Superhero movies cannot be all things to all people. While Marvel Studios likes to pride itself on how its films can jump between genres so that something like Captain America: The Winter Soldier can be a “paranoid political thriller” and Guardians of the Galaxy can be a sci-fi romp through the cosmos, they’re still operating under the dictates of the superhero genre. That means there are clear heroes and villains, superpowers to dominate an external threat, and a need to save at least a planet if not a galaxy or the entire universe. A Marvel movie, by its very nature, can only go so far before it’s reined in by these dictates, which makes Chloé Zhao’s Eternals an exceptionally frustrating movie. In each character, you can feel a far more interesting narrative straining to get out, but at the end of the day, the genre mandates the use of superpowers to defeat a threat to humanity. What should be the core of this movie—what it would mean to witness thousands of years of civilization and your contributions to it—instead becomes window-dressing to a typical superhero narrative where superpowered beings have to defeat some world-ending threat.
In the beginning, there were the Celestials, who sent out warriors known as Eternals to clear away monsters known as Deviants. The Celestial Arishem sent a group of Eternals from the planet Olympia to Earth. Arriving on Earth in the year 5,000 BCE, the Eternals, comprised of leader Ajak (Salma Hayek), Ikaris (Richard Madden), Sersi (Gemma Chan), Thena (Angelina Jolie), Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), Sprite (Lia McHugh), Druig (Barry Keoghan), Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), and Gilgamesh (Don Lee), each member has their own power that allows them to protect humanity and defeat Deviants. Instructed to never interfere with human affairs so that humanity has a chance to evolve on its own, the Eternals eventually grow apart until the Deviants returns in the present day and the group is forced to come back together to defeat their old foe.
Eternals feels like Marvel’s most ambitious project crammed into the span of a 157-minute movie. I hate to be the “It should have been a TV series” guy, but maybe it should have been a TV series because everything here is largely abbreviated. For example, Ikaris and Sersi were in love with each other and married, but they broke up about a hundred years ago, and now Sersi is seeing the human Dane Whitman (Kit Harington). Sersi and Ikaris’ feelings for each other are largely shorthand, letting us know that there are some lingering emotions, but any texture of their relationship or really showing us a love story that has spanned thousands of years doesn’t have time to make the final cut.
This abbreviation moves through all of the characters and leaves you wishing you could spend more time with them rather than getting the CliffsNotes version of their epic inner turmoil. Each character really only gives you a glimpse of something greater. For Sprite, who’s doomed to look like a child, she longs for the benefit of living among humans to the full extent of adult relationships. For Phastos, who has the ability to invent anything, he has seen how human technological progression has wrought massive destruction, and wonders if we’re even worth saving if our creations only bring about mass casualties. For Druig, who has the power to control minds, he toys with the idea of creating a zombie utopia where humans lack free will but also don’t slaughter each other en masse. For Thena, she’s the greatest warrior in history, but she’s suffering from a degenerative mental illness called “Mahd Wy’ry” (pronounced “Mad Weary”) that makes her unable to distinguish between friend and foe. What if you could live forever, but were plagued by disease? How would you continue to live your life?
These are all fascinating questions, and Eternals simply does not have time to dwell on them. They linger in the background, inviting us to think more about them, but then the plot taps its watch, says it’s time to move on, and then we’re on to fighting Deviants. If you strip away the superhero stuff, you have a fascinating assemblage of narratives that I’d love to see play out, but this is a Marvel movie, and Marvel movies are superhero stories. I like Marvel movies and they’re indisputably one of the most successful studios of all time, but they only make one thing. They may dress that thing up in different colors, but at its core, it must be a superhero movie. For all of its narrative twists and turns (and there are some really cool reveals in Eternals), the film still has to build up to good guys using their extraordinary abilities to save humanity.
In that limiting framework, you can see Eternals struggle valiantly to be more than just another MCU entry, and while it certainly feels different than your typical MCU movie (references to other Marvel movies are kept mercifully brief), it also feels limited by its genre and framework. It would have been great to see a series about immortal begins wrestling with their relationship to humanity on the brink of a world-ending calamity, but Marvel can’t and won’t make that series because Eternals needs to continue, the world can never end, and Marvel characters are designed to make sure the world is saved. Eternals adds in a few neat wrinkles here and there, but the bigger questions at the heart of these characters are eventually pushed to the wayside because the plot has to keep moving forward to its climactic battle.
And that’s a shame because the battle stuff is nowhere close to the best part of Eternals. In terms of pacing and action, Eternals is a real letdown. The plot keeps stuttering forward as it unloads heaps of exposition, jumps between the present and the past, and continually reintroduces characters when it would be so much better to simply settle down and really get to know the Eternals as individuals. Whenever it’s time for an action scene, almost all of the air goes out of the picture because even though the Eternals have neat abilities and the movie tries to create a Main Deviant with some semblance of a belief system, it’s still superheroes using CGI to fight CGI monsters. Perhaps if these set pieces were more exciting, that would be one thing, but they’re largely forgettable and also not particularly well lit (there’s one action scene in the Amazon that’s almost monochrome with how dim the lighting gets).
Despite these glaring flaws, I can’t simply write off Eternals as forgettable. The film is willing to tackle such heady notions of faith, predestination, devotion, and heresy that to say it’s just another superhero movie would be way off the mark. The problem is that Eternals is a far more interesting film trapped in the body of a superhero movie, and those limitations neuter what could have been a heady, thrilling experience if not for what the film has to do both in its genre and as part of the MCU. That means it drags, has perfunctory action scenes, and no time to explore the most interesting facets of its narrative. You can assemble an amazing cast and hire one of the best directors working today, but they’re no match for what a Marvel movie must do to be a Marvel movie.
KEEP READING: New ‘Eternals’ Featurette Explores How Chloé Zhao Brought the MCU Film to Life