'Eternals' poster Marvel Studios
Director Chlo Zhaos Eternals is more Marvel movie than any other since the beginning of the MCU. He has taken many genres and sold them as superhero-plus action spectacles. Captain America: The Winter Soldier features a Tom Clancy-ish spy thriller. Ant-Man is an heist movie. Shang-Chi, a wuxia fantasy. Eternals, however, is a story about celestial superbeings, whose most important attributes are their immortality, and their arbitrary superpowers. It plays as a run-of the-mill movie at its worst. But, it's about superheroes! franchise-starter Hollywood failed to create in the wake Batman Begins and The Avengers. It is a meta-textual imitation of another brand's genre at its best. Eternals is a comic book that plays out like a Marvel movie about Zack Snyder.
These immortal aliens bear a striking resemblance with your DC Super Friends. The cast of immortal aliens bears a striking resemblance to your DC Super Friends. These people don't have the advantage of being iconic superheroes and are therefore portrayed as knock-offs.
The screenplay, courtesy of Ryan Firpo, Kaz Firpo, and Patrick Burleigh, is 2.5 hours long. It struggles to balance world-specific exposition with character development for almost a dozen new human characters. Guardians of the Galaxy introduced five new characters, three of whom were human, in a traditional narrative that required very little explanation. The to-type casting, with the exception of Barry Keoghan's fine performance against-type, does a lot. Eternals is a long-running film that focuses on the past-tense adventures these ageless protectors. Only the third and best act is devoted to present-tense storytelling. We see the same superpowered heroes shooting effects out of their hands and throwing punches against CGI-created beasts. This trick became tiresome even after Guillermo Del Toro (still-superior), Hellboy, overdosed on it back in 2004. Eternals is a movie that plays like the idea of a superhero movie featuring CGI monsters is special.
This movie is 95% standalone, just like most Marvel movies. There are awkward conversations about why Infinity War didn't feature the Eternals (real answer: the fight lasted less that a day, and the Eternals may not have known it at the time), and trailer-friendly discussions about who should be leading the now-defunct Avengers. The film doesn't really give us much reason to want more of these MCU heroes, either in a sequel, or as a part of a team-up. Nanjiani, as usual, is funny (and I love how his story plays out), and Henry is a winningly droll. But the majority of the cast come off as ordinary superheroes in an everyday superhero narrative. Technically, Gemma Chan is the film's lead. She's very good, even though she has to react to some fantastical events or showier co-stars. It still feels like a prequel to the sequel, in a way that is closer to Fantastic Four than Batman Begins.
Yes, the film is contemplative and ponderous, with a leisurely pace and casually majestic visuals which we now take for granted in an all-tentpoles/all-the-time Hollywood ecosphere. It is difficult to give credit to the film for its differences from conventional MCU movies since A) it is essentially a inferior version of a competitor superhero brand and B), Marvel movies have tried to erase the films they were trying to imitate or approximate. The film's core heroes are so undeveloped and dependent on their star personas that its otherwise admirable inclusion (Chan plays the lead role, has sex with Madden and Henry is a married gay father, and Ridloffs speed-runner, is deaf) feels like an excuse for poor character development. Let me know if Nanjianis alien is culturally inappropriate, but this awkwardly staged scene lacks the energy and verve seen in Legends of Tomorrows similar scene.
Eternals is an ambitious departure from the core MCU story. Even though I'm happy Zhao received a big studio paycheck, the film is still compelling. Although it looks beautiful, the action is repetitive and generic. The characters are mostly defined by superpowers in a backdoor pilot story. It lacks a compelling antagonist and, not unlike the first Twilight, creates a save the day conflict just in the time it takes to reach the third act. While relying on its substantial movie star charisma, Eternals, more than any other MCU movie, feels like a movie about a superhero and a movie about running out of characters. The explanations for both credit-cookie scenes and the first one will be required. It reeks of a level of despair I have never seen in Hollywood's most famous franchise. It is ironic that Marvel's biggest failure was in trying to imitate their biggest rival, considering the years of DC Films versus Marvel online handwringing.