Eternals is an epic MCU saga that ends up with too much to do. After Marvel fans were starved of MCU content in 2020, Eternals arrives in Chile cinemas after a veritable feast of MCU adventures this year.
It’s the third movie in the space of five months and comes after fans have enjoyed (to varying degrees) four TV shows on Disney+, all of which connect to the overarching narrative of Phase 4. Marvel fans are used to this kind of bounty as there were three movies apiece in 2017, 2018 and 2019, but will there ever prove to be one movie too far?
The fear is that it could well happen with Eternals after some surprisingly mixed early reactions, and the fact that it features no established MCU characters. What could save Chloé Zhao’s movie is that, on paper, it’s a genuinely exciting prospect: a superhero team-up movie with the MCU’s most diverse cast yet from an award-winning director.
And while that should probably be enough to get most MCU fans to show up, it turns out that not even a director like Zhao can overcome familiar flaws in almost all of Marvel’s origin stories. The scale of Eternals is unlike anything we’ve seen to date in the MCU, but it also ends up in a movie that just has too much on its plate.
After a Star Wars-esque opening crawl, Eternals takes us right back to 5,000 BC in Mesopotamia as the immortal heroes arrive on Earth, kickstarting a fight against mankind’s oldest enemy, the Deviants, that spans millennia.
The main story picks up in Camden, North London as the Deviants return to cause trouble in Sersi’s (Gemma Chan) life – and the lives of every other Eternal. Something called the Emergence is on the way and after the Eternals went their separate ways centuries earlier, it’s time to get the squad back together.
To go into any more plot details would risk entering spoiler territory as even though MCU fans have never met these characters, there are still some major surprises in store across the movie’s epic 157-minute runtime. Zhao takes us back-and-forth across the history of the Eternals to both fill in their past and set up their future, meaning that even though it’s long, there’s a lot going on at any one time.
The balance isn’t always quite right, though, as the flashback sequences rarely offer anything of note. They always look beautiful, not just thanks to the incredibly attractive cast, but also the vistas. It’s in this imagery that you can see Zhao’s fingerprints, even if a lot of her other directorial elements are lost in the MCU-ness of it all.
Because that’s the thing. Like with the recent Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Eternals might want to be different to all that’s come before, but it’s still an MCU movie at its heart. The story is impressively free of major nods or connections meaning even newbies can understand it, yet it still falls foul of familiar origin-story issues such as a bland villain and CGI-heavy final act.
Since it’s centred on an entirely new team, Eternals has a lot of groundwork to get through that includes the basics of what exactly an Eternal is, who the ten characters are and why they’re on Earth. That’s before you even get to the actual plot of the movie and, at times, it feels like there’s a lot of showing when telling would have been the best way forward, especially when some flashbacks end up feeling like padding.
The main plot itself follows a fairly standard ‘get the team together to fight a big threat’ journey, so it can end up feeling episodic. Yet what saves Eternals is that Zhao has an impressive cast to call upon, filled with charismatic performers who can make the formulaic feel fresh.
Gemma Chan gets an MCU part worthy of her talents – after she was wasted in Captain Marvel – with Sersi the heart and soul of the movie, even if her connection with Richard Madden’s Ikaris never quite convinces. Kumail Nanjiani provides the comic relief as Eternal-turned-Bollywood star Kingo, while Don Lee and Angelina Jolie prove to be the movie’s most affecting duo as Gilgamesh and Thena.
It’s inevitable that in such a stacked ensemble as this that some cast members suffer in terms of screentime, especially Lauren Ridloff’s Makkari and Barry Keoghan’s Druig. Their lack of time is disappointing for different reasons: Ridloff given her position as the MCU’s first deaf superhero and Keoghan because Druig highlights the interesting moral dilemmas of the Eternals’ role on Earth.
When there’s a world to save and future movies to set up, Zhao never quite gets enough time to really dig into the morality of what the Eternals are doing – or rather, not doing – when standing by as humanity harms itself. Delving into those concepts could have lifted the movie away from its standard team-building mission, but there’s just too much going on already.
Even with the issues over the story though, Eternals does bring something new to the MCU and feels original enough to make it worth seeing. Not only is there a diverse cast, we get our first gay superhero in Brian Tyree Henry’s Phastos, but there’s also the first sex scene in any MCU movie. They might be superpowered immortal beings, but at least Zhao knows that they’d find time for some actual rumpy-pumpy.
The movie arrives in cinemas shortly after the much-anticipated Dune where Denis Villeneuve took the bold decision to split Frank Herbert’s novel into two. Watching Eternals movie 2021, you can’t help feeling that you wish Zhao took a similar approach instead of ambitiously trying to fit everything into one movie.
You’ll feel like you’re watching a condensed version of the Infinity Saga from Iron Man right through to Avengers: Endgame. From the gathering of superheroes to the world-threatening event (with some team conflict along the way), there are elements of both the Avengers movies and the various standalone events. There’s always something going on in Eternals movie, but you’ll wish it took more time.
Ultimately, every origin story succeeds or fails based on whether you’d want to see the central heroes again and on this note, Eternals absolutely works. With an intriguing ending and some genuinely exciting credits scenes, you’ll want to return to Zhao’s impressively-crafted world and now that the exposition is out of the way, the possibilities are eternal.