Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the film’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the film’s own trailer. However, if you want to completely avoid potential spoilers, skip over the second paragraph.
The most confounding thing about narrative content is that the line between masterpieces and disasters is incredibly thin. You need only look at classics like The Godfather (1972), Star Wars (1977) or Apocalypse Now (1979) for proof of that, as all three were one wrong editing choice away from becoming flawed and trashy. The nature of filmmaking is that you’re not going to get amazing results if you don’t take big risks, all of which may horribly backfire if you don’t follow through. Sadly, you can never know if those risks pay off until audiences see the final product, and in some cases the pay off may not occur until many years afterwards. This is probably the fate that awaits Marvel’s latest offering, Eternals (2021).
Thousands of years ago, the all-powerful race of cosmic Gods known as Celestials sent a collection of immortal super-beings to earth. Using each of their unique powers, these ‘heroes’ were tasked with protecting humanity from the monstrous creatures known as Deviants. The team consisted of Ajak (Salma Hayek), Ikaris (Richard Madden), Thena (Angelina Jolie), Sersi (Gemma Chan), Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), Gilgamesh (Don Lee), Sprite (Lia McHugh), Druig (Barry Keoghan) and Makkari (Lauren Ridloff). Throughout their time on earth, this group of demi-gods served as the basis for humanity’s various myths and legends, prompting them to frequently discuss how involved they should be in human affairs. Fast forward to present day, the Eternals have gone their separate ways and are waiting for the Celestials to call them home. However, their mission isn’t over, as the Deviants have apparently returned.
As a comic book concept, Eternals was a thoroughly psychedelic and universally expansive series which the Marvel writers continuously fleshed out, but the readers showed little interest in any of it. Thankfully this hasn’t deterred the studio from throwing these hard science fiction ideas at the cinema screen, giving recently Oscar winning director Chloé Zhao free rein in adapting the story. Zhao certainly isn’t playing it safe, frequently jumping between time periods as well as juggling multiple narrative tones. Whereas most Marvel films go from A to B with a relatively fun series of events, Eternals uses its many flashbacks to build an incredibly bizarre (yet fascinating) world, while also oscillating between kaleidoscopic action and philosophical discussions. This definitely doesn’t play to a four-quadrant audience, but it’s clearly not trying to.
With that in mind, it’s actually rather refreshing to see a Marvel film openly address thematic implications raised by the film’s narrative turns. Most of these films let go of the more thought provoking inferences, but Zhao doesn’t let these points go, allowing the characters’ interactions, thoughts and motivations to be shaped by them. When dealing with a race of immortal demi-gods, you kind of need to address some bigger ideas and Zhao is clearly aware of that. While these elements aren’t swept under the rug, some of them aren’t integrated to the absolute fullest degree. In the worst cases, a hugely emotional thematic point is raised and fleshed out, but then the characters deal with the issue off-screen in a time jump. In another case, two completely separate plot threads are clearly linked through dramatic irony, yet the screenplay doesn’t close the link in a wholly satisfying manner. If it turns out there’s an extra hour of deleted scenes that fix these issues, it wouldn’t be surprising.
For anyone who’s seen the film, the prospect of adding another hour to its punishing runtime is probably a little daunting. It’s certainly true that Eternals feels its length at times, but it probably needed the time in order to get all its heavy ideas on the table. That being said, fixing the film’s kinks wouldn’t just be a matter of putting more content in, but also a matter of taking things out. For example, there are plenty of scenes dedicated to ‘character development’, but it would be more appropriate to call these moments ‘character explanation’. These heroes have been around since the dawn of time, so these long stretches endlessly explain how they’ve been able to walk around all this time and why we’ve never seen them before. However, none of that exposition actually tells us who these people are, or what we should be feeling about them. Thus, there’s a lot of talking but very little development.
With what little we can glean about these characters, we do get just enough context to make the big story turns clear. At the best of times, Zhao even manages to infuse Eternals with a handful of unpredictable yet totally sensical twists. Zhao achieves this by balancing what the audience expects, against what would actually make logical sense given the plot turns. This is most noticeable in how she builds to the reveal of the final villain, which goes in practically the completely opposite direction of what would typically occur. Granted, this isn’t just a twist for twists sake, as it actually makes total sense once you actually think about the established characters and their motivations. This neatly hidden trick is done a few times throughout the film, and Zhao gets away with it nearly every time. Sadly, this does make some of the characters more useful than others, resulting in a handful being left unattended.
Even with structural and dramatic issues, most Marvel films can be expected to have pretty flawless action sequences. In the case of Eternals, the action is just like every other element of the film: Partly brilliant with unavoidable issues. In the heat of battle, Eternals is jaw-dropping, spectacular, cerebral, visually arresting and genuinely tense, but that doesn’t stop it from also having confounding moments which elicit (unintentional) laughter. It’s all pretty brief and doesn’t derail things too much, but there are times where you feel like you’re watching a big budget version of a goofy Power Rangers episode. Thankfully, the darker and surprisingly violent undertones keeps things mostly thrilling. For a film with such earth-shattering stakes, Zhao gladly doesn’t hold back from going as big as humanly possible. For some audiences, these sequences might just expand their imagination.
Eternals is without a doubt the bravest and most bizarre film Marvel has ever released. Zhao and her team should be commended for their glorious ambition, as that bravery mostly holds the film together. While it’s certainly compromised and incredibly messy, there’s definitely a great film hidden in the margins. Hopefully one day Eternals will live up to its true potential, which could be in the form of a Snyder Cut style re-edit or just the natural passage of time.
Best way to watch it: Add it to the list of films you should watch while listening to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon.