The Marvel Cinematic Universe wades chin deep into a soap opera river of melodramatic tears. Eternals has a “family” of superheroes torn between love, loyalty, and duty in the latest save the world scenario. Oscar winning director Chloé Zhao treads sappy with a convoluted and drawn out exploration of relationships. She does deliver a few eye-popping action scenes, but they largely hinge on the strength of the film’s best performance. Richard Madden is an absolute beast. Channeling his Superman-esque powers between bouts of sobbing.
Celestials are an ancient race of near omnipotent beings that foster the growth of life in the universe. They created the immortal Eternals. Then imbued them with supernatural abilities to hunt Deviants, ferocious creatures that feed off life’s energy. The Eternals were sent to Earth at the dawn of civilization in Mesopotamia to stop the Deviants from devouring humanity.
Their leader, Ajak (Salma Hayek), can heal any wound and serves as the conduit to their Celestial guide, Arishem. Sersi (Gemma Chan) transforms elemental matter by touch. Gilgamesh (Don Lee) has the greatest physical strength. Druig (Barry Keoghan) has the power of mind control. Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), a deaf Eternal, runs at incredible speed. Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) launches energy projectiles. Sprite (Lia McHugh), trapped in the body of a child, is a master of illusions. Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) has a brilliant inventor’s mind. Thena (Angelina Jolie) is a tenacious warrior that can craft energy weapons. And finally, there is the heavy hitter, Ikarus (Richard Madden), the most powerful Eternal by far, can fly, has super strength, and shoots devastating energy beams from his eyes.
The story begins in present day London with Sersi working as a teacher. The Eternals separated centuries ago after thousands of years together. Sprite pretends to be her young ward. She curses her youthful appearance, but they have both grown accustomed to living among humans. Their serenity is shattered by a Deviant attack. How were they targeted? They killed every Deviant on Earth. Sersi suspects that the “Blip”, or the instant return of everyone Thanos vanished, may have resurrected their deadly adversary. Sersi and Sprite must unite the Eternals to again protect a cherished planet. But the bitter feelings and dark truths that divided them may be impossible to overcome.
Think of Eternals as the Fleetwood Mac of superheroes. A mixed gender group of once inseparable friends and lovers splinter apart. Then are forced back together on a final tour that reveals even more drama. Just like Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham, Sersi and Ikarus’ love affair causes a lot of tension and jealousy. The film continually flashes back to various historical events when feelings went sour. There’s nothing wrong with having a strong emotional undercurrent to the story. The problem is that it’s overblown and marginalizes the supporting cast. Gilgamesh, Makkari, Thena, and Druig, who are all pretty cool in their own way, are bit players. They take second fiddle to an exhausting love affair that deflates the narrative.
Eternals represents a wide swath of cultures and lifestyles. Kumail Nanjiani’s Kingo is a singing and dancing Bollywood star. Brian Tyree Henry’s “Phastos” is openly gay with a husband and child. Lauren Ridloff’s “Makkari” is hearing impaired. Chloé Zhao (The Rider, Nomadland), who also co-wrote the script, makes an effort to focus on inclusion and globalism. The film wants to show the different ways that the Eternals contributed to humanity’s evolution. That’s commendable, but becomes more filler material that dilutes. There’s way too much going on in the two and a half hour runtime. Eternals drags tremendously. Zhao’s vision overreaches except in the fleeting parts that are thrilling.
An MCU film rarely disappoints. Eternals is a step back. A dull second act crushes the pacing. Richard Madden’s formidable screen presence is the lone highlight for me. Gemma Chan is unfortunately miscast as Sersi. Stick around during and after the credits. Eternals is a production of Marvel Studios. It will be released exclusively in theaters on November 5th by Walt Disney Studios.