Hot on the heels of another superhero debut in the form of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is Eternals, the third film in Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the twenty-sixth overall. Eschewing the usual single-protagonist template for an MCU origin film, Eternals introduces an ensemble of ten new heroes for audiences to embrace.
Director Chloé Zhao has helmed what had already become, at time of release, a divisive film in terms of critical response. Long before it hit cinemas, Eternals had attracted the lowest Rotten Tomatoes rating of the entire MCU, and much talk has been made of it supposedly being Marvel Studios’ first big flop. Yet the audience score on the same platform ranks upwards of 80%, revealing a significant discord between critical response and fan reaction. So how does Eternals fare?
Opening credits establish the basic setup: mythological beings known as Celestials have created a group of Eternals – immortal humanoids each with their own unique power set – to protect Earth from their evil counterparts, the Deviants. After a scene-setting prologue set in ancient Mesopotamia depicting the Eternals’ initial meeting with humanity, we jump forward to the modern day, when the Deviants are seemingly gone for good, and the group have gone their separate ways after a spat over their role in Earth’s development.
We first meet Sersi (Gemma Chan), the film’s lead – if not the actual leader of the Eternals themselves or indeed their greatest warrior, mantles held by Ajak (Salma Hayek) and Thena (Angelina Jolie) respectively – who works as a museum curator in London. This is a far weightier, and better, role for Chan than her turn as Minn-Erva in Captain Marvel. The ensuing plot involves her attempts, alongside her former lover Ikaris (Richard Madden) and Sprite (Lia McHugh), an Eternal in the body of a teenage girl, to get the band back together, face down a new faction of Deviants and reckon with the hidden agenda of the Celestial Arishem. Interspersed throughout are some informative flashback sequences to key moments both in human history and in the trajectory of the Eternals as a team
Something Eternals has going for it is a great cast and a lot of fun character dynamics; fans of the MCU will no doubt flock to one or another of the group as their chosen favourite with enthusiasm – and why not? The performances are solid and there’s pathos – Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) and his family are arguably the film’s true heart – and humour – Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) and his valet Karun (Harish Patel) provide many of the laughs – to balance out the otherwise ponderous tone. But the Eternals work best as a team, and it’s during several key team-up sequences that the film proves most rousing.
We knew from the trailers that the film would look great, and the visuals don’t disappoint. The special effects are exciting and convincing; there’s some great character design on the Deviants who prove a veritable, if fairly one-note, threat; and the cinematography brings to life several ‘wow’ moments and creates a sense of artful elegance. Plus, I for one was humming Ramin Djawadi’s main theme on my way out of the cinema.
On the other hand, many have already pointed out the film’s tendency towards exposition and mythos-building in lieu of more naturalistic dialogue and scene-setting. The heavy focus on exposition and mythology isn’t ostensibly a bad thing, but you can see why some people feel themselves drawn out of the film’s rhythm by successive explanatory scenes where characters brief other characters on what’s just happened and, indeed, on what we saw depicted onscreen just minutes prior.
The runtime could have been cut down to trim some of the fat, but with ten major protagonists jostling for screentime, something’s got to give: either the film is a brisk two hours long and few of the group get any real attention, or each Eternal gets the attention they deserve across a three-hour film that strains at the seams. As it is, some of the Eternals, notably Sersi and Ikaris, have more to do than others, such as Ajak and Makkari (Lauren Ridloff).
Although it isn’t perfect, Eternals isn’t the all-out disaster it might seem. There’s a lot to love and get excited about, including the future potential of this cast of characters. It remains to be seen what role the Eternals will play in the future MCU, but owing to their impressive power sets, they’d certainly come in handy up against any celestial or otherworldly threats. Regardless, there has been and will continue to be much discussion around Eternals both as a standalone film and as the latest instalment in the ever-expanding MCU.
Eternals is out now in Cinemas.