REVIEW: ‘Eternals’ is a big movie with big ideas

(Image: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

Here’s a little tidbit I’ve shared before, the most boring reviews to write are for average movies. The decent, the just fine, the eh-it’s-a-way-to-kill-two-hours movies that you see and then immediately begin to forget until a week later you can’t even remember well enough to reiterate your own opinion. That’s why, perhaps more than anything else, I love a flawed epic. The type of movie that wants to be spectacular, have the grandest scale, make the most profound statements, hold the most resonant themes, the movie after which some part of cinema, as tiny as it may be, is forever changed. Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, Wong Kar-Wai’s 2046, Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, even the Wachowskis’ Cloud Atlas, films of such grandiose ambition that there is almost no way they could possibly achieve their goals but they’re going to do absolutely everything in their power to try. Even if the result is something as dismal as Batman v. Superman, Heaven’s Gate, or Southland Tales, at least there will be something worth remembering. Be it a glorious new monument or a fiery wreck, the view is spectacular.

Polarized as its early reception has been if there’s one thing everyone can agree on about Eternals it’s that it is definitely not an average movie. It is something spectacular. Anything beyond that is up to the individual to decide.

Gemma Chan’s Sersi is the closest ‘Eternals’ gets to a main character. (Image: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

The ironic part of Eternals’s quality being such an individual experience is that the film itself has almost no interest in individuals. With eight central characters, plus villains and supporters, even the titular figures are less defined as individuals than as archetypes or analogues for the larger themes and ideas the film wants to address, or, as some of the less generous viewers claim, as a diversity checklist (personally, I think the diverse cast is great, not just for its diversity but for the way most of these actors portray the ideas their characters represent). While some of these characters could have been cut from the film to allow more time for the leads, the bulky cast makes what is actually a very short character list, with only about a dozen names, feel much larger. In considering the scope of the film, literally running from the dawn of time until now, the actual amount of people present on screen is miniscule. But that’s also the point, from the grand scope of time the individual is less important than the whole. The one character is less remarkable than the theme or idea, or in the case of Eternals, the myth which that character represents. Much like the aforementioned Tree of Life, Eternals uses a tiny focus on a few figures who are more concept constructs than believable beings to offer insights on topics such as creation myths, human development, inevitability, duty, and foremost among these, faith. In fact, between the abstract characters and the lingering shots of natural wonders in a perpetual golden hour, Eternals looks so much like Marvel’s attempt at a Terrence Malick film that it’s almost weird not to have the entire movie told through vague, poetic voiceovers directed to a “you” figure assumed to be God.

As with Malick, Eternals focuses the bulk of its narrative and thematic ambitions on the concept of a creator being. Through a clever conceit, the Eternals themselves become a part of the creation myth for several cultures, specifically referencing Angelina Jolie’s Thena as the inspiration for war goddess Athena and Lia McHugh as Sprite spreading the myth of Icarus (Richard Madden’s Ikaris) flying too close to the sun. Despite their presence as de facto divine beings, these immortals find themselves with many of the same questions that we mortal ask ourselves: why are we here, what is our purpose, and, in the case of Sprite, why was I made this way? The answer to all of these questions in much of the film, as it is in real life, is silence. The parallels to real world faith is further developed when the group debates whether to carry on with what they’ve been instructed as their duty or follow a path they’ve defined for themselves over the centuries of their lives. This topic is especially resonant now when people are using “faith” to justify everything from refusing to take a safe, life-saving vaccine to making death threats against school boards for not banning certain academic theories. However, less so than the topic itself, the way in which the narrative is delivered is another element that will polarize audiences.

Prepare for massive lore dumps in ‘Eternals.’ (Image: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

Much of the first half of Eternals lacks narrative thrust as an old threat returns and we see several short character introductions that amount to “putting the band back together.” When that thrust does come, and the group questions its adherence to an oblique and uncaring creator, it’s in the form an exposition bump, the cinematic equivalent of a wall of text, which again may turn off members of the audience. But Eternals, in many ways, is a risky film for Marvel. As with many films that aspire to address such questions as the nature and following of faith, Eternals carries itself as Marvel’s prestige film, complete with a sprawling cast, British accents, heady debates, and even the studio’s first actual sex scene. The action sequences, while beautifully filmed, aren’t as full-blown or spectacular as audience’s have come to expect from Marvel films, nor are the costumes as bold or the powers as bright. In many ways, Eternals is the least Marvel of all Marvel films. Sure, there are superheroes, there are fights, there are ill-timed quips during lethal situations, but Eternals strays as far from the Marvel formula as the studio has gone since the success of Iron Man. In most other MCU movies, at least half of the cast would be exchanging witty banter and casual running gags. In Eternals the jokes are pretty well limited only to the character of Kingo, played by Kumail Nanjiani, a natural choice given his background in standup comedy. Although Eternals does eventually give in to the tropes of superhero cinema, it does so only after establishing a pacing, rhythm, and sensibility which differentiate it from every other movie in the Marvel canon. Eternals is so separate from the rest of Marvel’s offerings that I would argue the film’s biggest problem is being a part of the MCU at all.

