Jobs are hard. Some are physically draining, like digging ditches and building houses. Others are intellectually difficult like high level mathematics and accounting. Still others are emotionally taxing like counseling those going through tragic circumstances such as abuse. Then there are jobs you just hate doing. Back in my grocery store days, I would ask to work Sundays as it was time and a half. However, when you opened the store on Sundays, you cleaned the ashes out of the incinerator we used to dispose of empty stock boxes. It was a dirty, hot, and probably dangerous job as the fine particles of ash filled the air. The still hot ashes were dragged with a long metal tool that looked like an extended garden hoe into a large iron tray. When the tray was full, it was dragged to the loading dock where it would cool and be dumped into the dumpster by someone else. It was an awful job, but it was necessary so the incinerator could be used to dispose of more boxes later. Also, I was being paid time and a half to do it and back in the late 1970’s, that was about $4.00 an hour. I was rolling in the dough…also a great deal of cardboard box ash. I say all that to lead into my review of Marvel’s “Eternals,” a film about a group of super beings that must carry out a job they later find they don’t want to do.
The Celestial Arishem created 10 super beings called Eternals to protect humanity from a race of monsters called Deviants. Each Eternal has specific abilities: Their leader Ajak (Selma Hayek) can heal injuries and is also the conduit between the Eternals and Arishem. Ikaris (Richard Madden) can fly, has super strength, and emits cosmic energy beams from his eyes. Sersi (Gemma Chan) can change inanimate matter from one form to another. Thena (Angelina Jolie) is a mighty warrior, producing cosmic energy weapons and shields. Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) fires cosmic energy blasts from his hands. Sprite (Lia McHugh) can project realistic illusions of anything. Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) is the group’s engineer, able to invent and construct whatever is needed, and he maintains their starship Domo. Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) possesses super speed. She is also deaf, but can feel the vibrations in the air, allowing her to understand speech. Druig (Barry Keoghan) can control and manipulate minds. Gilgamesh (Don Lee) possesses immense strength he augments with cosmic energy projections around his hands. The Eternals have been on Earth 7000 years, fighting the Deviants, however, they are not allowed to interfere in the affairs of humanity. Over 500 years ago, the last Deviant was killed and Ajak sent the Eternals into the world to live their own lives as they wait for Arishem to call them back to their home world of Olympia. In current times, the Deviants have returned and gained abilities like the Eternals. It’s time to travel around the world, find all the members and fight the Deviants once again.
Eternals were first introduced in Marvel comics in 1976. Their backstory is deep and complicated with civil wars and factions living on Uranus and Saturn’s moon Titan. It’s a history that would be impossible to translate into a movie that made any sense and wasn’t 12 hours long. Director and writer Chloe Zhao, along with a writing team, tries to condense and simplify the character’s history into something manageable in “Eternals.” She almost succeeds.
This unwieldy group of characters gets parred down by a few as the story goes on, but the history and backstory just keep coming. Sometimes we go all the way back to the first time Eternals come to Earth 7000 years ago. We make visits to 1500 years ago, 500 years ago and six days ago. There is also an exposition dump that clarifies what the movie is about. I won’t spoil it, but it’s a major revelation for our heroes. One would think knowing exactly what the goal is would focus the story, however we get more flashbacks, more exposition, and more character introductions. It’s like Zhao and the writers wanted to tell us more gossip about these people, even things we didn’t need to know. I’m not sure it was necessary to show two characters having sex (I think a first for a MCU movie) for us to understand they were committed to and love each other.
Perhaps Zhao, winner of the Oscar for Best Director for her devastating “Nomadland,” wasn’t the best choice for a comic book movie. Her sensibilities are more to smaller character stories than to spectacle and wonder. “Nomadland” follows one woman’s journey, navigating the wilderness of America living alone in her camper/van and dealing with the loss of her husband. It is a poignant and beautiful movie that shows the inequity of capitalism in an age of business consolidation, leaving loyal and dedicated workers in the dust. It destroyed me in a way that didn’t come out until my wife and I were discussing it on our podcast, Comedy Tragedy Marriage. It could not be more different from a MCU movie.
Am I arguing that indie and smaller movie directors shouldn’t be given a chance to helm superhero flicks? Of course not. I am saying that Zhao might not have been the right choice for this one. While “Eternals” is competently made, looks amazing and delivers what we expect from a MCU film, it also bogs down at times in ways we don’t expect from MCU films. It sometimes feels like the film (and the audience) is swimming in molasses. There are bits of excitement scattered about, but we must first slog through the muck.
The actors do the best they can with what they’re given. Selma Hayek and Angelina Jolie are woefully underused. Gemma Chan and Richard Madden make an attractive, believable, but dull romantic pair. Kit Harrington plays a human suitor of Chan’s Sersi, but he’s only in the film’s early and late scenes. I enjoyed Kumail Nanjiani, Lia McHugh, Don Lee, Barry Keoghan, Lauren Ridloff and Brian Tyree Henry in their roles. Each character is given something resembling a personality but not enough time for it to be fully on display. Ridloff plays the first hearing impaired hero and Henry is the first openly gay hero in the MCU. Each deserved more time in a film that wastes a decent amount of it on attempts at grandeur that come up short.
“Eternals” is rated PG-13 for fantasy violence and action, some language and brief sexuality. There’s the usual superhero on villain violence as every other MCU movie. The villains in this case are mostly creatures that look like dinosaurs or mutated lions. We see Sersi and Ikaris having sex. It is from the waist up and there are no naughty bits on display. Language is mild and scattered along with a middle finger.
I don’t hate “Eternals.” It might sound like it, but I don’t. With a cast this big and story this sprawling, I wish a more seasoned superhero director had been given the reigns. Zhao is a fantastic director and might have been a better fit for a solo hero introduction movie with a more manageable story. As it is, “Eternals” is too much of just about everything.
“Eternals” gets three stars out of five.
Note: There is a mid- and post-credits scene that hints at what might be next for “Eternals” and a new character. Stick around to the very end to see both.
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