This review will be formatted differently than usual for this blog. Instead of starting with the behind the scenes details, I’ll be sprinkling it throughout the review. Partly to experiment a bit, but I’ve got movie specific reasons for this. But let’s start off by saying that coming into this movie, there were only three things I knew about the Eternals in Marvel. 1, they exist. 2, Thanos is one of them. 3, there seems to be some debate as to whether X-Men villain Selene is one, or she’s just an immortal mutant.
I always go into a movie willing to give it an honest chance to win me over, but there was not one part of me looking forward to watching this. Coming from someone who read comics weekly for 8 years, sometimes buying an average of 8 a week (most of them Marvel), and tends to do a lot of side research for anything I’m interested in, that says a lot about how obscure these characters are.
I generally don’t fall asleep when watching movies I haven’t seen before. Sometimes I’ll fall asleep if it’s a dramatic movie or a mindless action movie I’ve seen multiple times. I occasionally do that to help me sleep. With a new movie, I stay awake far more often than not. I fell asleep three separate times while watching The Eternals. Let that colour the rest of this review.
The circumstances around Black Widow’s release could explain why it bombed. The year-long delay, and simultaneous theatrical/digital release hurt the movie quite a bit, and I’m sure it would have earned at least $700 million under better circumstances. Shang-Chi probably would have earned much more under better circumstances as well. I doubt either would have made it to $1 billion, but not every Marvel movie needs to earn that much to be successful. Eternals doesn’t really have that excuse. No Time to Die, the 25th Bond movie, released in September, 2021. It earned almost $800 million globally. Spider-Man: No Way Home just passed Jurassic World with a mammoth $1.69 billion to be the sixth highest grossing movie in history, and still going strong. It’s now earned more than the first Avengers movie on that note. Therefore, you cannot blame the virus for The Eternals failing to make a profit.
I’ve got a common criticism for both Black Widow and Shang-Chi; they both felt overly ambitious with their $200 million budgets. Not every Marvel movie needs a $200m budget, and both of these movies would have been better with a smaller scale and a less ridiculous climax. Eternals on the other hand is the kind of movie that should benefit from a $200m budget. It’s a team book with several very powerful characters, and even more powerful villains. It’s a high concept epic spanning centuries, with a story that revolves around Celestials. Celestials are among the most powerful beings in the Marvel Universe. The question is, why start with a team book with these obscure characters? Why go for such an ambitious story when we’ve seen this fail before with Justice League, even though that team featured several very famous characters? On that note, 2017’s Justice League remains Hollywood’s highest grossing bomb office bomb in history. Interesting distinction there.
Here’s the biggest question with the Eternals. Why give such an ambitious project to Chloe Zhao? While she is an Academy Award winning director, at the time she signed onto the project, she only had 4 movies under her belt, all of which were arthouse films with a budget no higher than $5 million. What makes her the best choice for an ambitious, $200 million team book with high concepts, a grand scale, and no previously introduced characters? By no means am I calling her a bad director, but she probably should have started with something not quite as big.
Eternals may very well be the first true dud of the MCU. Critics gave it an approval rating of 48% on Rotten Tomatoes, with an average score of 5.6/10. It’s the first MCU movie to officially get the “rotten” classification on the site. Some critics gave it positive scores, like the Evening Standard, The Seattle Times, and Variety. BBC Culture and The Independent both gave it mediocre reviews. Meanwhile, The Rolling Stone, Los Angeles Times, and The Daily Telegraph all gave it negative reviews. The National Review was particularly harsh, calling it “the dumbest, cheesiest, most trite, and least human” of the MCU films. I wouldn’t go that far.
The cast for this movie is kind of all over the place. The closest thing to a lead character, Sersi, is played by Gemma Chan. On paper, Sersi is the most nuanced character in the movie, who in modern times works as a museum curator and often helps out with history lectures in Universities. There are times it feels like she doesn’t care much about her performance, not putting much emotion into her dramatic moments. It’s weird, because I’ve seen better performances from her in both her voice role as Namaari in Raya and the Last Dragon, and as Minn-Erva in Captain Marvel. She was at least competent in acting angry in the latter, and well ranged in the former. In Eternals, at times where she should be emotionally devastated, she just looks jaded or mildly sad.
Richard Madden plays Icarus, and he’s fine in the role. The problem isn’t in his performance, it’s in the boring writing surrounding the character. He’s basically got Superman’s powers: flight, super strength, and laser eyes. Besides a plot twist near the end, his role is mostly being a possible love interest for Sersi, and otherwise staring at things and looking conflicted. Again, I’ve seen him in better roles, including Prince Kit in Disney’s live-action Cinderella, Robb Stark in Game of Thrones, and a minor role in the WW1 movie 1917.
Apart from that, you’ve got Kumail Nanjiani as Kingo, who is the closest thing this movie has to an entertaining character. That said, besides his backstory of pretending to be multiple generations of Bollywood actors, he basically doesn’t have a character. Lia McHugh, who was around 15 at the time of filming, plays an Eternal locked in a child’s body who is also attracted to Icarus. If she had a full movie focusing on the emotional struggles of being an immortal trapped in a child’s body, that could have been fascinating to explore. When it’s a blip in a movie with far too many subplots, it just feels creepy.
