Did you ever get the feeling
That your world was being watched,
Like immortal super-beings
Had been charged with overseeing
All the quandaries and travesties humanity had botched?
Not to worry, for we humans
Can be lovable at times.
Those alien surveyors
Should see man in all his layers,
And our aptitude for love and hope should balance out our crimes.
MPA rating: PG-13
It was obvious long before it hit theaters that Eternals was going to be a gamble for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, just like Guardians of the Galaxy was back in 2014. A movie about a whole team of superheroes that only hardcore comic book fans had even heard of? And then they announced that it would be helmed by critical darling Chloe Zhao, the most Oscar-caliber director since Kenneth Branagh introduced Thor a decade ago (and fresh off her Best Director win for Nomadland earlier this year). With ten diverse but unfamiliar heroes to introduce, I knew Eternals would be a tricky balancing act, so I’m not surprised that it has become one of the most divisive Marvel films. I, for one, enjoyed Eternals quite a bit and disagree with most of the mixed reviews, yet I have my own misgivings that few critics seem to share.
Eternals has the unique standalone feel of early Marvel, with relatively little crossover with the MCU and no cameos of established characters, just picking up the idea of enormously powerful Celestials mentioned in passing back in Guardians of the Galaxy. The Eternals were alien immortals created by the Celestial Arishem to defend Earth against the mysterious animal-like Deviants, which the ten supers battle across centuries with their unique powers. The cast is as diverse as they come, from Sersi (the lovely Gemma Chan, recast from her supporting role as a Kree in Captain Marvel), who can transform whatever matter she touches and takes a liking to our planet, to Sprite (Lia McHugh), who can create illusions and has the body of a child. Plus, there are the leader Ajak (Salma Hayek), the Superman stand-in Ikaris (Richard Madden), the comic relief Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), the bad boy Druig (Barry Keoghan), the tech wizard Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), the haunted warrior Thena (Angelina Jolie), the muscle Gilgamesh (Don Lee of Train to Busan), and the speedster Makkari (deaf actress Lauren Ridloff), all of whom like to periodically pose in a line. Setting aside subplots like the mysterious illness afflicting Thena, the plot is largely a get-the-band-back-together journey after the Deviants return to threaten the world, eventually veering off into larger implications as their true mission is revealed.
So yeah, there’s a lot going on, with plenty of exposition and flashbacks to help viewers absorb it all. And honestly, I’m surprised at how skillfully the film handles all of it. The characters are many yet manage to carve out memorable moments for them all, aided by their unique powers and the mythical origins of many of their names, which are indicated to have actually inspired those age-old myths. Some like Makkari don’t fare as well in standing out, but McHugh as Sprite earns some real pathos as she struggles with her inability to age. Other characters are distinguished by the moral debates of how best to use their powers; they may have been instructed not to interfere with human affairs, but it’s understandably hard watching human history play out in all its horrors when they know they have the power to change it. It’s a lot to take in across a long runtime, but I disagree with the criticisms over the pacing and character development simply because of how comparatively well it holds up under its own weight, which could easily have made it a mess. It probably would have been better as a Disney+ series, though.
There’s plenty to admire, from Chloe Zhao’s trademark “golden hour” lighting and artful cinematography to the ever-impressive visual effects when the fists start flying. So what then is the problem? It took a while for me to decide what exactly bothered me about the film’s twist and climax, and it boils down to the fact that it shoots for cosmic answers to questions far above its pay grade. Eternals basically addresses the question “What is the meaning of life?” And I did not like its answer.
Spoilers in this paragraph: According to the movie, Arishem actually created the galaxy and thus life on earth, and the way he is revered by the Eternals clearly paints him as a God-like figure. While he sends the Eternals to fight against the Deviants, the reason for defending humanity is not because he values human life for its own sake. Instead, one could point to the famous battery scene in The Matrix, but instead of that being humanity’s futuristic fate, the MCU has now explained that it was always humanity’s purpose, with the earth’s destruction as the end state. Ignoring the fact that the conflict sounds suspiciously like one of the storylines from Steven Universe, this revelation cheapens life more than I think the film intends. As a Christian, I believe that God created man in His image with a love for every individual, a sharp contrast to Arishem’s temporary benevolence. For viewers who don’t believe in a Creator, perhaps Eternals’ twist is simply a typical sci-fi revelation, one that admittedly does make for an interesting ethical debate as the various Eternals question whether to oppose not just a typical supervillain but the creative process itself. For me, though, it imbues the MCU itself with an uncomfortable nihilism, suggesting that all of mankind’s efforts are worthless in the eyes of “god” and making me question by what standard any right or wrong, love or hatred in this universe can be judged, even at Arishem’s level. Questions like this don’t seem to bother mainstream critics, only being broached by Christian film websites, but I do feel like this subversive trend is an unfortunate departure from the MCU up to this point.
The sheer amount of plot and characters is both a blessing and a curse for Eternals. One could argue there’s too much going on for the film to juggle, but that also means the things it does well can overshadow its thematic or pacing flaws, regardless of what one considers a flaw. The characters are as well-developed as they can be with so many on hand, the often serious tone is still livened by some well-timed humor, and the visuals have an epic scale that rivals the biggest Marvel movies. Despite my qualms over the film’s worldview, I can’t help but admire Zhao’s managing of a film that is clearly intended to set up much of the Marvel universe to come. I just hope those future installments can make up for this one’s missteps.
Best line: (Thena) “We have loved these people since the day we arrived. When you love something, you protect it.”
Rank: List Runner-Up
© 2021 S.G. Liput
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