In the time between being brought on board to helm “Eternals” and the film’s eventual release, Chloé Zhao took home Oscars for best director and best picture for “Nomadland” at last year’s — admittedly sparse — awards. The sudden worldwide exposure gleaned from her historic wins has made Zhao the talk of the town in Hollywood, but her latest film “Eternals” will be talked about for all the wrong reasons.
In bringing in the then-indie filmmaker to helm the project, Marvel were clearly looking to take “Eternals” in a direction adjacent to their usual modus operandi. Zhao brings a level of cool-headed realism to a film about immortal alien beings, but her specific sensibilities feel like a round peg in the square hole of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Much of the shortcomings of “Eternals” has nothing to do with Zhao’s artistic tendencies, but rather stem from a spasmodic tone and characters so dull and unrelatable they may as well be carved from stone.
“Eternals” is stuffed to the gills with new characters, all jockeying for position amongst each other and severely lacking in any meaningful development. The main problem with this new group of heroes is their abundance. There are simply too many new characters to fit into the story, which results in a healthy helping of neglect for all involved.
The most “developed” character is Sersi, played by “Crazy Rich Asians” star Gemma Chan. Sersi’s powers have something to do with the manipulation of matter, although her exact abilities are left intentionally ambiguous in order to make the film’s borderline ludicrous climax more palatable. Chan’s performance is digestible, but her character’s arc over the course of the film leaves much to be desired.
Ikaris — a Superman rip off played by Richard Madden — is possibly the film’s most bland character, despite being the team’s de facto leader and having the most mainstream abilities. It’s a staunch combination of bad writing and emotionless acting that drag down the “Game of Thrones” star’s MCU appearance before it even gets off the ground. Also he flies into the sun, which I guess is a requirement for a character named after the Greek myth. Very subtle.
Kumail Nanjiani’s Kingo is perhaps the least-boring character of the bunch, owing mainly to his strict use as comic relief. Nanjiani — save Angelina Jolie — is the only one of the bunch who gives the impression of knowing how to act, but his performance is completely at odds with the rest of the film. Kingo feels more like he belongs in one of his own Bollywood films than with a group of brooding, melancholic aliens.
The remaining seven Eternals are thrown by the wayside to varying degrees, none are given much to do besides an occasional one-liner or a convenient solution to a problem intended only to further the plot. The Eternals have been billed as a family that have spent millennia together, yet they feel like they’ve just met. Their lack of chemistry shatters what was supposed to be the backbone of their movie, and bland supporting story beats only serve to further sink their doomed vessel.
Despite being the second-longest film in MCU history, “Eternals” fails to fully realize any of its ideas, much less its characters. The film spends the majority of its runtime jumping between periods in history, alluding to the influence that the Eternals have had on human development. The flashback scenes are most of what works, but they’re few and far between. The rest of the runtime is devoted to explaining who and what the Eternals are, as well as where they came from. The real head-scratcher is when everything the audience has just learned over the past 90 minutes is rendered useless, thanks to a “big reveal” about halfway through.
After slogging its way through two plus hours, “Eternals” mercifully comes to an end with another world-ending catastrophe to be conveniently solved in about five minutes. The climax is par for the course at this point for Marvel, who seem recently unable to tell a story without putting the fate of the world at stake.
Above all else, “Eternals” suffers from an identity crisis. Marvel was clearly trying something different with its latest film — which should be encouraged — but in between being bogged down with an avalanche of storytelling devices and its tendency to revert back to the MCU blueprint in the most baffling moments, it ends up being a wet blanket of a film that sets a new floor for Marvel movies going forward.