“Eternals” opens in a manner that isn’t typical of any previous film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Instead of jumping straight into the action, an opening scroll details the mythos behind the story we are about to watch unfold. In 5000 B.C., ten super-powered beings known as the Eternals were sent to Earth by the Celestial Arishem to rid the planet on creatures called Deviants, an enemy of humanity bent on their destruction. The Eternals remained on Earth for centuries, instructed to destroy any Deviants but to not otherwise interfere in human affairs. This opening, punctuated by Ramin Djawadi’s score, immediately sets up director Chloé Zhao’s interpretation of the Marvel comic as a serious fantasy that leans into mythological elements and presents a stark contrast to the often more grounded action/comedy tone that has dominated the majority of the MCU thus far. It’s refreshing to see such a detour from the usual Marvel fare, helmed by a filmmaker with a distinct vision. And that’s why it pains me to say that “Eternals” takes on so much, even in its nearly three-hour runtime, that it doesn’t really work.
The bulk of the action is set in the present day, with flashbacks jumping to different time periods to reveal the Eternals’ changing attitudes toward humanity and their mission piece by piece. With the remaining Deviants having been destroyed centuries ago, but Arishem not having yet summoned them back home, the Eternals have scattered all over the world, living relatively normal lives. Sersi (Gemma Chan), an Eternal who can manipulate matter, is living in London with Sprite (Lia McHugh), an Eternal who has the appearance of a child and who can conjure illusions. Sersi is teaching history, and dating fellow professor Dane Whitman (Kit Harington) following her split from Ikaris (Richard Madden), another Eternal who she was in a relationship with for centuries before he left seeking another purpose. It’s while she’s with Sprite and Dane that Sersi is attacked by a Deviant and, realizing they are back, joins with Ikaris to round up the other Eternals to fight them.
That’s only the first act of “Eternals,” which spends the bulk of its remaining runtime gathering up the gang, ruminating on the past and what it means to be human, before becoming so increasingly convoluted that between the conflict between the Eternals and the Celestials the Deviant plot nearly becomes irrelevant. “Eternals” is actually pretty engaging for at least the first half, thanks in large part to its diverse cast of heroes. Angelina Jolie fascinates as Thena, an Eternal who can form weapons from cosmic energy but who also feels the pull of the Deviant Kro. Kumail Nanjiani, Barry Keoghan, Brian Tyree Henry, and Harish Patel (the first three play Eternals, while Patel is the valet to Nanjiani’s Kingo) all steal scenes with not only their comic timing, but the compassion they each bring in their relationship to the human world and to each other. Don Lee appears all too briefly as Eternal Gilgamesh, and Salma Hayek shows a good deal of wisdom as their leader, Ajak.
But as much as the large cast of “Eternals” is an asset, it also frequently undermines the film. Why cast Angelina Jolie, one of the only actors currently working in Hollywood who could be called a proper movie star, and barely utilize her? The action scenes she’s in are one of the film’s highlights— she moves with a balletic grace that’s often mesmerizing— but this is decidedly a supporting role for her, despite the bulk of the film’s marketing placing her at the center. The same could be said for Hayek. Chan and Madden are the leads of this ensemble cast, and they’re…fine…but it never really comes across that these two share a deep romantic bind that spans the course of centuries. The characters surrounding them are much more interesting, but regardless, it is nice to see Marvel finally starting to commit to showcasing more diverse heroes. Brian Tyree Henry’s Phastos is the first openly gay hero in the MCU, and many of his scenes see him sharing screen time with his loving husband and their son. And Lauren Ridloff plays the series’ first deaf hero, Makkari.
Flashes of Zhao’s vision can be seen throughout “Eternals,” its vast landscapes reminiscent of those in her previous films “The Rider” and “Nomadland” (even though this is her first project with cinematographer Ben Davis, who has previously worked on several other MCU films). Even though “Eternals” still features a bevy of CGI-laden battles, it’s nice to see so much location shooting, something Zhao’s pushed for. It’s the script where “Eternals” is really lacking in the heart and soul that can be found in Zhao’s other films, and it’s hard not to believe that the fact that four different people have a screenwriting credit (Zhao, Patrick Burleigh, and Ryan and Kaz Firpo, who share the story credit) has something to do with that. Too many fingers in a pie that is already stuffed with fillings is bound to create some issues, and “Eternals” really starts to get lost in itself in the final act. There’s some interesting things going on, sure, especially as the story forces the members of the Eternals to grapple with their own humanity as the human world around them changes. But the film doesn’t concentrate on those internal conflicts enough for them to have a lasting impact after the film moves on from them. Some of the humor is fine, but a lot of it falls flat, feeling a bit out of place in this ponderous story.
“Eternals” does manage to stand on its own outside of the rest of the MCU, with only a couple passing references to the Avengers present to remind us that these films do in fact take place in the same universe. Naturally, it’s ending and multiple post-credits scenes start to set up the next piece of the Eternals’ story, and I hope we get it. Despite everything, there are a lot of characters in this who are really appealing, and who I want to see more of. I just hope next time they receive less messy material that gives them more to work with. And I hope that the lack of enthusiasm “Eternals” has been received with doesn’t discourage Marvel from continuing to deviate from their usual film formula and try new things.
“Eternals” is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 157 minutes. Rated PG-13.