Talking Movies: Eternals

Talking Movies

Released: 5 November 2021
Director: Chloé Zhao
Distributor:
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Budget: $200 million
Stars:
Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Kumail Nanjiani, Lia McHugh, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Ridloff, Barry Keoghan, Don Lee, Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek, Bill Skarsgård, and Kit Harington.

The Plot:
Over 7,000 years ago, the God-like Celestials charged their superpowered, immortal creations, the Eternals, with defending the fledgling planet Earth from their evil counterparts, the Deviants. After destroying the Deviants, the Eternals lived among humanity and went their separate ways; however, when the Deviants re-emerge following the return of half the world’s population, reunite to protect humanity from this monstrous threat.

The Background:
Jeez, okay…this is a tough one for me. So, after the legendary Jack Kirby left Marvel Comics in 1970, he created a race of cosmic, God-like beings called the New Gods and intended to tell a finite story with his creations before the comic book was cancelled. When he then returned to Marvel, he developed a startling similar concept initially titled “The Celestials” before being legally advised to change the title. Although The Eternals was cancelled, Kirby’s plotlines were later resolved in other Marvel publications and the characters and their mythology played a pivotal role in the wider Marvel universe. Although I am mildly aware of the Celestials and Thanos’ status as a Deviant, however, I can’t say that I have ever encountered the Eternals in all my years of reading comics so I was intrigued when the team was announced as being part of the fourth phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), which director Chloé Zhao aimed to further expand the scope of the MCU. Featuring a diverse cast of characters and story spanning several centuries, MCU maestro Kevin Feige was eager to delve further into the MCU’s cosmic history and introduce a new ensemble of characters to their ever-growing series of interconnected films. Although Eternals was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the visual effects team continued to work remotely and the film was finally released to largely mixed reviews. After being review-bombed by bigots, critics praised the visuals of the film while also questioning the pace and characterisation; others questioned Marvel’s attempts to branch out from their usual formula while praising the deconstruction of the superhero genre, though Eternals’ worldwide gross of over $171 million would point to it being a relative financial success.

The Review:
So, as I mentioned, I had no expectations for Eternals; I know absolutely nothing about the characters and have never encountered this group in all my years of reading comics, but I often find that this actually helps with my perception of a movie (I wasn’t really familiar with the Guardians of the Galaxy and I loved those films). Still, it seems like we’re only really getting this movie because Inhumans (Various, 2017) failed to impress as there was a time when Marvel where really pushing the Inhumans to the forefront of their comics. In fact, I believe the Inhumans are tangentially related to the Eternals in the comics, but it definitely seems like Marvel Studios are abandoning tackling the Inhumans and have turned to the Eternals in their stead. Introducing the Eternals means expanding the cosmic scale of the MCU beyond even the scope of the Thor movies (Various, 2011 to present) as these characters, and their creators, came into existence before even the Infinity Stones were created, meaning that they’re not just akin to Gods but also responsible for inspiring humanity’s evolution, innovation, and mythology.

The film doesn’t spend much time dwelling on the romantic drama between these characters.

Even more than the Guardians of the Galaxy films (Gunn, 2014 to present), Eternals is an ensemble film and, more so than any other MCU movie so far, the film’s characters are a tight-knit group of superhuman character. Before Eternals, the MCU’s teams have been a mishmash of egos and personalities who struggled to get along, but the Eternals are more like a family of God-like beings who are initially heartbroken when they go their separate ways. Sersi (Chan) is the closest thing we have to a main character; an empathetic Eternal who’s able to transmutate matter upon physical contact and who has a strong connection with humanity. For centuries, Sersei was engaged in a romantic relationship with Ikarus (Madden), the most powerful of the Eternals; while all of the Eternals exhibit superhuman strength and durability, Ikarus can fly and fire lasers from his eyes and yet, despite his great power, he isn’t chosen to lead the team: the honour falls to the conflicted Sersei. Left heartbroken after their relationship ended with little explanation, Sersei has been living as museum curator and dating Dane Whitman (Harrington), who actually barely appears in the film; I expected Dane to be the audience surrogate but he only really bookends the film and we simply learn what’s happening alongside the Eternals as they reunite. This means that their isn’t really a love triangle between Sersei, Dane, and Ikarus, though a mild one does exist thanks to the presence of Sprite (McHugh), an Eternal cursed to remain a child and who can conjure illusions at will, who carries a torch for Ikarus.

