Eternals, the latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, arrives today with a great deal of fanfare and curiosity. While Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was certainly a relatively unknown character, Eternals takes it a few steps farther by bringing a whopping ten new heroes into the MCU, all at once, all without any prior appearances. And while — spoiler alert, sort of — not all ten of them make it out of the film, it’s still a somewhat overwhelming ensemble introduction.
Combine this with the wild, intergalactic nature of the characters — the Eternals are ancient beings sent by the Celestials (the ancient, galaxy-building entities who created the universe, sort of?) millennia ago to protect new planets from the voracious Deviants — and you’ve got a lot to take in. From there, you’ve got the Eternals fracturing and scattering themselves across the globe, the return of the once-extinct deviants, and a whole mess of other, densely plotted machinations, all crammed into 157 minutes.
It’s no surprise then that despite all that’s happening in Eternals, one never quite feels caught up. Cramming that much history into one film is a challenge, and certainly one that director Chloé Zhao seems game for. She’s painstakingly crafted a niche for these strange, immortal heroes, giving them each a vibrant story of love and loss and how they’ve grown to embrace humanity in different ways — some teach them, some entertain them, some protect them, some simply watch them. But those individual stories are the real heart of Eternals, but also its greatest misstep. Because while this isn’t an origin story — thank goodness — it is a history of the Eternals, and frankly that’s a long-ass history. So just as you’re starting to feel a connection to them, you’re quickly whisked away to the next location and the next character as they rapidly try to rebuild the team in the face of the looming threat.
That looming threat is the next problem. Much like the faceless monster hordes of Thanos, the Deviants aren’t characters so much as they’re filler, creatively designed beasts with no will or personality. While that does change farther into the film, it’s a far cry from their comic book counterparts — the Deviants are distinct, intelligent, malevolent lifeforms in the comics, not mindless wild beasts. It’s a frustrating departure for readers, but equally frustrating for new viewers because there’s just … not much there beyond they’re bestial nature and the mystery of their return.
All of that said, Eternals is also a stunningly beautiful film, filled with natural cinematography and less reliance on CGI than a lot of its predecessors. Its set design is lovely, the costuming is sumptuous and vivid, and the locales that they travel to are all startlingly gorgeous. It’s wonderful to look at, as is its cast — and what a cast it is. Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Kumail Nanjiani, Lia McHugh, Brian Tyree, Angelina Jolie, Don Lee, Barry Keoghan, Salma Hayek, Kit Harington, Lauren Ridloff — it’s an absolute murderer’s row, full of diverse faces and talents and backgrounds. The way that Eternals effortlessly embraces that diversity is nothing less than heartwarming, not just the main cast, but the way they travel through the ages and across the globe, observing different cultures and languages. If you made the film into a TV series simply about the Eternals travels through history, learning about other cultures? I’d absolutely watch it.
Perhaps that’s the problem, though. There’s simply too much stuffed into the film, and while it’s lovely to look at and filled with admirable performances, it somehow never resonated. That lack of resonation is mostly due to pacing issues that plague the film, dragging to unexpected halts here and there, and then dizzying and abrupt take offs. There are twists aplenty, but it’s hard to care about them too much because frankly, you’ve never been given enough time to care about the characters and story in the first place.
It’s odd to say that you don’t have enough time in a two-and-a-half-hour film that’s stuffed to the gills with ideas, but that’s what causes it to stumble — despite its variety and its length, you never have time to actually just enjoy the characters. Maybe it needed separate, Avengers-style origin entries, either films or TV shows or web-series. I would never say that Eternals is a bad film — there’s too much beauty and grace in Zhao’s storytelling to give it so crass a descriptor. It’s enjoyable, and it’s funny, and its actors truly are terrific. Perhaps it’s too much of what it doesn’t need, and not enough of what it does. Or maybe it’s something simpler — maybe it’s that Marvel’s reach finally exceeded its grasp.
Eternals is now playing in theaters.