As the third entry in the pandemically hobbled, TV-enhanced Phase 4 of the MCU, Chloé Zhao’s Eternals is not a film that frustrates because it misses an obvious target, plunges down the wrong path or even mangles the source material. In fact, it doesn’t really frustrate at all. Instead, it just kinda … occupies time? Oh, plenty of things happen, but, weighed down by 11 or so narrative arcs of mostly “bland new” superheroes—creator Jack Kirby’s signature style and energy is mostly absent—while also dutifully doling out a millennia-spanning, massively predictable larger plot, Eternals never really feels that connected to the greater MCU. Instead, it feels like a well-shot but rather densely packed educational film on some other comic universe, one filled with off-brand heroes and the usual array of power sets.
Taking place over, oh, all of human history, Eternals features a group of mostly beautiful beings sent here long ago who, in a series of flashbacks, are shown to realize that humans are pretty cool sometimes. Occasionally, when two of them stand really near each other, there’s some stoic smoldering, without much chemistry. By the end, most of them are still around and yet another cataclysmic event has been avoided, and tourist destination created. (Between this film and Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, I will say celestials love to impregnate Mother Earth.)
But when the tidal waves subside and the post-credit scenes have faded to black, there’s not much that will stick with the viewer. The result is a film that’s less frustrating than it is perplexing. Eternals is less a “How did they miss?!” and more a “Why aim there at all?” or even, “How could one hit that target in the first place?” It’s the first film in long time that doesn’t seem to serve any greater purpose for the MCU (other than hoped-for box office, I suppose). Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor: Ragnarok opened up the cosmic corners of the MCU; Ant-Man and the Wasp, the quantum realm; Doctor Strange and WandaVision, the magical. Add the multiverse of the recent Loki series, and the doors have been thrown open in a manner reflected in most of the titles of other (eventually) upcoming Phase 4 entries. Yet, with Eternals, what’s new? What’s exciting (besides Dane Whitman)?
Granted, not everything has to work toward a grand design. If Eternals had merely been an enjoyable ensemble one-off—an Ocean’s Eleven or Knives Out of the MCU’s very own!—that could have been delightful. But there’s no real magic, Marvel or otherwise, happening here. Effective ensemble storytelling is powered by a narrative shorthand whose central ingredients are time and the familiarity derived from it. For genre films especially, the demands of time can be cheated, a head start of sorts provided, by time spent with the characters outside the film. Joe Johnston may have still had a specific version of a story to tell—and scenes to set and characters to introduce—in 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger, but he also had a surplus of familiarity and good will to work with in telling a story anchored by a character with whom the audience would be largely familiar. Created in the 1970s (along with Shang-Chi), the Eternals are a legitimate answer to the question, “What Marvel comics team is more obscure to non-comic book fans than the Guardians of the Galaxy?” But whereas Guardians of the Galaxy had a sentient tree, a talking not-a-raccoon, a tattooed maniac, a green-hued assassin and Peter Quill, Eternals has twice the number of protagonists and they are all basically humans in different-colored skin suits. Captain America: Civil War had those numbers, but every character had a robust comic and movie pedigree, allowing the Russo brothers (and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) ample opportunity to say less, show more and advance the plot without mind-numbing exposition.
Ultimately, Eternals feels like a $200 million holding pattern—perhaps even a fallback position determined in the somewhat distant past when the Inhumans were unavailable. For the strange times we live in, I suppose the film fits with an MCU post-Endgame era that started with a movie-length baton exchange between Widows and followed up with one helmed by tier-C hero Shang-Chi (albeit featuring a Grade-A Marvel archvillain). Still, for all the at-the-time bold steps taken by Kevin Feige and company during the birth and adolescence of the MCU, Phase 1 opened with a murderers’ row of top-tier heroes—Iron Man, Hulk, Thor (with Captain America batting cleanup)—and let that build to the first Avengers film and beyond. Eternals is unlikely to leave audiences wanting more (or remembering much), though it may well whet the appetite for the day when the Fantastic Four and X-Men finally arrive.
Director: Chloé Zhao
Writers: Chloé Zhao, Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo, Kaz Firpo
Starring: Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Kumail Nanjiani, Lia McHugh, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Ridloff, Barry Keoghan, Don Lee, Harish Patel, Kit Harington, Salma Hayek, Angelina Jolie
Release Date: November 5, 2021