“We’re putting the band back together. We’re on a mission from God.”
Seven thousand years ago, the Celestial named Arishem sent the Prime Eternal, Ajak (Salma Hayek), to lead a team against the scourge of the invading Deviants, ensuring humanity’s survival to become the dominate species on the planet Earth. As heroes of myth and cast as demigods of legend, the appearance of these advanced beings and their deeds capture the imagination of humanity, passing down stories to future generations and embellishing them with each retelling. After thousands of years believing the Deviants defeated and with their team secretly spread among the populace of Earth — waiting to be recalled to their home planet Olympia — Sersi (Gemma Chan) discovers a secret that will change her teammates forever and seal the fate of Earth… if it’s not already too late.
More obscure than Guardians of the Galaxy, “Eternals” were an attempt by Marvel Comics to seed Earth’s back story with champions of alien origin. It’s neither a new idea in fiction nor one in the MCU, but it does beg the question: shouldn’t the Asgardians or Captain Marvel have known about these powered folks by now? Marvel fans also knew Thanos the Mad Titan was himself an Eternal, but these beings didn’t lift a finger to stop him because their mission was inexplicably more important? The trailers seed these mysteries and more, meaning that the universe is about to expand again, but are both devoted and casual Marvel fans ready to learn the petty squabbles of Earth are insignificant next to the power of the Celestials?
By the time viewers catch up to the main characters in the present, these immortal beings are tired, believing their mission accomplished ages ago and enduring millennia with varying degrees of success. It’s angsty and lovelorn but adds few revelations to the who-wants-to-live-forever trope explained in flashbacks, further complicated after discovering their task wasn’t as complete as originally assumed. What Eternals manages to do well is tie dangling story elements from previous MCU films together, universe-explaining rather than world-building, including multiple back story montages. It’s everything fans expect from Marvel Studios while still feeling a bit hollow — more Black Widow than Shang-Chi — but it’s no secret the info dump is going to be important to future films.
There’s more story here than could ever realistically fit, and trying to hit the bullet points makes it impossible to shore up a three-act structure; it’s just too much to work in. Making this a pair of films or even a Disney+ series like “Loki” or “WandaVision” might have served the story better without beating viewers over the head. For all the wonder and splendor, more than a few things fall through the cracks, like when characters recall how many thousands of years between major events take place, or why Lauren Ridloff’s Makkari uses ASL (American Sign Language) in ancient times pointing to her wrist for time… when wristwatches won’t exist for another five millennia. Forget about the myriad accents of the ensemble, because the film glosses over it, too.
Coming off big wins from last year’s Nomadland, Chloé Zhao’s unique direction makes Eternals better than it might have been from a less-visionary director. The same kind of inherent innocence and steely resolve to endure is present in both films, whether it’s from a woman who chooses to wander or an ensemble of powered beings on-mission waiting to be called home. Gemma Chan’s Sersi is the heart of the story, focusing upon her relationship with each of her fellow Eternals through disagreements and betrayals in spite of only having one another to relate to. It’s also nice to see Angelina Jolie playing matron warrior Thena as a scene-stealing secondary character instead of in a story rewritten to make her role more important aka Those Who Wish Me Dead.
Most of what makes it to the final cut is fuel for the imagination, from obvious references to Greek gods and Arthurian legend to sea monsters and dragons, but the finished product can’t help but feel like viewers missed out on a lot of awesome to fast-forward to the end of their story. Diehard fans will find much to digest herein, but mass audiences may cringe at the downtime between big set pieces and action sequences. Be prepared for a mid and after-credit hints at what’s to come, but think twice about that jumbo drink when hitting the theater.
Eternals is rated PG-13 for fantasy violence and action, some language, brief sexuality, starting the flick with an opening crawl, and Jon Snow still knowing nothing.
Three skull recommendation out of four