Moviegoer: Eternals

Angelina Jolie in The Eternals.

Marvel’s newest phase stumbles under the weight of its own lore

By Diana Beechener

The Celestials are giant galactic beings that manage the ebb and flow of life. They create and destroy planets as part of their cosmic plans. When they created Earth and humanity, the Celestials were invested in their little experiment. The only problem were the deviants—iridescent demons that hunted the humans, stifling their development.

         To ensure that humans were allowed to thrive, the Celestials sent down the Eternals, super-powered beings with extremely advanced technology. These Eternals were charged with safeguarding humanity from the deviants so that humans could flourish. They even helped us along with some of our greatest innovations.

         So why didn’t they step up when Thanos threatened the universe? Why didn’t they stop horrible wars and famines? Why didn’t they at least share their spiffy tech with The Avengers or Wakanda?

         Turns out, their orders were very specific. The Celestials only wanted the Eternals to intervene when deviants reared their purple-tinged heads.

         But now, as Earth faces another disaster, the Eternals aren’t content to sit and watch. They’ve fallen in love with humanity, and want to protect it, even if that angers the Celestials.

         If that summary sounds exhausting, imagine I took two-and-a-half hours to tell it to you while an overpowering instrumental soundtrack blared, and that’s pretty much what you’d be paying for in the theater.

The movie is a mess, with so much to say that nothing is said at all. In the age of Disney+, Eternals really should have been a series instead of a behemoth movie. There was no way to cram the story of the Celestials and the Eternals into one movie without it feeling like an two-hour book report. The result is an Avengers-style team-up movie like Endgame, but the audience has no idea who any of the characters are or why they should care.

Eternals dedicates so much time to plot, that we barely have a chance to develop the characters. We know that Eternals love humans, one even marries a human, but why is never really explained. The film spends so much time trying to establish the group’s dynamics that humanity becomes an afterthought. Why are the Eternals ready to risk the literal wrath of the gods for this stupid, violent species? Apparently braiding children’s hair and smiling at crops is the best answer we’re going to get.

Director Chloé Zhao (who won an Oscar a few months ago for the excellent Nomadland) seems at a loss as to how to fit so much plot into one movie. Her style is contemplative and natural, which is at odds with a big commercial blockbuster movie. She eschews most of the Marvel formula, instead trying a meditative tone. It’s an interesting choice, filled with lovely panning shots, but ultimately it fails to keep the lickety-split pace needed for superhero fare.

The characters are also a bit of a problem in Eternals. Star Gemma Chan (Raya and the Last Dragon) is given basically nothing to do. Her Sersi is given the hero’s journey, except she goes nowhere. She’s just a good, nice person who figures out she’s got immense untapped power. Richard Madden (1917) is also given very little to do for most of the movie, he’s essentially Marvel’s answer to Superman, and brings with that all the bland trappings.

         The supporting characters acquit themselves better. Angelina Jolie (Those Who Wish Me Dead) and Don Lee (Ashfall) create a beautiful, bruising relationship as the team’s two melee fighters. There’s some real tenderness in their story, as well as some emotional payoff. Kumail Nanjiani (The Lovebirds) also gets some great moments as the comic relief—an Eternal who got tired of watching humanity fall apart and started a Bollywood film dynasty. It’s a great jokey role, but one that seems out of place when the dramatics start.

         Ultimately, Eternals is an “eat your vegetables” kind of movie. If you’re interested in Marvel opening up the cinematic universe to Jack Kirby’s legendary Celestials storylines, you’re going to have to sit through this long, exposition dump of a movie. Still, with Zhao behind the camera, at least things are pretty to look at while you’re trying to follow along.

Fair Superhero Movie * PG-13 * 157 mins.