sorely butthurt dickheads bitter about LGBTQ+ representation and a diverse cast) on the internet review-bombing the film on movie review platforms such as Rotten Tomatoes, the film has seen a less than stellar reception leading up to its theatrical release. Many critics herald it as the worst MCU installation yet, citing the film as being sluggishly long, devoid of meaningful character, and generally bland and uninspired. This stems from an issue that’s been brewing in the critic community for a while now: many people, especially film critics, are becoming tired of the MCU dominating the box office so consistently. As the 26th entry in the Marvel pantheon, many critics have begun to complain that the Marvel formula has become much too persistent in these large blockbuster films and they all seem to blur together, losing their individual identity from each other and fading into just another Marvel film. After the epic conclusion to the Infinity Saga that was Endgame capping things off with an explosive finale, many people don’t see the purpose in carrying the Marvel story any further.
As a response to the critic’s outcries against a persistent formulaic approach to superhero action movies, Marvel has spent its most recent outings trying to subvert its formula with much more experimental properties which have introduced us to some of its most innovative and fun content yet. We can see what time it does spend revisiting similar scenarios that we’ve already seen before, particularly Black Widow and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, finding themselves slipping into an unexciting middling area on the greater Marvel tier list. While I find both of these Marvel features to be decent entertainment, we've seen the political drama espionage action thriller done by Marvel before as early as the second Captain America film which was when it was new and exciting. Seeing these same themes revisited now yields the aforementioned lukewarm results. On the opposite, more promising and exciting side of Marvel’s fourth phase we have shows like Wandavision and Loki which are some of Marvel’s most innovative, interesting, fresh, and extremely fun content we’ve seen. Both of these shows exhibit Marvel’s capability to break into new genres and new worlds beyond its own and promises more of it. And with it’s absolutely packed slate of upcoming premieres such as Thor 4, Doctor Strange 2, and Black Panther 2 I am more eager than ever to see where Marvel takes us next. But I’m getting super off-topic… let’s talk Eternals.
On top of the accusations of a samey and redundant formula, the Eternals is a relatively unheard of Marvel IP, having a far cry from the same resonance characters like Iron Man and other earlier Marvel titular headliners had earlier in the cinematic universe’s lifespan. So with so many odds stacked against it, how does this story hold up as the newest piece of Marvel’s ever expanding world?
One of the most notable aspects of this movie is that it is undeniably a long one. Ranking in as the second longest Marvel film to date, topped only by Endgame, it not only takes on the daunting task of introducing an all new cast of entirely new Marvel characters (ten major characters constituting the titular team of Eternals to be specific,) it also has to check all the boxes of sewing them into the Marvel fabric and giving them a fulfilling arc and conflict to deal with. Now, Marvel is no stranger to juggling insanely large ensemble casts, take for example any movie in the Avengers quadrology, but the pervasive difference here is that this is the starring debut for each and every single character introduced in this movie. That’s right, no solo films to do the heavy lifting on character exposition before dropping fan favorite pre-established characters into a blockbuster crossover event, it’s entirely self-contained and wrangles all ten character introductions and arcs at once. While this movie is very much packed, it never stumbles into feeling crowded, which is a very impressive thing to manage. Each character is introduced and has their own share of an arc to undergo throughout the film, all of which are handled appropriately and satisfyingly. While many complain the characters feel soulless I have to disagree. The cast is very much one of the strong suits of this film, with the one minor exception perhaps being Gemma Chan’s Sersi who is too busy carrying the weight of having the responsibility of team leader thrust onto her to really build much of an engaging personality (not to mention her specialized superpower is probably the most difficult to consistently follow but I’d need to penetrate the spoiler barrier to really flesh out my issues with that.) Barring her, the rest of the Eternals are all fun characters to watch and I can say with certainty that I enjoyed my time with these cosmic heroes.
With a 2 hour and 37 minute runtime, the movie has caught flack for dragging in areas and poor pacing. A large portion of the movie is devoted to a getting-the-band-back-together plotline that isn’t unexpected with such a hefty cast and is a serviceable means for introducing all of these new characters to the audience. On top of that, flashback sequences to different moments in history are sprinkled throughout the movie’s runtime to enforce how very immortal the Eternals are and their relationship with the human race. These segments are probably the parts that chew up the runtime the most, while not all of them are per say boring they are probably the points at which many viewers are most likely to check out a bit. Despite this, I’d struggle to call ever finding the movie boring at any point. Sure, it was long, but I was consistently engaged and always excited to see what happened next. I can’t speak for a second viewing at which point I admittedly could see myself finding some parts going on a bit longer than they should but for a first watch I wouldn’t call this movie boring.
