September 28, 2022

‘Eternals’ brings great new heroes to the MCU but leaves us wondering why

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is thirteen years and twenty-six movies old, reaching its record-breaking level of success by delivering exactly what its audience expects, every time. Going to see a Marvel movie means buff, shirtless superheroes, fun fight choreography, comic book quips, and a big, smashy CGI battle to wrap it all up before dropping hints for the next go-round — coming soon to theaters near you. This is not a criticism of Marvel’s formula. It’s a creative accomplishment to hit upon what works one time. So, finding a way to do it repeatedly — to the tune of twenty-plus billion dollars — is nothing short of miraculous. Yet this formula means that any deviation, like Marvel’s Eternals, is going to freak people out.

Eternals was always going to be a bit of a weird one. This super-team of cosmic beings has allegedly existed since before the dawn of human civilization, protecting the MCU’s earth from gooey dinosaur-looking evils called Deviants. These heroes are the MCU’s explanation for epic figures in mythology, like the super strength of Sumerian legend Gilgamesh (Don Lee), the goddess of war being named Thena (Angelina Jolie), the flying wonder Ikaris (Richard Madden), the Odyssey’s matter-transforming witch Sersi (Gemma Chan), and more.

They are more powerful than — but do not hang out with — the Avengers. They did not help with Thanos for the same reason they let slavery happen, which is because a planet-sized Celestial creation god, who tells them what to do, said no. The Eternals are complicated, messy, and their very existence rocks what we know about the MCU’s origins. Yet this is only one way that Eternals immediately stands out from all of the preceding movies.

This movie looks different from the rest of the MCU, with a bluish color correction that stands in stark contrast with the candy-colored worlds of Spider-Man or the Guardians of the Galaxy. The Eternals themselves look different as well, as the relatively homogenous Marvel heroes of the past give way to a super-team more diverse and inclusive than literally all of the past MCU films combined. Helmed by Academy Award-winning director Chloé Zhao, the movie feels different, with a tone somewhere between biblical epic, family drama, and, you know, a movie where hot people shoot lasers out of their eyes.

These differences and others are intentional, but they do not make Eternals a bad movie, or even a bad entry into the MCU franchise. Eternals simply changes what a Marvel movie can be, for better and for worse.

On the side of better, Eternals exposes some of the MCU’s key flaws by succeeding at what most films in the franchise have failed to accomplish in past entries. The MCU is not good at romance and sometimes struggles to build believable relationships between its heroes. Eternals knocks both of those challenges out of the park. These Eternals have lived-in relationships. Their devotion to each other is deep and sometimes romantically hefty, far beyond what the MCU has even attempted in any other movie. There’s even a sex scene — a franchise first!

Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) and Druig (Barry Keoghan) in Marvel's 'Eternals.'

Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) and Druig (Barry Keoghan) in Marvel’s ‘Eternals.’
Credit: Courtesy of Marvel Studios

These relationships come alive with a cast that brings their A-game to creating ten new epic heroes. Angelina Jolie is a standout as Thena, a living embodiment of war, who is as smooth and sarcastic as she is deadly. Playing Druig and Makkari, Barry Keoghan and Lauren Ridloff don’t waste a second of their screen time, generating their characters’ chemistry even when they’re in the background of a scene. And as Phastos, Brian Tyree Henry is an emotional cornerstone of the film. His character defies the cold, mechanical stereotype of a tinkering quartermaster and is the MCU’s first openly gay hero.

By the end of the movie, these Eternals and others are fully formed and exciting enough for audiences to look forward to their next appearance in an MCU movie. (Beyond the obvious thrill of knowing there’s a nonzero chance that Angelina Jolie will share the screen with Howard the Duck one day.)

While the Eternals themselves and their relationships are a high point of their introductory film, Eternals trips up in a few other categories. The “natural” look of its on-location shooting makes for some breathtaking shots. But the movie is too long and has far too much to do to linger as this endlessly on sprawling grey vistas.

Ikaris (Richard Madden) in Marvel's  'Eternals.'

Ikaris (Richard Madden) in Marvel’s  ‘Eternals.’
Credit: Courtesy of Marvel Studios

The closest thing this film has to a villain is inscrutable. They could cut an entire lesser antagonist from the plot and change nothing about the movie. Eternals also expects people to handwave the implications of its characters’ backgrounds as the plot moves along. But it’s difficult to focus on the next fight scene when the audience just learned that one of their heroes engineered an exodus of Mesoamerican refugees during the Spanish conquests.

Eternals is different, yes, but it’s not bad on its own. Whether or not fans will accept Earth’s Far Mightier Heroes hedges on what the plan is for the Eternals. Right now, it feels singular in its triumphs and outright weird when it goes wrong. This is a result of this movie carving a new niche in the MCU that changes the origins of its universe while declining to interact with anything recognizable. It will likely sit alone in that niche until somebody explains why we need the Eternals in the MCU at all.

Eternals opens in theaters Nov. 5.