Marvel’s Eternals is a film with many issues, partially redeemed by its final act. It’s riddled with flashbacks and infodumps that make it hard to get into, and also attempts to introduce a large, entirely new cast of characters that are hard to care about until the very end. I wouldn’t recommend it to people who aren’t big Marvel fans – but if you are, you should watch it at least once, because it sets a great deal up for the future of the Marvel universe, and it’s not quite as mediocre as the first half makes it seem. Make sure to stay until the very end, as there’s two post-credits scenes.
The film’s biggest problem lies with its attempt to introduce the main cast of characters. We’re immediately thrown into the fire, needing to learn about and remember the names, abilities, and personalities of ten wholly new characters. Marvel has generally been good with introducing new characters in times past – the advantage of individual films linked set in one cinematic universe. Eternals stumbles because it’s the equivalent of releasing Avengers first, without the prior six years and five films to let us learn and grow to care about the characters portrayed within. The results are predictable – the plot is mainly driven by the decisions and character moments of one or two main characters while the remainder fall by the wayside. This is oddly reminiscent of the many criticisms of some of DC’s superhero films of the recent past, which made it all the more frustrating, watching it all unfold on screen. About 17 years in, one of Marvel’s greatest strengths lies in knowing what works, and learning not only from their successes as well as their mistakes, but those that others have made. Despite this, I do think Eternals somewhat succeeds. By the end of the film, I was genuinely invested in some of the characters, and more importantly for the film, its plot. Unlike other films, Eternals has the luxury of an almost guaranteed sequel, and you can be certain we’ll see these characters again. The promise of future development makes up for the lack of current development, at least for Marvel fans who will continue to see these films unconditionally, myself included. If you’re not the same, your mileage may vary.
As for the plot, on the surface it’s pretty standard Marvel fare, but as the movie continues, you begin to get the sense that not everything is as it seems. We begin with the resurgence of a threat to our main group of characters, but this gives way to an even greater threat, dwarfing that posed by any other. This threat, and the discussion surrounding it, is perhaps the greatest strength of the film, and the one that redeems some of the missteps in character building. There are several antagonists, and all have believable motivations. One even has a clearer moral code than most of the heroes, despite being so alien, and so far divorced from individual, mortal struggles that our perspective can render it only as evil. Another antagonist fights for nothing more than pure survival, evolving past their first, destructive purpose – a hard motivation to hold against them, despite their being opposed to our protagonists. The final antagonist emerges very late in the film, and exists in opposition to our main cast because it is their very purpose, owing their existence to fulfilling that purpose. While Eternals only lightly touches on this theme of opposing morality, it also gives you enough room to think on it if you care to, and while that certainly doesn’t make the film suddenly great, it does cover up some of the mistakes committed earlier in the film’s runtime. In fact, with this greater moral conflict, we’re able to get a greater look into our main cast, and it adds a great deal of depth and shines light on their motivations in the eleventh hour. I think this is a lesson Marvel has learned well from their portrayal of Thanos in Infinity War, and I hope to see more antagonists challenging the morality and principles of our heroes going forth into this next phase of the Marvel cinematic universe.
As for other strengths and weaknesses, the film is just outright beautiful. The environments we travel to, the design of the characters, and most memorably, the scale and look of the film’s final confrontation are truly breath-taking. Generally speaking, the powers of the characters, as well as their portrayal and utilisation in the film, make for interesting and well-done action scenes, even though their impact is somewhat limited by a lack of care for the participants due to their underdevelopment. As for weaknesses, the performances have to be mentioned. I think the content of the story limits the ability for the actors to emote in a way we’d associate with award-worth performances. Nobody’s winning an Oscar for their appearance in Eternals, which is fine, but the somewhat wooden performances did make it even harder to connect with the characters. It’s a weakness brought about by the greater strength of the story – how can you portray an alien superhero’s reaction to utterly surreal, even more alien morality: bargaining the destruction of many lives for the future birth of a great many more? Gemma Chan and Richard Madden’s characters are especially affected by this, but nevertheless they were the two characters most easy to connect with at the end of the film, purely because of their choices with regards to the film’s great moral choice. The rest of the cast are good enough to pass muster, but the veteran acting experience brought to the table by Angelina Jolie and Salma Hayek does set their characters somewhat above the rest.
Overall, there are still some minor gripes to be made, mostly to do with issues in pacing due to an overreliance of flashbacks, and needing to get the team back together for the final act, but Eternals is pretty much an average film. It’s one of the worse Marvel films we’ve seen, but I can’t help but credit it for its attempt at breaking away from the established Marvel formula. Eternals can be seen as an almost experimental film when set next to the rest of the catalogue. The relative failure of this experiment means we’ll likely be seeing a return to form in the future, but you can see Eternals as a refreshing take on a Marvel film. Because of that, I would absolutely recommend it to any fans of Marvel or other Superhero films, but don’t bother watching if neither of those particular things interest you. If you do go see it, remember to stay to the very end for both post-credits scenes.