In the spring of 2004, McDonalds introduced a new line of higher quality, more health-conscious premium items such as walnut-fruit salads and grilled chicken sandwiches on artisan bread. The problem with line was that when people go to McDonalds they want McDonalds: fast and cheap, horrible quality but familiar and comforting and predictable. Even if the food tastes better the customer could be disappointed because it doesn’t taste like McDonalds. Similarly, over the last ten-plus years audiences have developed certain expectations when going to see a Marvel movie: big action scenes, quick-witted humor, a normally schlubby actor becoming really fit, huge sets shot mostly over green screen, and occasionally questionable special effects. Eternals has very few of these. The majority of the action scenes are smaller scale, with only a handful of disposable baddies for our heroes to thwart instead of the literal armies we’ve seen for the last half-dozen entries. The humor, as stated, is limited to one or two characters, one of whom also got into remarkable shape while other performers retained their more doughy appearances. The majority of scenes were filmed on location in California, England, and the Canary Islands. The effects, while nowhere near as flashy as standard superhero fare, are beautifully elegant in glowing geometric patterns and streamlined technology that would have been more impressive had Dune not come out so recently. As previously stated, the storytelling is more muted, more subtle, less explained and more implied than normal, with the rationale beyond certain character questions left for the viewer to ponder.

Regardless of its quality, audiences accustomed to the Marvel formula could be disappointed by Eternals because it doesn’t feel like a Marvel movie. Even with its mention of Steve Rogers, Tony Stark, and Thor, it’s hard to imagine these characters, in their refinery, tolerating Spider-Man’s pop culture references, Drax’s literalism, Ant Man’s irreverence or basically anything Star Lord does. Yet, as much as it aspires to be more Malick than Marvel, Eternals carries the same branding, has many of the same beats, and will inevitably face the same blanket critique of people who don’t like or are tired of Marvel as a whole. Regardless of quality, those who don’t enjoy Marvel movies likely won’t enjoy Eternals, nor even give it a watch, any more than people who don’t eat at McDonalds ordered items from their premium menu. However, those of us who enjoy breaking formula, risk-taking, ambition, and projects that at least attempt to branch beyond their established boundaries should find a lot to appreciate in Eternals. There are a lot of individual things to nitpick and complain about, but, on a whole, Eternals is a big scale movie about big ideas that might not achieve its goals but takes a damn big swing.

After all the hype, Kumail Nanjiani got only one scene to show off all those muscles. (Image: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

The old joke about art films is that the majority of people don’t like them. Following this logic then Eternals, as the first Marvel film to have a “rotten” rating, would be Marvel’s first genuine art film. Like so many ambitious, risk taking films before it, there is plenty to criticize about Eternals, especially when considered alongside other films within the same franchise. Flawed epics are by their nature flawed. Yet it’s those flaws, to paraphrase the film itself, which makes them what they are. Perhaps the best way to view Eternals within the grander MCU would be the same way comic book readers regard prestige-format trade paperbacks: non-canon. A story told just for the joy of telling a story. Time will tell whether Eternals lives up to its lofty goals of treading a bold new path for the MCU or becomes as forgotten as the original 1970’s comic book series, or McDonald’s premium grill chicken sandwich. Perhaps like so many ambitious filmmakers before her, director Chloe Zhao flew too close to the sun. However, whether flying or falling, the view is spectacular.

Rating: 4 / 5

About Jess Kroll

Jess Kroll
Jess Kroll is a novelist and university professor born in Honolulu, Hawaii, and based in Daegu, South Korea. He has been writing film reviews since 2004 and has been exclusive to Pop Mythology since 2012. His novels include 'Land of Smiles' from Monsoon Books and young adult series 'The One' and 'Werewolf Council' from Epic Press.