Eternals (Review): Marvel Melds Mythology and Philosophy with Middling Results

Marvel’s Eternals succeeds in shaking up the MCU formula, but takes on more than it can handle. Is it any good though? Read on for my thoughts…

Academy Award winner Chloé Zhao helms Marvel’s latest movie. What ground does this franchise have left to cover? Quite a bit actually. So here’s what’s happening:

Celestials are an ancient race of aliens who exist nearly as forces of nature in the greater galaxy. One of these Celestials– Arishem– leads a group of aliens (the Eternals) from the planet Olympia in the ongoing fight against Deviants– predatory creatures who destroy life. Ten of these Eternals are tasked with destroying Deviants on Earth in the distant past. But, when their task is complete, they are forced to stay here and integrate with human society. Still with me?

So the Eternals are essentially immortal superheroes who’ve lived in the MCU this entire time. And they refuse to involve themselves with most human affairs, unless Deviants are involved. I sure hope this isn’t the route Marvel goes when it’s time to bring in the X-Men…

My tone is already somewhat negative, so I may as well jump straight into my grievances with Eternals: First off, this movie hindered itself with such a HUGE main cast. There’s 10 Eternals, plus a few supporting characters, and the supervillains. And all of them are new to the MCU, so each of them requires an equal amount of screen presence for us to care! Everybody ends up fighting for their space in the story and nobody appears long enough for a well-defined character arc. The characters all grow and change, sure, but their epiphanies feel too abrupt.

Looks like a Superman ripoff to me…

Zack Snyder’s Justice League isn’t perfect by any means but even that film had more than double the time to introduce half as many characters. If this exact same Eternals story came out with a 4 hour run-time, I wouldn’t have batted an eye. A story this epic was under-served by its run-time.

NOTE: I compare Eternals to Justice League because the the Eternals feel like the later team in spirit/ powers (many of them seem directly inspired by the JL).

Yet that’s an ironic complaint because many will consider Eternals too long as it is! The film certainly has pacing issues. It lacks action and repeats the same plot point for its entire second act. This is one big “getting the band back together” affair. And if you don’t care about the band, their reunion is gonna land with a thud.

Speaking of: I didn’t connect to many of the Eternals as characters. They were… intriguing at best. I watched their adventure with interest but few resonated with me on an individual level. Ikarus (Richard Madden) was cool –because I’m a sucker for the Superman Archetype– and Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) was great comic relief –who played to my sensibilities as a creative person– but the others ranged from “yeah, you’re OK” to “Oh yeah! That hero. I totally forgot they were a thing.”

Sersi (Gemma Chan) was a particularly weak choice to be the main character. I liked her in the first few scenes, and I understood what they were trying to do with the character, yet she quickly took a backseat to other Eternals for most of the film. Worst part is the others had more intriguing stories. Ajak (Selma Hayek), Thena (Angelina Jolie), Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), and Druig (Barry Keoghan) each had compelling enough motivations to carry the movie. To be clear: Sersi isn’t a bad character; just the most boring choice for a lead.

I also felt the Deviants didn’t get enough depth as antagonists. Eternals teases a better direction for them than we got. Their backstory with the Eternals is fascinating, and their motivations compelled me. Yet the movie took the easy way out with them and stripped the nuances away right at the end. Those Deviants had potential but weren’t used to their fullest.

Kingo in combat with a Deviant

Enough whining for now. Believe it or not there was a lot I liked about Eternals. For one thing, it’s VERY different to other Marvel movies. I’ve been wanting something this unique out of the MCU for a long time. Unlike a film such as Shang-Chi, which couldn’t quite escape the MCU’s formula, I believe Eternals successfully did its own thing.

I could tell tell Chloé Zhao placed an emphasis on real locations and practical effects (for the most part). This gave Eternals a tangible quality and helped the world feel alive. And the fact that Eternals takes place around the globe gave it an extra flair. We go from jungles to deserts to plains to cities (and even more places I probably forgot about and don’t care to double check)!