The Eternals have gone their separate ways and lived amongst us in secret for centuries.

When the Deviants suddenly appear, Sersei, Dane, and Sprite are saved by Ikarus and, since the Eternals were charged with destroying these monstrous beings, they quickly realise that they need to reunite with their comrades. Naturally, they seek out their spiritual leader Ajak (Hayek), who not only has the ability to heal their injuries but can also commune with their creator, the titanic Celestial Arishem (David Kaye), and communicates His will to the team. However, they discover Ajak dead, slaughtered by the Deviants, and this responsibility passes to Sersei and, in the process, she learns a terrible truth about the Eternals’ origins and the true nature of their mission on Earth. This only spurs her to reunite with her follow Eternals, which leads them to India, where they find Kingo (Nanjiani) revelling in fame as a popular Bollywood star. Easily one of the most entertaining characters in the film, Kingo can fire bolts of cosmic energy from his fingers and brings along his valet, Karun (Harish Patel), to document the trip and, in the process, provide not only an audience surrogate but another highlight of the film. As powerful as Ikarus is, he is matched perhaps only by Gilgamesh (Lee) and Thena (Jolie), who retired to Australia hundreds of years ago after the battle-hungry Thena began to suffer from the “Mahd Wy’ry”, a condition that causes her to remember her past conflicts and drives her into a mindless aggression against her fellow Eternals. While Thena is able to conjure weapons from thin air and lives for battle, Gilgamesh turns his cosmic powers into his hands to boost his physical strength ever further. This comes in handy when the group braves Druig’s (Keoghan) sanctuary and defend it from Deviants; able to manipulate the minds of others at will, Druig was the first of the group to question their mission and Arishem’s decree that they not interfere in human conflicts unless Deviants are involved, and chose to separate himself not just from his fellow Eternals, but the wider world itself in order to protect generations of people. While Druig is initially sceptical, he’s soon convinced to rejoin his comrades by the scale of the threat they face and after being reunited with Makkari (Ridloff), an Eternal with superhuman speed and who can only communicate through sign language.

Easily Marvel’s most diverse movie yet, though the main antagonists were largely forgettable.

At this point, you’ve probably noticed that Eternals is packed full of diversity and representation; each character looks and sounds different and Marvel are definitely widening the scope of their fictional world with this team. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the depiction of Phastos (Henry) as not only being openly gay, but in a same-sex relationship and raising a young boy, giving us the MCU’s first male-on-male kiss. Like Druig, Phastos is initially reluctant to reunite with his fellow Eternals; a master builder, he lost faith in humanity after his technological innovations eventually led to the creation of nuclear weapons and further conflict. However, his love for his family and desire to protect them spur him forward and the group is finally reunited…only to find that the Deviants have changed significantly over the years. Amongst their number stands an alpha, Kro (Skarsgård), who starts off as the largest and most intimidating of his monstrous brethren and eventually evolves into a sentient, humanoid form after absorbing the powers and lifeforce of a few of the Eternals. This gives him the ability to speak, heal his wounds, wield similar cosmic energy as the Eternals, and alter his fellow Deviants into far more grotesque and versatile forms. This means the Deviants can fly, attack with razor-sharp claws, and chomp down on their prey; they’re also incredibly durable and aggressive, but actually don’t appear all that much in the film. Kro, especially, doesn’t reach his humanoid form for some time and then vanishes for a huge hunk of the movie, only reappearing very briefly in the finale, as the Deviant threat is soon usurped by another, far more personal and dangerous menace.

