Finding Humanity – Eternals (2021)

The newest expansion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe debuted with one of the best opening weekends of the year, including a sizable international haul. Scoring high marks for its diversity and inclusivity along with its massive scale, Eternals is visually spectacular, action-packed, and ambitious but grapples with its grounding and doesn’t really feel at home in the MCU as a result.

Based on the Marvel comics by Jack Kirby, a group of powerful beings arrives to eradicate a threat to humankind, beginning in 5000 BC, but their orders and their motivations get thrown into chaos over the millennia. After 7000 years, the threat they thought they eliminated is back and they must reunite to find out why. 

At its core, it’s a story about the value of the human experience, not just for the audience but even for the titular characters. It’s very similar to the central theme in Avengers: Age of Ultron, where Vision and Ultron quarrel over why humanity is worth saving, and that’s where the film finds success but it doesn’t do as good of a job with the fine character notes. It’s not easy to refine those roles when you’re introducing a dozen new characters and massive, cosmic concepts from scratch and I can’t help but think this property may have been better served piecemeal in a mini-series or something like that.

Hot off her Best Director win at the Oscars, clearly, it was a big deal for Marvel to bring Chloé Zhao into the MCU. She even has two screenplay credits for working on one version of the script herself and one version with Patrick Burleigh. Ryan and Kaz Firpo also have screenwriting credits and you get a sense that there were competing storytelling philosophies at play. 

Chloé Zhao (right) and her lead Gemma Chan (left) go over the film’s climactic end scene

Without getting into too much detail the dialogue is overtly modern. Despite the film beginning in 5000 B.C., the characters speak to and interact with one another as if they had all been raised in contemporary Western culture. I understand why, but it feels off and it undercuts their credibility to an extent because it relies too heavily on a particular style of humor that doesn’t make sense for a race of ancient beings with no connections to Western society at that stage in the story. That particular style of humor works well during other moments, but it was a weird place to start. 

The script ultimately raises far more questions than it answers. Why is American sign language being used in ancient Babylon? For that matter, why do all of the Eternals have different earth-based accents at the outset of the story? There are ways for that to make sense within the context of the story and it could have very easily been explained away with a few expository sentences, but the effort wasn’t there. Lauren Ridloff (Makkari) is deaf and her character needs to communicate but using American sign language doesn’t make sense, especially when pointing to her wrist to indicate “time” two thousand years before the wristwatch would be invented. There’s quite a lot of stuff like that to nit-pick should you choose to go that route but, to me, that’s indicative of the script that wants credit for certain things without actually earning it through the storytelling. In a word, inauthentic.

Even in this still image, the body language between Richard Madden and Gemma Chan speaks volumes

One of those things, that the script wants credit for but doesn’t earn, is the love story between Ikarus and Sersi. Unfortunately, Richard Madden (Ikarus) and Gemma Chan (Sersi) have very little chemistry on screen. They both give good individual performances, but it’s almost like they didn’t even buy into their characters’ connection. There’s also a very awkward and passionless “love-making” scene that doesn’t help the situation. That angle is a large part of the overall story arc and it just doesn’t click between them.

To make matters worse, the chemistry between Ridloff (Makkari) and Barry Keoghan (Druig) is fantastic and it’s done almost completely with body language and non-verbal cues. It’s so effortless that the main love story looks and feels extra weak in comparison. Realistically, the chemistry is better in every other relationship besides the main one. 

The relationship between Makkari (Ridloff) and Druig (Keoghan) has more chemistry in a smile and a smirk than we get from the primary love story.

Obviously, the cast has some big names like Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek, Kit Harrington, and Kumail Nanjiani. Oddly enough, they are essentially all supporting roles. Yes, it’s an ensemble to but there is a main narrative within that and it doesn’t belong to any of them. Nanjiani is great as Kingo because he brings the kind of comedy we’ve come to expect from him over the years but, unfortunately, all the goodwill his character earns with the audience is undone with a few keystrokes in the script. The performances are good across the board, there’s just a timeshare going on.

The visual design, regarding the cosmic nature of the story and the application of the characters’ powers, is quite spectacular. Ikarus flying around and spamming his eye lasers gets redundant in a hurry, but there is a much softer touch with the rest of the characters. This is the first time the Celestials have been introduced into the MCU and their grandiosity doesn’t disappoint. Their presence does raise some more questions in regards to the lack of awareness of the characters we already know, but it is what it is.

There are legitimate reasons why the critical reviews have been less than flattering. Ultimately, it doesn’t quite feel like a Chloé Zhao or a Marvel movie despite having elements of both. However, if you are looking for some spectacle and just want to unplug, it’s far from the worst thing you could spend your time and money on.  

Recommendation: If you’re invested in the MCU, what’s one more? Plus, you’ve probably seen it already anyway. If Marvel movies aren’t your thing, this one feels very far removed from the established MCU so far, so this could be more appealing to an outsider. 


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