Eternals review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
The Eternals is the Marvel movie you want to root for. The themes are grander, the characters more intricate, the casting more diverse, and cinematography surprisingly grounded so it’s not just a mess of computer graphics that are bland in looks as they are grand in scale. That’s why it pains me to say that this may be the weakest MCU film with a bittersweet display of the limitations for this cinematic universe.
It’s not that The Eternals doesn’t try. It’s tries incredibly hard to make the broad and grand themes of identity, time, mortality, and utilitarian ethics more compelling. A varied collective of entities are sent to Earth in its early days of humans to protect humanity from creatures known as Deviants. Armed with the ability to never age and unique superpowers, they protect the defenseless humans and give them a chance to grow as a species. They’re forbidden to interfere with human matters of war between nations and apparently war between galaxies. It’s strange yet believable enough excuse why these heroes have gone unnoticed by other Marvel heroes for so long.
More fascinating than where all these powerful people were during great tragedies (which is loosely addressed) is the chemistry between the characters. Sersi (Gemma Chan) and Ikaris (Richard Madden) form a romance that eventually leads to a marriage that develops after a few thousand years and ends after a few more. It feels kinda dangerous to have co-workers dating, especially when they have pretty bold powers, as Sersi can manipulate matter into different materials and Ikaris can flight and shoot lasers from his eyes. Sure enough, the Eternals split when realizing just how much their views of the world clash.
Told in a non-linear fashion, we see the long road that led to the present where the heroes were split. But they’ll have to come back together when the Deviants become more powerful and more frequent in their appearances. The band gets back together but not all of them are the same. Old grudges remain and trauma is still a factor for some. But there’s a darker secret revealed about their mission which brings into question just how much of the good guys they are in their protection of the planet.
This is a film that is trying to do so much and it’s disheartening how much of it doesn’t land. There’s a lot of stuff present in this picture that hasn’t been in any MCU film before. There’s a romance that actually feels tender and even erotic with MCU’s first sex scene (chill, parents, it’s the tamest sex a PG-13 can muster). There’s also the first gay superhero of the cinematic universe with the genius Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) settling down with his husband and child. Their romance isn’t kept quiet as Disney productions have in the past, as Phastos actually shares a passionate kiss before heading off into battle. There’s also the MCU’s first deaf character, first Indian hero, first kid hero, and so on.
All of that cosmetic stuff is great and I really hope the MCU will continue with more films like it. But in trying to shove all of this into such a picture, especially a somber one that wants to take its time and showcase a series of lengthy character arcs, this film just can’t handle all of it. The result is a good-looking but deeply flawed and rushed adventure where so much is trimmed there’s an inexplicable nature to most of the developments. The eternally youthful Sprite (Lia McHugh) is both conflicted about being perpetually seen as a child but is also secretly in love with Ikaris. The comic relief of Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) points this out to the others and jokes “What, you guys didn’t pick up on that?” Maybe they might have had a chance to in their thousand years of friendship but the audience certainly hasn’t.
The Eternals is by far the most frustrating of MCU pictures for aiming so high and never reaching that goal of a more serious, emotional, romantic, and existential comic book movie. Considering this is one of the biggest franchises in the world, its failure could signal that the MCU is destined to go back to the same old formula and not pursue more diverse and tonally variant pictures. So when I say that The Eternals is a mess, it is by no means a condemnation of another entry as The Eternals 2 is assured because that’s the nature of this cinematic beast of a franchise.