The Nitty-Gritty:
It actually kind of sickens me to see so many bigots and haters dump on this film just because it features a lot of diversity; sure, there’s quite a lot packed in here all at once but we live in a world where diversity is the norm. just look around your office, or school, or local supermarket; everyone looks and sounds different, so why shouldn’t that be the case in superhero movies? Eternals was, in many ways, a great way to highlight diversity in the MCU for the first time and, since I’m unfamiliar with these characters, I really don’t care if this means their gender, skin colour, or sexual orientation has changed. Take Kingo, a recognisably Indian and very spiritual Eternal; he’s easily a stand-out character in the film thanks to his egotistical attitude and him revelling in his celebrity status, and Karun helps to add a real heart to the film since he is in awe of the Eternals. Then there’s Makkari, the MCU’s first deaf character, who exhibits a fantastic sense of enthusiasm and personality through her sign language, and the fact that all of the characters have distinct and interesting accents to help them standout from the rest of the MCU. Eternals is also a visually impressive movie; it’s clear that the MCU is definitely going for more visually distinct and experimental films in Phase Four and Eternals is probably the most beautiful MCU movie to date. The film constantly jumps to different eras and moments in human history, and different locations across the globe, as well as bombarding the viewer with some surreal cosmic imagery and some incredible costume design for the titular group.

While the film is incredibly visually appealing, its hampered by a bloated cast and some redundancies.

The Eternals’ powers and technology are equally intriguing; there’s a real Stargate (Emmerich, 1994) vibe to the presentation of their ship and influence upon humanity, and their cosmic powers are augmented by distinct, gold-laced CGI that’s comprised of suitably Kirby-esque swirls and patterns. Their costumes, though sadly absent for a great deal of the film, are equally impressive; unlike any other costumes in the MCU, the Eternals are garbed in a form-fitting, regal attire that is sleek, sexy, and colourful while still appearing comfortable and practical. Everything looks great until Kro takes on his human form; then the CGI takes a noticeable hit and he appears extremely out of place and cheap-looking, which is a shame as the Deviants didn’t look too bad for the most part (even though they were just big, generic monster-things). Thankfully, the film excels in the depiction of the Celestials and when fleshing out the cosmic history of the MCU; we’ve seen hints to this before, and even some brief scenes of Celestials here and there, but Eternals goes all-in with depicting these God-like beings in full and basically positioning them as being responsible for life on Earth and countless other worlds and integral elements of the wider cosmic balance. It has to be said, though, that the film does suffer from being a bit bloated; there are ten main characters, each of whom only exhibit the one power, and while the cast is very charismatic and does a pretty good job of standing out and making the most of their screen time, it definitely feels like six or maybe eight characters would have been more manageable. Like, Makkari was fine but probably could have been removed completely, and Gilgamesh could probably have been cut as well, and Ajak’s personality traits probably could have been merged into Thena to give her a bit more to do beyond just going crazy here and there.

Kro’s effects are a bit of a letdown and there’s a lot of exposition to sit through here.

Similarly, there are some other areas where Eternals also fails to hit its mark; although there is a great deal of action and the trademark MCU snark in the film, there’s noticeably far les than in other MCU movies. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; not every movie, even if it’s a superhero movie, needs to be full-on mindless action all the time, but there isn’t really anything on show here to separate this from other MCU movies where we’ve seen similar powers and abilities done far better. Eternals is, however, a much more deliberate and meditative entry in the MCU; the debates between the Eternals regarding whether to weigh the lives of one world against countless others in the vast cosmos is intriguing, and the Eternals are quite a complex group of characters; created to do Arishem’s bidding, they follow Arishem’s word without question and regard Him with the reverence we reserve for our Gods. Over time, some of them question Arishem’s design for them and the world, while others remain steadfastly loyal to the will of Arishem to a fault, which infuses the film’s narrative with a fascinating religious undercurrent. However, Eternals falls into a trap that plagues many movies that need to explain a lot of lore; it’s the first MCU film to feature opening text explaining the background of the Eternals, but then Sersei relates some of it to Dane, and the others bring Kaurn up to speed, and then there’s a long piece of exposition between Arishem and Sersei that she then tells the others about. For me, that’s a lot of redundant exposition; I feel it might have been better to veer more towards a more visual and implied narrative and then spread the exposition out a bit, but I also suspect that the opening text was added in just to make sure audiences understand what’s going on.

The Eternals are rocked to learn the truth behind their origins and mission.

