In the post Endgame (2019) world, the Marvel franchise continues to look for a way forwards. In the years between that film and the Marvel Cinematic Universe incepting Iron Man (2008) everything was clearly building to something, a phased process that was at times haphazard — and often restricting — but that always had a clear trajectory. You introduce your characters, you build up a world, you bring everything together in bigger and bigger ways until you have a two-part epic that spans the breadth of the universe that has been created. With Eternals Marvel feels like somebody who has just left a long term relationship and is expecting the new one to start off with the familiarity of the old. Here we have a whole new cast of characters and a whole new set of lore, but all done at once, in one film. It’s the origin story arc for a team of characters, the breaking up arc, the getting back together arc and the universe threatening peril arc, all in one film — oh, and the storyline covers 7000 years.
To put it simply: Eternals is a complete mess.
As a narrative work, this is a resounding failure. We begin with a text scrawl that chucks a bunch of new proper nouns at you, while also feeling worryingly sparse. This is not a Star Wars (1977) moment where ‘A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far, Far Away…’ evokes instant immersion; this is a long running franchise that, with its 26th film, decides to dump a bunch of foundational lore on you — stuff so universe altering (about the nature of Earth specifically) that you wonder why this hasn’t at all come up in one of the 25 preceding movies. From this point, our narrative (as mentioned) spans 7000 years, and does so with contrived fluidity. We start in 5000 BCE, then jump to the present day and from that point flashback to specific eras, as exposition drops, throughout the laborious runtime. This timescale ostensibly makes sense (‘makes sense’ being a phrase that you won’t frequently use when talking about Eternals) because our characters are, well, eternal. As the opening text scrawl tells us, there are Eternals and Deviants (obviously), and the god Arishem (that’s a thing now) has sent the titular Eternals (a group of characters with unique superpowers) to Earth to kill Deviants (uninspired looking CGI monsters) because Deviants will kill humans. You see, the Deviants are alien invaders, and the humans aren’t powerful enough to kill them — especially in 5000 BCE — so the Eternals are a planet hopping crew, or so it seems, that exist to drop by, get rid of that Deviant problem and then float away.
But, oh no, the year is now 2021 and the eponymous Eternals still live among us. What follows is a get the gang back together tale, and a mystery subplot as we wait to find out why everybody is still here and what has happened in those 7000 years. The impetus for the assembling, so to speak, is that it turns out — conveniently, for this to be a film — that the Deviants are not dead (those devious Deviants). They will now attack in public, in London (to begin with), and then run away after a while even though they now seemingly can’t be killed. They have evolved, we find out. So, why are they back, how can we kill them, why are the Eternals still here and what does it mean for infinite beings to live among mortal humans? These are big questions and the film tackles all of them in one consistently changing narrative, that resets the basic conventions of the world every twenty minutes or so. It is hard to prescribe a core issue with the film, for it has nothing but issues, but the feeling that they’ve just thrown a brand new, and rather incomprehensible, universe into an already established one is certainly a problem.
The initial question the film wants to poke at is that if there have been these incredibly powerful, immortal beings (basically gods) living among us for 7000 years, why haven’t they stopped all the horrendous things that have happened throughout history? This very valid question becomes a driving force. Obviously, there is no satisfying answer to this question, so the film decides to take the tactic of revealing slowly to its characters that the logic that they thought underpinned their decisions (we merely kill Deviants, even though we thought we’d already done that, and we have to allow humans to foster independence… So that they can kill themselves independently while we save them from an external threat…). What follows is an interminable process where the film feels the need to prove that nonsense is nonsense. A framework that is already undeniably flimsy becomes the subject of an investigation to prove its flimsiness. Metaphorically speaking, it’s a couple of hours of people learning that fire is hot while they have been on fire the whole time and surrounded by thermometers.
What makes this even more insufferable is that the rules keep on changing. Every third narrative beat elicits the response of, I guess that’s a thing that can happen now. Because the core premise makes no sense, and because a mid-film, ten minute exposition drop (in which the ostensibly big bad decides to just explain the entire universe, and his plan, to a character who can now act against this big bad but only because this plan was explained to them — a process that never needed to happen) also makes no sense, there is no engagement or friction here, no solidity at all. The movie was about one nonsense thing; then it’s about another nonsense thing and, in twenty minutes time (or less), we will be focused on another nonsense thing.
