TThe Marvel Cinematic Universe as we know it is just a provincial backwater compared to the colossal scope of this latest addition, which spans such vast expanses of space and time that condensing everything into a single movie is almost a scientific breakthrough in itself. Everything about Eternals is huge, which is both its strength and its weakness. In terms of visual spectacle, it gives us cosmic perspectives that wouldn’t be out of place on a progressive rock album cover or Big Bang documentary. The story spans the entire world and the entirety of human civilization, from Mesopotamia to present-day London, from the Australian outback to ancient Babylon, with countless CGI heavy plays underway. of road. Watching the endless credits (which many will do to catch the very last bonus scene), it feels like every VFX artist in the world has been employed to do this. Some of their work is pleasantly bizarre; some, it must be said, is downright terrible.
Along with the epic scope comes an equally huge and refreshing cast of characters; these include Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek and Kumail Nanjiani. There is also an epic mythology to get a feel for: Before even a line of dialogue is spoken, three dense paragraphs of text explain how our 10 Eternals came to earth to protect it from predatory deviants (sort of beasts without skin and muscular with tentacles) at the behest of Arishem, “the First Celestial”. If you’re already lost, you’re out of luck: there’s a lot more to come, which calls for planet-sized pieces of exhibit. Sometimes it feels like you are watching a very fancy PowerPoint presentation.
The Eternals have superpowers: Madden’s alpha-Eternal Ikaris can fly and shoot rays from his eyes, Jolie’s Thena fights with magical weapons, Lauren Ridloff’s Makkari is lightning-fast, and so on. But they are less your standard Marvel superheroes than immortal, indestructible gods, who have lived among us incognito for 7,000 years. “Why didn’t you help fight Thanos?” an ordinary human reasonably asks. The Eternals can only intervene when deviants are involved, they say. Like the Wakandans in Black Panther, the Eternals are divided over how to apply their superiority. Power, responsibility, loyalty and unity are dominant themes. But there are very few times when these immortals actually come into contact with humans, which makes their plight somewhat abstract. It is only when the Eternals’ own fate is compromised that they are really interested in saving the little people from us. To reveal more would spoil the plot surprises, and would require explaining terms such as “Emergence”, “Mahd Wy’ry” and “Uni-Mind”.
It’s definitely… different. One of Eternals biggest surprises is its director: Chloe Zhao, who won two Oscars earlier this year for Nomadland, her lyrical, semi-documentary investigation of America here and now. There are some superficial aesthetic similarities – lots of magical sunset scenes – but the two films couldn’t be more different. The hallmark of Zhao’s earlier work was their intimacy and realism. Eternals is a gigantic exercise in non-realism.
Zhao at least manages to anchor the story in a personal drama. The emotional center of the film is Sersi, who transforms the matter of Chan, who must bring the Eternals together in the face of a new threat, though she still suffers from her recent breakup with Madden’s Ikaris. (By “recent,” we’re talking 2000 years ago.) Lia McHugh’s Sprite also holds a candle for Ikaris, but being trapped in an 11-year-old girl’s body puts her at a disadvantage. There’s a non-Marvel sex scene between two naked people, and a gay character kisses his same-sex partner – though both of those moments are fleeting. Nanjiani provides much-needed comedic relief as eternal movie star turned Bollywood Kingo (although Harish Patel as a documentary filming “valet” sounds like a faux pas). Jolie’s real-life star power is somewhat dampened by her character’s unconvincing personality disorder. And some of the Minor Eternals barely have time to make an impression.
That’s the problem: Too much is happening: everything is heading for another climax of “race against time to prevent the very bad thing from happening”. It’s not exactly boring – there’s always something new to see – but it’s also not particularly exciting, and it lacks the jovial spirit of Marvel’s best films. One of the strengths of the MCU to date is that it has taken a long time to define each character individually and present the big narratives on successive films, creating a sense of momentum. Here, everything is thrown at us at once. It’s like stepping into Avengers: Endgame cold without seeing any of the previous episodes. Most mortals will find it just too much. Bigger isn’t always better.