Brian Tyree Henry plays Phastos, the team’s scientist, and probably has the most fascinating character arc. Too bad he’s only in half the movie, which means his arc is skimmed over. Lauren Ridloff plays Makkari, a deaf speedster who gets virtually no character development. On that note, Ridloff was born deaf. Barry Keoghan plays Druig, and after watching the movie, I still know virtually nothing about his character. Ma Dong-seok, credited as Don Lee, plays Gilgamesh, another character I barely know about after watching the movie. Well, apart from how he’s very strong and generally calm. Salma Hayek plays Ajak, the leader of the Eternals, who is only in flashbacks since her character is killed early on.
Last but not least, Angelina Jolie plays Thena, who is probably the most skilled warrior in the group, and can create weapons using cosmic energy. She’s also got a fractured mind that is increasingly affecting her grasp of reality, to the point where she sometimes attacks the others out of nowhere. She’s absent for a significant chunk of the movie as well, so this fractured mind aspect isn’t all that well explored. Despite this, she still ends up facing a major villain on her own. More on that later.
Right away, there are three major problems with this cast. One, it’s far too big for its own good. Most of these characters have their own attempt at a character arc, but when this is also their first appearances in the MCU, it means that none of them can be properly explored. At least with Avengers, there are only six of them. Most of them were previously introduced too.
Worse yet, all of the character arcs I mentioned are fascinating in concept. Being an immortal trapped in a kid’s body would come with so many challenges that are worth exploring in its own movie. A character whose mind is fractured beyond functionality, with memories that may or may not be real, is also worth exploring in detail. Even pretending to be multiple generations of actors sounds like an entertaining concept for a comedy drama film. With Phastos especially, he completely lost faith in humanity after the Atomic Bomb attacks in WW2, only to find that faith again when he marries a mortal and raises a kid. It gives him a personal connection he never felt before. You could easily explore that on a deeper level in a pure drama film. When you shove all of these great character arcs into one movie that also features high concepts involving creation myth and a related cataclysmic event, they all feel wasted.
I don’t think anyone could have made this overstuffed movie work, let alone an arthouse director who’s never worked on a big-budget movie before.
By extension to this problem, the movie doesn’t have enough time to explain what everyone’s powers are. Even after spending over 2 hours with these characters, I don’t understand how most of their powers work. Sure, Makkari is fast, Icarus feels like a morally ambiguous Superman knockoff, and Thena creates energy weapons. Is Gilgamesh directly strong, or is there some sort of conscious energy behind his strength? Some of the visual effects seem to imply that possibility. How do Kingo’s powers work? How do Sersi’s transformation powers work, and what are her limits? What even are Druig’s abilities, Ajak’s abilities, or the limits of Sprite’s illusion abilities? I have no idea, and in the final fight, I spent half of the action feeling confused.
The second problem with the cast is, apart from Jolie, nobody in this movie is a big name actor for mainstream audiences. Sure, Nanjiani is mildly popular in comedy films, Madden has appeared in several very well-known TV shows, and Hayek was considered very attractive in the 90’s and early 2000’s. But most of the cast are either relative unknowns, new to the industry, or in Dong-seok’s case, he’s not well-known outside of South Korea. Even with Jolie, as much as she was a great action star back in the day, and still looks quite good for her age, she’s a bit too past her prime to be playing an elite warrior. She hasn’t had a major hit since 2014’s Maleficent, and even that was met with mixed reception, despite being quite profitable.
I know the MCU has used lesser known actors as their stars, but most of them still featured big names in supporting roles, like Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury in all of Phase One, Jeff Bridges as the main villain in Iron Man, Anthony Hopkins in Thor … you get the idea.
Three: I’m not one of those people who is against diversity in film by any means, in fact it can be a very good thing when it works. I like the level of diversity in the Star Wars sequels. That said, some of the diversity in Eternals feels forced. Both Ajak and Makkari in the comics are men, and on that note, Makkari isn’t deaf. I don’t have a problem with a deaf superhero, but it’s quite strange for the Celestials (very powerful beings with at least some creation abilities) to intentionally make one of their Eternals deaf. On that note, he’s white in the comics, whereas her actress is half-black, half Mexican.
I could go on, but for a lot of people, myself included, there’s a difference between natural diversity and forced diversity. I don’t like it being shoved in my face. I don’t like being preached to by a movie in a genre which is – by definition – escapist fiction. Even though I am not the least bit familiar with any of these characters, this movie is definitely bordering on that. There’s also increasing evidence that forced diversity tends to kill box office performance. 2016’s Ghostbusters bombed. Fan4stic bombed. This year’s The 355 is a box office disaster that couldn’t even make it to $15 million worldwide. The CW has been pushing diversity and social politics in almost all of their shows, and their viewership has tanked. They just announced that the network is for sale. There’s evidence that whitewashing movies fails just as badly, with Exodus: Gods and Kings, Gods of Egypt, and Ghost in the Shell all bombing. You could say they’re all terrible movies and shows and that’s why they failed, but there are terrible movies that do well, like the Resident Evil film series.