The action of Eternals was alright. Some bits were cooler than others– notably the fight in the village. Special effects effects varied between passable and weak. I think the less-refined CGI stood out because Eternals used so many more practical shots than usual. My eye could discern the fake stuff in front of the real (in many cases). At least there wasn’t a CGI army this time. If no superhero movie ever does one of those again, I won’t miss em’!

That said: I appreciated the third act confrontation for its relatively stripped back nature. This battle felt important and personal, yet the stakes were high. It’s arguably my favourite Marvel conclusion in some time!

Many of the characters were based on legendary stories of history (or– rather– the historical legends based on them). So the more global culture you’re aware of, the more you can understand these heroes. Is that a cheat to pave over inadequate character development? Yeah. But it works on a thematic level.

Each of the actors manages to do wonders, considering how little material they’re given to work with! Their motivations were understandable and distinct from one another. And everyone was unique in character. Sometimes I have a tough time telling big casts apart or remembering who people were but I had no trouble doing so with Eternals.

Ikarus and Sersi getting romantic

My favourite aspect of Eternals was its foray into the philosophies of superman ability/ dedication to personal codes of conduct. Eternals asks some big questions: should those with great power interfere in humanity’s development? If they do, what could be the consequences? Do those with great abilities have a responsibility to use them? Does living by a code mean one must steadfastly adhere to said code for their entire lives? Each of the 10 main characters has a slightly different answer to each of these questions. It’s what makes their team dynamic unique and thought-provoking.

Eternals‘ philosophical musings got me to think about its plot so much that the ending actually carried weight. Usually Marvel is pretty cut and dry with its morality– good guys do good things and save the day; bad guys are awful and must be defeated. This time around I wondered if perhaps the heroes made a bad call. It’s certainly one which could be debated. But that’s how I know Eternals did well instilling its moral dilemma. I like feeling conflicted about character choices in a Marvel film!

The nuance of Eternals’ philosophies are why it contains one of my all-time favourite Marvel villains. Their story was complex and arguably sympathetic. I understand (and partially agree) with their motivation.

Eternals is also one of the most epic movies I’ve ever seen! Its scope of story is vast and ambitious. I may be critical of its execution, but I respect a big swing. Risks like these should be lauded (if only because I want to see more films like this– Marvel and otherwise).

Oh yeah– Eternals also sets up multiple plotlines for the MCU going forward. I didn’t realize till the very end of the movie that one of the supporting characters (who was hiding in plain sight) was supposed to be somebody… Made me feel stupid but I’m excited to see more from them.

I’m a weirdo who seems to like superhero movies in this vein. I’m a fan of Zack Snyder’s take on the DC mythos, for example (not because of its accuracy to the source material but because it tries to do something different with well-established archetypes). People hated on those movies at the time, yet they’ve seen somewhat of a re-examination in recent years. I think Eternals will be like that. It’ll age nicely and stand out from the crowd once the super-hero movie boom settles.

Eternals failed to resonate with me on an emotional level, but it worked my brain more than any Marvel film in years. So if you’re into slightly more philosophical superhero content, Eternals is Worth a Watch.

What sorts of things would you like to see Marvel do in Phase 4 and beyond? What did you think of Eternals? Please share your thoughts in the comments (no spoilers please). If you have any ideas for future articles, or any questions, let me know. Also be sure to Like this article on Facebook and share if you enjoyed!

Till next time,

Joe Morin

REVIEW METRIC: Don’t bother; If you’re bored; Worth a watch; Pretty darn good; Must see; Watch it A.S.A.P.

By Joseph Morin

Joe's passion for film and entertainment began at 7 years old when his younger brother demanded to watch Duel of the Fates every day for weeks (on DVD). Joe admired the sequence so much, he decided to dedicate his life to film-making and storytelling. He has a degree in Cinema and Media Studies from York University. Joe loves DC superheroes (especially Superman), the first six Star Wars movies, and arguing about media with anyone who will listen.

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