Top image: Marvel Studios
Eternals currently has a surprisingly low score on Rotten Tomatoes (it could be a case of review bombing, as with 2019’s Captain Marvel). That’s understandable, given that this doesn’t feel like a Marvel movie. But even though Eternals doesn’t fit well into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), that doesn’t mean it is a bad film. Instead, it feels like it’s a film that fails to live up to expectations simply because it’s its own thing instead of following a preset superhero movie template.
As you might have guessed, Eternals revolves around a group of ten super-powered beings with eternal life—barring severe injuries, of course. The superhero movie follows the eponymous group, who have been living in secret on Earth for thousands of years, protecting the planet from certain threats. The Eternals have names like Thena and Ikaris, evoking the idea of Greek mythology, so it’s clear that we’re meant to see them as a pantheon of gods.
And this is where Eternals, a Marvel movie, feels oddly like a DC movie. Its scope feels grand and majestic, befitting a movie that’s about a group of superheroes behaving like gods. They even argue a little about it in the film, although it never really goes anywhere.
You have expansive shots of picturesque vistas that show how the Eternals have been around at the peak of different civilisations around the world. The tone of the film is a lot more serious and sombre than any Marvel film, although that’s not to say it’s as dark or gloomy as most DC ones.
It also has an epic fantasy score by none other Ramin Djawadi, who’s best known for composing the score to Game of Thrones. In a word, the film is beautiful, and the visuals, epic. In that sense, it feels like it would fit in more with the DCEU (DC Extended Universe) rather than the MCU. It is also mythic, giving us the feeling that we’re watching gods in action.
And the film knows it. It knows its place and grandeur, and it confidently omits a potentially pretentious “the” from the Eternals title because it just is. Compare that to 2012’s The Avengers, which didn’t quite yet have the courage to omit the “the” from its title back then (subsequent Avengers sequels skipped the “the”, like Avengers: Age of Ultron and Avengers: Infinity War).
In the film, the Eternals later decide to live among men and women because inclusivity is a big theme, and they discover their humanity. The cast is diverse, and not just because the cast hails from many different cultures. There is a deaf character (whom all the other characters communicate using sign language), a character who is doomed to be eternally young, and a gay character.
Much has been said about the inclusion of a gay character in the film, and it has caused quite a commotion among specific communites and caused the film to receive an M18 rating from IMDA. But as Kumail Nanjiani (who plays Kingo) said, that means Eternals is “upsetting the right people”. And this shouldn’t overshadow the fact that many other demographics are represented in the movie.
But it’s the “living among humans” aspect that falters. Although they try to be human, we never really connect emotionally with them. Maybe it’s because they repeatedly emphasise how they are immortal. Just as you start feeling for a character and her relationships, you’re swiftly reminded of how she’ll outlive her partner. Gemma Chan is wonderful as Sersi, but her graceful demeanour lacks warmth and human connection—and then you’re reminded that she’ll outlast the people around her, so carpe diem! It doesn’t quite work, and if you’re mortal, you’re definitely not going to identify.
Multiply this by ten (because there are ten Eternals), and you begin to see why it’s hard to feel for them. Of course, you’re on their side and rooting for them. And each Eternal is distinct and adequately characterised. But it lacks that heart, humanity, and soul, which is ironic since the bulk of the film is about the Eternals trying to find that little semblance of humanity within themselves.
But then, as with all Marvel movies, a great peril arises that conveniently forces them to use their superpowers as they get back into action. The fate of the planet is at stake (which is par for the course for any superhero movie at this point, and a little paltry given that the universe and the multiverse have been endangered multiple times in the MCU), and the Eternals have to decide what to do about it.
And since we didn’t connect with them emotionally in the film, the stakes don’t seem all that important. You know the day will be saved—since Spider-Man: No Way Home is coming next month—once the usual superpowered battle ensues. Not that I’m knocking it, of course, I like the action scenes as much as anyone out there.
And therein lies the problem with Eternals. Marvel has, thus far, been able to portray characters with godlike abilities as being as human as any one of us. Yet, Eternals, which have characters literally seen as gods, don’t ever stir our emotions. This aspect makes it feel very much un-Marvel, even though it ticks off all the checkboxes for a superhero movie.
Eternals is a story about gods, but it never entirely resonates because it never quite becomes a story about humanity. To top it off, it doesn’t retain that Marvel signature as other MCU movies, which may let you down (unless you’re a DCEU fan, of which then you might be pleasantly surprised). It’s quite a cinematic and multicultural wonder, though, and the strides it has made on the front of inclusivity cannot be denied. The Eternals will return, as the movie triumphantly states at the end, but we might not feel very much about whether they do or not. But before they return, stay for two post-credit scenes that could be said to be, ahem, stylish and black.
Director: Chloé Zhao
Writers: Ryan Firpo and Kaz Firpo, with screenplay credits for Chloé Zhao and Patrick Burleigh
Main cast: Gemma Chan (Sersi), Richard Madden (Ikaris), Kumail Nanjiani (Kingo), Lia McHugh (Sprite), Brian Tyree Henry (Phastos), Lauren Ridloff (Makkari), Barry Keoghan (Druig), Don Lee (Gilgamesh), Salma Hayek (Ajak), Angelina Jolie (Thena), Harish Patel (Karun), and Kit Harington (Dane Whitman).
Running Time: 2 hours 36 minutes
Genre: Superhero, action, drama, epic