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Review: Eternals Takes Its Time Getting to Anything Even Remotely Kirby-Worthy

October 24, 2021 11:00 | By
Eternals

A scene from The Eternals

Before Marvel Studios announced that Oscar-winner Chloé Zhao (Nomadland) would be helming Eternals, there’s a very good chance that 99% of earth’s population had no idea who these Marvel Comics characters even were. (And before Nomadland, even fewer knew Zhao’s work.) Years later, people still might not know much about the characters or what to expect from the movie. In fact, the characters, created by legendary comic book creator Jack Kirby way back in 1976, have had as spotty a publishing history as the title character of Shang-Chi. Very few comic creators and Marvel editors knew what to do with them, and even Neil Gaiman certainly gave it the college try. 

The opening crawl of Zhao’s iteration gives some idea of the scale to expect as it introduces the concept of God-like “Celestials,” and their adoring powered servants, the Eternals, who are sent to earth to protect humans from horrible “Deviants.” The central focus of this group is Gemma Chan‘s Sersi, who is teaching history in London and has an amorous relationship with fellow professor Dane Whitman (Kit Harrington). Sersi is also minding Sprite (Lia McHugh), an Eternal with the unfortunate curse of being created within a child’s body that never ages. After they fend off a Deviant attack with Sersi’s former lover Ikaris (Richard Madden), they need to go looking for their fellow Eternals, who have been scattered across the earth, in order to face a great Deviant attack, as forewarned by Prime Eternal Ajak (Salma Hayak).

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Kumhail Nanjiani (L) fighting a Deviant

It’s obvious from the start that this group of heroes is mostly made up of a lot of pretty and buff but equally bland actors with next to no zero personality and with only a few exceptions. Kumail Nanjiani gives it a go by showing up as Kingo, who directs and acts in Bollywood films and probably has the biggest personality of the bunch, constantly cracking with only a few jokes that really land. One thing that’s immediately obvious is that Angelina Jolie is and has always been a superstar, because every time she’s on-screen as Thena, she just exudes more presence than anyone around her. That doesn’t mean it’s her best acting work, and she has the unfortunate running subplot of Thena being “mad-weary,” which comes up at random times and basically sends her into a blind rage. It’s a subplot that quickly gets tiring.

Second best of the bunch is probably Brian Tyree Henry as Phastos, the Eternal who can use his light constructs to invent and create, but he really only shows up maybe an hour into the movie. Barry Keoghan does bring more of a personality to his character Druig than anything else he’s done, and yet, that doesn’t say a heck of a lot. 

Since Eternals is so deliberately an ensemble piece, it means none of the cast is even really given much opportunity to stand out from the others, and it takes a good portion of the movie to figure out who is who and why you’re supposed be rooting for any of them.  One exception is the romance between Sersi and Ikaris, and where Dane ends up in the mix, as it’s one of the character subplots that does work well.

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Richard Madden and Gemma Chan in The Eternals

A bigger overall issue is that Eternals just doesn’t have a much-needed and definitive villain or conflict other than those butt fugly Deviant creatures, who keep popping up with the sole purpose of killing humans but with very little other motivation until the last half of the film. Other Marvel movies have thrived on having great villains and actors playing them — Josh Brolin as Thanos, Tony Leung as Wenwu, etc. Without that, it never feels like there are enough stakes or actual threat that makes it necessary for the Eternals to be on earth.

We probably should get to some crafts, because they’re mostly up to Marvel par, but there were also issues there. Kudos to Chao and her location manager for finding some absolutely stunning landscapes and vistas on which to shoot. Heck, even Camden in London looks great when shot by Cinematographer Ben Davis, BSC. By comparison, the production design is quite lacking when compared to other MCU films, and that might be because there are so many great natural spaces that any construct just doesn’t stand out. There are also problems with costumes, since Costume Designer Sammy Sheldon Differ and her team has designed and created these beautiful outfits for the Eternals, but then the story puts them in bland street clothes for much of the movie so they’ll fit in with humans. 

The visual effects vary in quality, but some of that might come down to the creature designs, which have absolutely nothing to do with the Deviants as created by the late, great Jack Kirby, and they just look odd. (The alien creatures in The Tomorrow War earlier this year just seemed far more menacing.) The way visual effects are used to create the Eternals’ light construct powers is far more effective,  but there’s nothing that really takes your breath away except maybe the Eternals’ spaceship, the Domo.

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The inside of The Domo

The scale of the towering Celestials works better when there are other things in shot for comparison, but the main Celestial, Arishem, just looks like a giant rock behemoth with none of the color or detail that made them jump off the page when drawn by Kirby. (The group’s collective Uni-Mind, which is absolutely enormous and awe-inspiring in the comics, is just another CG effect, essentially, and therefore, also unimpressive.)

The score by Ramin Djawadi (Game of Thrones) never really stands out as something new or original for this kind of movie. To be honest, after hearing how Pink Floyd’s “Time” works so well early in the movie, I was generally hoping for more interesting musical choices.

Eternals finally achieves the scope and scale of a Kirby creation in its final epic act where the  Eternals are in their costumes, facing a  “Prime Deviant” (voiced by Bill SkarsgardIt‘s Pennywise), and trying to stop the destruction of earth — all fairly de rigeur storytelling for a Marvel movie. Because of that, there just doesn’t seem to be a purpose for this movie, because Kenneth Branagh’s Thor and the Thor sequels had already done a better job with the idea of Gods fighting creatures to protect earth’s human population. That fact just makes Eternals feel redundant and recitative. 

I was truly hoping Ms. Zhao would exceed anyone’s lofty expectations with her first foray into the Marvel Universe. Instead, Eternals feels like a step back and step down after her previous two films, The Rider and the Oscar Best Picture, Nomadland. Her attempt to bring her panache for strong characterization ends up creating a cadre of superheroes with very little personality when introduced, then takes far too much time before you even care about their conflict.

The people who love everything Marvel will surely eat this one up, as they do everything Marvel, but it’s hard to feel this is up to par with Marvel’s best, especially following so closely after the far superior Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.

The sad fact is that the Eternals are not the Avengers, nor were they ever going to be the Guardians of the Galaxy, so basically, Eternals is Marvel’s Suicide Squad… but with a slightly better ending.

Rating: 6.5/10

Eternals opens across the country, only in theaters, on Friday, November 5 with previews on Thursday night.

All pictures courtesy Marvel Studios and Walt Disney Pictures.