While at once attempting to reshuffle the Marvel formula to shake off hero-fatigued critics, Eternals still delivers a very Marvel undertone of quippy banter but utilizes it in such a way as to establish a silly and light-hearted rapport that the core team of characters share with one another. This not only helps the characters charm the audience by being more believable as the kind of family unit the movie is trying to pass them off as but also by painting them in a human light that poetically weaves into part of the movie’s core narrative. The Eternals are very believable characters, their motives are always well established and they behave accordingly, all of which makes it so much more fun to watch them as the events of the movie play out. One thing I was very happy to see was some gray morality. A big fear I had going into this movie was the Eternals being a football team of Supermans, all hard-wired for “the greater good” and “doing the right thing.” On the contrary, there is a healthy amount of moral dilemma in this movie and the Eternals fracturing and dissenting conclusions to these dilemmas was both something I was surprised and extremely happy to see unfold. There is even a romance through-line, which the director highlighted as the backbone of the movie. It’s nice to see and grounds these beyond human characters as human even moreso. It even comes back in a meaningful way in the final act that manages to avoid feeling contrived.
Another complaint coming from the lot of unsatisfied critics is the film’s lack of a solid antagonistic presence. Yeah, there’s no big purple meanie to steal the show here. The movie establishes the Deviants as the villains for the Eternals to fight. Manifesting on the big screen as a menacing menagerie of monsters, these CGI creatures are panned for just being there to be big and bad and not really serving any deeper purpose. Conversely, the film definitely takes its time to explain the Deviants' purpose and their place in the universe and how it works in tandem with the Eternal’s own universal purpose. While it’s not the most exciting villain ever, I think it’s wrong to hate them for not having a reason to exist when the movie very much does in fact establish why the Deviants are there and what they’re doing. On top of that, the Deviants aren’t the only problem the Eternals have to deal with in this movie. While there is no big bad supervillain stroking his twirled mustache to be clobbered, there’s still plenty of wrongs to be righted by our protagonists (and I’m personally a sucker for when multiple different shits hit the fan in the same final act.)
The Eternals is in fact a Marvel movie and it is in fact a movie about superheroes and those superheroes are in fact tasked with saving the world from certain doom, but at the same time it is very much it’s own thing. It stands apart from the rest of Marvel’s properties with its own atmosphere. It explores a much grander scope than prior entries in the franchise, introducing us to the Celestials, quite possibly the highest form of being yet explored by the cinematic universe. It’s exciting to see where the stepping stones laid by this movie will lead us next, as other phase four features have also stoked the fire of a much more vast and unknown world (or should I say worlds) yet to come to the Marvel screen. While the Eternals having a tone all their own which makes it a little tougher to imagine them rubbing shoulders with pre-existing Marvel A-teamers like Tom Holland’s Spider-Man and Mark Ruffalo’s The Hulk in hypothetical future adventures, that’s not at all to say I’m not very excited to see where these characters crop up next in this universe. With the movie’s ending minutes and subsequent two post-credit scenes, it has already planted a handful of juicy seeds that spell the return of the Eternals and possible segues for them to connect into the wider web of characters. Director Chloe Zhao accomplishes what she set out to do by making a new brand of Marvel experience that has yet to be seen while also maintaining the soul of the Marvel formula even if it’s not apparent at surface-level.
As a final verdict, I urge you not to skip this one just because you hear someone bickering about it on the internet. To be fair, I am just another voice on the internet trying to influence you with my opinions, but I truly believe not only films but also media in general are better experienced for yourself before forming opinions. Admittedly, the more and more I look back on this film, the more I grow fond of it. Maybe I am a totally just another biased Marvel fan who can’t escape bias no matter how impartial I try to walk into the theater but regardless I implore you not to bandwagon the hate train and watch the movie for yourself. Please. It’s, well, good. I enjoyed it and I’m recommending it if not just for the purpose of people forming their own opinions. You can dislike this movie, but please don’t shit on it just because you see someone else doing so before even watching the movie. There’s a pretty good chance they haven’t seen it either and are just perpetuating the chain of negativity. Anyways, I’m rambling about broader topics again, let’s get to my final score. Eternals establishes a lore-filled new backdrop for the Marvel Cinematic Universe that ups the scope of the world even more than what we’ve already seen. It manages to juggle a huge cast of entirely new characters and ropes you into them by making them enjoyable, charismatic, and believable. While the entire two and half hours aren’t without flaw, it still rounds the entire film out with a very satisfying and action-packed finale that left me leaving the theater happy and satisfied. I give Marvel’s Eternals a score in the higher 80s range, we’ll say 86-89 out of 100. A resounding and positive B+.