Despite what its very vocal critics say, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has never been afraid to deviate from the norm, frequently toying with its formula to deliver creative and outlandish pictures. More often than not, these risks have paid off handsomely; here though, is a rare example where the deviations don’t work to the material’s advantage.
Several millennia ago, the Celestials – omnipotent forces responsible for the creation of all life within the universe – placed on Earth a group of immortal, superpowered beings known as Eternals, and tasked them with defending humanity from outside forces that impeded their evolution. Said beings are presently living peaceful lives and have not needed to intervene in human affairs for centuries; but after a worldwide tremor, and the re-emergence of an old enemy, they feel compelled to embrace their former roles and defend the planet once more.
Directed by Oscar-winner Chloé Zhao, Eternals (2021) is so distinct from its Marvel stablemates that it barely qualifies as a superhero movie, being closer in spirit to a meditation on living purposefully. Throughout the narrative, the protagonists constantly reiterate their vow to not interfere with the evolution of humanity, philosophising whether this stance has resulted in further woes, if they should have done more to ease the world’s suffering, and the consequences of contributing too greatly to the human race’s development.
Other discussions in the film lean more towards the existential, as the ageless characters ponder whether a meaningful existence among mortals is even possible. It’s a struggle best exemplified by Sprite (Lia McHugh), an Eternal who resembles a teenage girl, and as such cannot enjoy all the pleasures that her adult-looking counterparts can; meanwhile, the “older” Eternals struggle to maintain relationships and livelihoods, such as Sersi (Gemma Chan) who cannot commit to her human boyfriend, Dane (Kit Harrington) despite their obvious love for each other.
To place so many philosophical musings in a Marvel flick is a peculiar direction to take, but Eternals is by no means the first in this Universe to do so – that honour belongs to Scott Derrickson’s Doctor Strange (2016) which drew interest by, among other things, pondering the futility of existence. That’s pretty much where the similarities end though, because where the Sorcerer Supreme’s film balances its existentialism with hypnotic imagery, inventive action sequences and shades of humour, Eternals offers nothing of the sort, resulting in a less exciting, less riveting blockbuster.
Zhao’s picture isn’t just weak when compared to Doctor Strange; it’s the weakest instalment in the MCU to date, lacking any of the spectacular elements associated with its forebears. There are no large-scale battles like those in the Avengers movies, nor the tense, close-quarters combat witnessed in the likes of Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) or, more recently, Black Widow (2021); it does not possess a jaunty pop-rock soundtrack á la Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), and certainly doesn’t share the rich comedic stylings of Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) or Thor: Ragnarok (also 2017).
This insipidness is reinforced by the elongated, gratuitous run-time of two-and-a-half hours – courtesy of the slow pacing – that solidifies Eternals as the second-longest picture in the franchise, behind only Avengers: Endgame (2019). Because of the film’s leisurely flow, there’s no sense of urgency to keep the viewer invested; nor is there a feeling of peril, even when situations are at their most dire. And on top of that, the narrative lacks any rousing, uplifting or showstopping moments, resulting in a tone that is way too sombre for a Marvel-stamped property.
In any other MCU entry, these problems would be alleviated by the efforts of the performers; yet here, not even a cast brimming with Hollywood’s most talented, charismatic actors can improve proceedings. This includes players such as Richard Madden, Barry Keoghan, Salma Hayek, Angelina Jolie, the funny Kumail Nanjiani and the eminently loveable Brian Tyree Henry, all of whom lack the magnetism they usually instil into their roles, and are never given the opportunity to demonstrate just how capable they are. In other words, they’ve all been wasted.
Mercifully, the experience is not all bad, having been made somewhat bearable by the reasonably stunning visuals, at least by Marvel’s standards. Zhao made a point of prioritising on-location shoots for Eternals, rather than the usual sets and green-screens, and her decision has proven a good one, for the sun-bathed locales – superbly photographed by frequent Marvel contributor Ben Davis – provide a level of beauty hitherto unwitnessed in a superhero movie. Given the large budgets and healthy returns of Marvel’s output, one has to wonder why more of their releases can’t utilise similar techniques too.
Yet despite this splendour, and the nuanced discussions it also possesses, nothing can escape the fact that Eternals is the most tedious, least inspiring entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date. The action is underwhelming, the cast under-utilised, and the narrative unsatisfying, drawbacks that are certain to test the most devoted of Marvel fans.
Eternals is currently screening in cinemas nationwide.