It also hurts that the core logic of the film is deeply objectionable. The best way to understand what the narrative of the film turns out to be is that, at its simplest level, this is a multi-million dollar adaptation of the trolley problem (but somehow even more stupid and facile) that also functions as the world’s dumbest theological thought experiment. There is a ten minute chunk of explaining the will of god and his design, which just ends up with the audience thinking: well why the hell did this god do that in the first place and then why not just do something else to solve that problem? Every element is contradictory, the moral core is tainted, and it is boring. In the end, it is a group of people learning that they may be space fascists and then the central debate is as to whether they should continue to be fascists or not. There is a mind-numbingly simple one-sided argument, in which the right answer is so blindingly obvious that it shouldn’t be a question, and the debate becomes the driving force of the film. To get here we have a moment where the atomic bombing of Hiroshima is appropriated for an emotional beat for a character, only to be overridden in the next scene and therefore pointless. We also have an eventual premise (again, it keeps re-establishing itself) that plays into overpopulation myths and climate change denial. We also have one character who lives in a place only called ‘Amazon’ (by a title card — it’s a Chloé Zhao film, it was probably another endorsed deal) whose power is to possess people, and make them do his will. He’s just living in an early Werner Herzog movie, as he has set himself up as a jungle messiah to a group of people whom he controls. And this is just a thing that happens, and he’s one of the good guys. Another character appropriates some indigenous imagery in Australia, before another character sits under a tree in the same location and is only then able to commune with a spirit. Which is a choice.
But hey, our boring space fascist movie with some underlying eugenicist subtext is deeply diverse. Representationally speaking, this is great. The movie is a homogenous bore and of no interest but at least the current biggest movie in the world pushes diversity to the forefront, in a way that can’t be shaved off. But then the debate becomes: what do these parts mean when the whole is toxic? Can progressivism be anything but empty in a regressive mire? It’s great that it is exposure and normalisation; it sucks that it is in this movie. But, hey, after decades of only straight white cis men being at the front of terrible blockbusters, at least wider identities now get their own terrible blockbuster. That is something.
And while people will argue this film is beautiful or different, an atypical Marvel movie, none of this matters. The beauty only resides in some nice locations and some striking establishing shots. The art design and the visual storytelling is atrocious. Action scenes are a real lowlight, in which things are unreadable and it is just a mess. It turns out action filmmaking is a specific skill and you can’t just drop in any acclaimed arthouse director and hope it works. It also doesn’t help that some of the actors are deeply unconvincing, which is further not helped by the script being even more unconvincing. Richard Madden is a charisma vacuum, and plays one of the leading characters; at points we are told his character is the strongest, but for no real reason. This is just to set up a later plot point that, fundamentally, only relies on us being told several times that he was very strong (which doesn’t fit at all with the eventual origin story we get, after a few fake outs). Kumail Nanjiani is the highlight here, putting in a strong performance with actual charm, but its a charm that the film doesn’t allow him to have. His establishing scene is maybe the only genuinely good moment of the film. It is inventive, fun and witty. A personality is starting to blossom and then a character points out a sad plot point and makes everybody serious. Nanjiani’s attempts to be fun in the film are framed as an antagonistic presence; enjoyment is something to be silenced. This is a slow, dramatic and contemplative film in which viewers have to cogitate on complete nonsense for hours.
It is just awful. It is consistently bland but otherwise woefully inconsistent. We have a clichéd needle drop under the opening credits, establishing one kind of sensibility, then we decide to not do that anymore. We occasionally reference the MCU (but mostly don’t), though we do establish that, in the MCU, DC properties exist as fictional characters (which is actually very funny). At points we have quippy jokes, but these are drowned out by the funeral dirge atmosphere that allows no fun. Fundamentally, there is no story here worth telling. These characters feel like a joke. The new universe shoved into an old one feels like a joke. And the joke is entirely on the audience, as we sit through utter bilge that doesn’t even try to make sense. Maybe it’s something different but this new kind of bad makes me pine for the homogeneity of the MCU.