Eternals Tests Marvel’s Commitment to Weirdness With Mixed Results

Eternals was always a gamble, for reasons that were clocked from the starting line. The very concept (created by Jack Kirby) is so macro-level as to almost be absurd: Here is a group who were sent by cosmic creation super beings to protect humanity from bad stuff secretly, and they’ve been doing it since the dawn of our collective species memory.

But Marvel has sold audiences on weird shit before, right? Technology and magic coexisting, astral projection and universe-ending jewelry, talking raccoons and trees who are best friends. This should be a snap!

Wait, we can’t say snap anymore, can we.

[Minor spoilers for Eternals.]

The general feeling about this film—well before its release to the general public—has been a pile-on detailing its many failures, and hailing it as the first Marvel film to truly “disappoint.” This all by itself is hilarious because there are plenty of contenders for that spot in the studio’s thirteen-year run. (I’d give it to Guardians 2 or the first Ant-Man, personally, and even there I’m infuriating someone else who wants to lambast Iron Man 2 or Thor: The Dark World, so it’s clear we’ve all got capital “O” Opinions on the subject.) Marvel films are created via a very specific formula that none of the films have managed to stray far from, regardless of who’s at the wheel. Ergo, when people “don’t like” a Marvel film, the quibbles are often smaller than they imagine them to be.

So does Eternals deserve the sort of ire it seems have garnered? Comparatively, I would say no. But I also cannot ignore the fact that the film—while enjoyable in so, so many places—makes a number of baffling and badly-conceived choices that I’m shocked made any sort of final cut.

Also, there’s an Extremely Dramatic Moment toward the end of the movie that I laughed at so raucously, the entire theater could hear me. I maintain that my reaction was correct because I’m still laughing about the moment. I will continue to laugh at it, probably once a week, for the rest of my life. It was that funny. I can’t wait until it’s a clip on YouTube, so I can troll people with it constantly.

Eternals, Makkali and Druig

Screenshot: Marvel Studios

…Which is to say, Eternals is a puzzling viewing experience because it’s packed with a bunch of charming characters and pointed flashbacks and gorgeous locations, but then again, it needed to be at least two movies and doesn’t care remotely about plausibility and also says some alarming things about the state of humanity without seeming to realize that it’s doing so? It’s fun and genuinely interesting in some places, but hard to pack away without picking at every little thing that niggles once it’s over.

The first hour of the film contains truly heinous dialogue of the people-don’t-talk-like-that variety. There’s a lot of stating the obvious in awkward moments and telegraphing the respective natures of the main characters in the starkest terms. (Our central hero once literally says the sentence “Here, let me help you” during a minor disaster within the first thirty minutes of the film.) The initial set-up is one that the trailer debuted nicely: A group of special powered someones are sent to Earth by a mega-being Celestial named Arishem to protect humans from “the Deviants,” essentially big old predator beasties. They have largely stayed out of human history because they were instructed only to help us when Deviants showed up, but their presence in the world has resulted in them being folded into a large variety of our myths and legends.

This is unfortunately where the confusion begins; we’re told repeatedly that the Eternals (at least, a few of them) adore humanity for all the wondrous things we do and create and feel, despite our many failings and foibles. But the film offers very few examples of humanity doing anything good, focusing instead on the horrors we perpetrate against one another. More importantly, many of the things that are unique and lovely about humanity are often shown to be the result of the Eternals interfering in our history; for example, one flashback to ancient Babylon suggests that the whole city was essentially their idea to keep us protected. During that sequence, Sprite (Lia McHugh) tells the gathered humans a tale about her buddy Gilgamesh (Don Lee), complete with magical visuals.

So that’s one of the greatest cities in history, and now oral storytelling that the Eternals can essentially take credit for? If you’ve ever heard the “ancient astronauts” view of human history—it’s the one where (typically white) people try to insist that the accomplishments of ancient (typically POC) civilizations had to have been aided by alien intervention, or there’s no way we could have made these leaps forward—Eternals can often feel like a primer in that stance, which is not great.

Eternals, Sersi

Screenshot: Marvel Studios

It also has the side effect of making it very hard to understand the feelings of the film’s central character: Sersi is played with radical kindness and compassion by Gemma Chan, but her love of humanity doesn’t jive with what the movie shows us of our species. This isn’t to say that a film concerned with the long arc of human history should blot out our myriad mistakes or our cruelty, but the film itself seems genuinely confused on when we should be lauded, blamed, or utterly apart from the mechanics of the larger story at work. To wit, we see the aftermath of the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima, but this same film also simultaneously suggests that humans didn’t cause climate change. Which, just… what can you do with that.

The film also features a climactic sequence that should literally and irreparably break the planet, but we’re just supposed to go with it and pretend that’s not an issue. (I am usually very generous on the “this scientifically cannot happen” front, but this film managed to make a leap I could not take.) The character who initially seems like the main villain is emphatically not a villain at all, but still treated like one by the heroes, which is equally disconcerting. There are a scant number of philosophical conversations between the Eternals to try and square a few of these issues, but they’re always brief one-sentence exchanges that never delve into the meat and bone of their disagreements. There’s a lot of that going around in this movie. Director Chloe Zhao still gets in a lot of her trademark landscape visuals, though, and that’s a treat every time.

While Chan gives her all in the performance of Sersi, she’s also held back by a script that perpetrates the cardinal betrayal against earnestly “good” characters. This is constantly checked as a problem with characters of the Superman bent—the idea that being a good person who is full to the brim with empathy and love is somehow a boring way to be. This isn’t remotely true… but it is nearly always written that way, hence the belief that goodness is a snooze. Sersi is very much stuck in that role, with no defining characteristics outside her kindness and compassion. She has no tics, no oddities, nothing that makes her stand out in a cast of nearly a dozen main characters. She deserved much better, and now we’ll have to wait for a sequel to see if she ever gets it.

Salma Hayek’s turn as Ajak manages to infuse her own compassion-fueled character with a little extra by virtue of her position as initial leader of the group. And we get something unique with Thena (Angelina Jolie) when it’s discovered that her character has a condition called “mad weary,” which essentially plays out as a form of PTSD, a topic that hasn’t gotten much screentime in the blockbuster arena, and much less so when it surfaces in a woman.

Eternals, Kingo and Phastos

Screenshot: Marvel Studios

Yet the highlights of the film are largely found in Kumail Nanjiani’s Kingo, Brian Tyree Henry’s Phastos, Don Lee’s Gilgamesh, and Lauren Ridloff’s Makkari. (An honorable mention goes to Barry Keoghan’s Druig, who proves that you can be an asshole and still be worthy of warmth and friendship, unlike a couple other characters who shall remain nameless.) The fact that a gay and a deaf character make up some of the best figures in the movie is always worth recounting, and I would honestly watch an entire movie/series of Kingo doing pretty much anything? So if Marvel would get on that, stat, I’d appreciate it.

This all probably makes it sound like I hated the movie, but I still had a good time? Perhaps it’s because Eternals is a film that lets everything hang out in the open. Or maybe because it straddles that good/bad line for me personally. But either way, it was an experience that I’m eager to share with others, so we can yell our feelings at each other, just like the eponymous heroes of the film.

Emmet Asher-Perrin really loved that CGI rendering of ancient Babylon, though. Even if they took some liberties with the gate. You can bug them on Twitter, and read more of their work here and elsewhere.

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