I don’t like talking about politics on this blog (frankly I’m a political pessimist anyway), but I can’t help but wonder if this affected the Eternals movie’s performance. The average moviegoer seems to be getting sick of this. It’s why so many movies pushing diversity are failing. It’s part of why viewership for award shows have fallen drastically in recent years. Last year alone, the Academy Awards saw its lowest ever viewership of 9.8 million, a drop from 2020’s then all-time lowest viewership of 23.6 million. This year’s Golden Globes didn’t even get aired on TV. Ouch.
As for Eternals, it ended up earning just over $400 million on a $200 million budget. When you put into account the advertising, and the merchandise that failed to sell, it’s safe to say the movie likely lost money. How that affects this specific part of the MCU going forward remains to be seen.
The problems with the Eternals movie doesn’t stop there however. In addition to the overloaded cast with no clear stars that stand out, the story is overly ambitious and even a touch pretentious. It involves the Eternals being sent to Earth to protect humanity from the Deviants, a mindless race of immortal monsters. They are prohibited from interfering with human history on a large scale outside of this. They are placed there by the Celestials, who are at least partially responsible for Earth’s creation. After they apparently kill the remaining Deviants in the 1500’s, the group disagrees on how involved they should be with humanity. They go their separate ways, waiting for the Celestial to tell them it’s time to leave Earth.
Spoilers from this point on, because I cannot properly discuss this movie’s biggest story problems without exploring the story first.
After a Deviant kills Ajak despite not attacking Eternals in the past, the others are forced to reconnect and figure out what’s going on. Sersi is named the new leader by Ajak posthumously, which allows her to communicate directly with the Eternal. It’s here where she learns that humanity is meant to be sacrificed to create a new Celestial, and that the Eternals were only there to make sure humanity progressed as planned. Feeling quite attached to the humans, the Eternals instead agree to try and stop this. Well … except for Icarus, who not only knew of the plan, but wants to go through with it.
Several big problems here. First, why wouldn’t the Celestials explain this to the Eternals in the first place? If they knew their true mission from the start, it would prevent them from getting attached. Two, considering Icarus knew this, and the Celestial talks to him before Sersi, why didn’t he warn the Eternal not to tell Sersi their plans? He could have prevented the Eternals from turning on the Celestials in the first place. Three, the Eternal kid decides to join Icarus because she’s tired of being a kid, and that’s the first time her own personal journey is directly explored. It further exposes how rushed her character arc is, and how creepy it feels.
Beyond the story problems, there’s also the action. Frankly, I found most of the action slow and boring. When I don’t even know how half the characters’ powers work, it’s hard to care. After the lead Deviant, Kro, starts growing in both power and intelligence by somehow absorbing his victim Eternals’ powers, he also figures out what’s actually going on. He still only wants to kill the Eternals despite how they’re all being used by the Celestials. Also, despite the fact that he’s already killed at least three Eternals and absorbed all their abilities, they still send Thena after him. You know, the one who can barely tell what’s real and what’s not. Although the CGI in the climax is noticeably better than in Shang-Chi, it still feels fake. It’s still hard to care. All the tension is gone when you know there are more Marvel movies coming down the pipeline, so you know this global extinction event won’t happen.
The end result is a mess of a movie on almost every level. Eternals has way too much going on in terms of story and characters to possibly work as a single film. While Zhao shouldn’t have been picked for such an overly ambitious project, I don’t know if any director could have pulled this off. Eternals would have worked better as a TV miniseries, with at least 8 hour-long episodes to properly explore its story and its characters. I still wouldn’t have been interested personally, but at least you could focus each episode on a different character’s personal journey, while each episode contributes more to the overall plot. At least you could properly explore all the movie’s themes of conflicted characters. An episode about Phastos losing faith and finding it again. An episode exploring Sprite, and what it’s like to be an eternal child. Even an episode about Icarus, and feeling conflicted about his true purpose and how it’ll affect his friends.
Eternals is not a good movie. It’s full of under-explored ideas, and the story makes less sense the more you think about it. It’s so overloaded with characters that you never get to properly know any of them. The action, while big, is just slow and boring. It’s a shame, because there are good ideas and concepts buried inside this mess. There are those who enjoy this movie, but it’s the first MCU movie that I wouldn’t recommend to anyone.
As much as I wanted to review Spider-Man: No Way Home next week, movie theaters are currently closed in my province. With no digital releases of any kind just yet, I have no legal way of seeing it. Instead, I’ll be reviewing the newest Bond movie, No Time To Die, next. Also, I just learned that Disney’s 60th animated movie released last year, Encanto. I’m not sure when yet, but I’ll figure out some time to fit in a review for that. Next month, I’ll be looking at all the Jumanji movies. As of right now, I’m planning on March being Ridley Scott month.