The Spoilers (Highlight to Read):

I suppose it’s not too surprising that the Deviants and Kro fail to make much of an impression as antagonists in the film as their threat is completely overshadowed by Ikarus. Initially a devout follower of Arishem, Ajak grows to truly care for the Earth and sees the vast potential of humanity after they reversed the effects of the Snap, which leads her to planning to oppose Arishem’s true design for the Eternals. It turns out that they’re not there to protect the world, but are actually there to help foster the planet’s population to feed a young Celestial, Tiamut, who’s growing in the centre of the Earth and will destroy the world upon awakening. Ikarus is so devoted to Arishem that he allows Ajak to be killed by deviants and then actively fights against his friends and family, and even his beloved Sersei, to bring their mission to an end so that their memories can be erased and they can be sent to another world, as has happened over and over throughout the ages. It has to be said, though, that there are some flaws in this twist; it turns out that the Eternals are basically akin to robots, creations of the Celestials that are programmed “not to evolve” (even though they clearly do, emotionally at least), so why wouldn’t the Celestials just recall them after the Deviants are wiped out and only dispatch them when the creatures return? It also seems extremely unlikely that the Eternals wouldn’t have rebelled against their master’s grand plans in the past, so a bit strange that Arishem wouldn’t do a more thorough job of wiping their memories. The emergence of the Deviants is also more of a coincidence than anything else, and Tiamut’s awakening has only been hastened by the Snap, and Kro’s potential as a character and an antagonist is completely stunted by Ikarus’ mid-way heel turn and I almost feel like it might’ve been better to have him and Sprite teaming up from the start and have the Deviants the Eternals face be mere illusions. Regardless, Sersei and the others are determined to save the world and spare Tiamut’s life so that thousands of lives can be created by His powers; initially, they plan to do this by creating the “Uni-Mind” and vastly augmenting Druig’s power to put Tiamut to sleep. However, Ikarus’ fanatical devotion to awakening the Celestial leads Sersei with no choice but to turn the emerging Celestial to marble, freezing it in place, and Ikarus is so remorseful for his actions that he willingly commits suicide by flying into the centre of the sun. In the aftermath, Druig, Thena, and Makkari head out into the galaxy to find the other Eternals and inform them of the truth, while Arishem dramatically arrives to abduct Sersi, Phastos, and Kingo and judge whether humanity is worthy of saving and Dane is so rattled by the experience that he prepares to take up the cursed sword of his ancestors…

The Summary:
As I said, I went into Eternals with little no expectations; I saw the trailers and imagined that it would be a visually stunning and atmospheric entry in the MCU, and it definitely is that. Marvel are clearly taking some chances in Phase Four and experimenting with more diversity, variety, and unexpected directions going forward; it’s fascinating to see them go all-in with some of Marvel and Jack Kirby’s more surreal cosmic aspects and really opens the franchise up to an endless number of possibilities. This is juxtaposed by the same grounded, realistic approach to the subject matter that we saw in the likes of Thor (Branagh, 2011) that helps to introduce these wild concepts by framing them against real-world events, technology, and mythology to show how this fictional world has been influenced by these demigods. When the action does kick in, it’s pretty impressive and I like how each of the Eternals looks, sounds, and feels distinct and exhibits unique powers that make them formidable in their own right but almost unstoppable when their united against their monstrous enemies. However, Eternals is far more interested in world-building, moral discussions, and character analysis in a bid to present something of a deconstruction of the typical superhero movie. This may or may not land for you; for me, it did for the most part, but I felt the exposition could have been paced out better and the film would have benefitted from a little less hand-holding and veering more towards abstract visuals, but there’s no denying that it did an exceptional job of bringing a fresh group of sexy and powerful characters into the MCU which I imagine will have a significant impact on the franchise going forward.

My Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Pretty Good

Have you seen Eternals? If so, what did you think to it and where would you rank it against the other films in the MCU? Which of the characters was your favourite? What did you think to the diversity and variety on offer in the film? Do you like seeing the cosmic scope of the MCU or do you prefer their more grounded and relatable stories? Are you familiar with the Eternals and, if so, how do you think the film worked as an adaptation? Whatever you thought about Eternals, sign up to leave a reply down below or drop a comment on my social media.

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