If the Marvel Cinematic Universe were a person, it would be smack in the middle of puberty, having been born in 2008. Perhaps it is fitting then for the MCU to have some growing pains. The release of Eternals on Friday brought with it the most mixed reviews of any Marvel film to date. Most teenagers or former teenagers can sympathize with some mood swings, right?
This is not exactly a review of Chloe Zhao’s Eternals. If you are coming to me after opening weekend to figure out whether you should see it or not, you’ve probably made your choice already. I did enjoy the film and was glad I got the opportunity to see it on the big screen.
I aim to provide some solid information about the film, sling some takes, and join the conversation. If you haven’t seen it, you can learn about it and I’ll give you proper spoiler warnings. If you’ve seen it, maybe you can nod your head along or shout at your phone in frustration at said takes.
So, Handsome, you saw The Eternals. What did you think?
I did yes, thank you. I liked the film. I read some reviews going in and I still wasn’t sure what I was about to watch unfold. I thought it was beautiful, the action was good, and honestly, the run time didn’t bother me. I did feel like the script had some clunky moments, particularly in the third act.
The thing that struck me the most—a positive—was just how visually stunning it was. Chloé Zhao was able to make people in colorful superhero costumes walking through a Mesopotamian village look gorgeous. Also, not to be a dick about it, but it’s Eternals, not The Eternals.
You sound kind of lukewarm on it.
No, I don’t think so. I take some time to digest this type of movie. My instant reaction was that I liked it. It’s too easy to walk into a pun about a movie called Eternals being too long. Instead, I’ll say that I appreciated that it looked and felt pretty different from other Marvel movies.
If they are going to be the standard for pop culture, I’d love it if they did try different genres or perspectives on these stories. That’s exactly what made Thor: Ragnarok and Dr. Strange so successful. They went with a different visual style in this one and I would love to see them push those boundaries even more. They really tried to make a character study inside of an otherwise typical action movie. It was refreshing.
Interesting. Let’s get into some specifics. You mentioned the characters and there sure are a lot of them. Did it feel like too much? How were the performances?
Introducing ten new characters, and actually more, is a lot. The movie could be twice as long and it still would not cover everything. The creative team did a good job hitting the big moments, but with so many mouths to feed, when major events happen early on in the film, I did not connect to those characters or their choices. How’s that for a vague, no spoiler-y answer?
The performances were all superb. As we watch their character relationships grow through thousands of years, each actor brings the requisite mix of gravitas, sincerity, and humor to that scenario. The fact that Angelina Jolie is billed, what, fourth, in this movie is nuts. It’s like a strong basketball roster: 12 players and they all need to know their specific roles to have team success. This group pulls it off.
How did you feel about the pacing of the flashbacks and the story in general?
I think I should start with the stock backstory, just in case this is the first thing anyone sees about the movie (hi Mom). The Eternals are a group of superpowered aliens who come to Earth in 5000 BCE to save blossoming human civilizations from another group of aliens, the beastly Deviants. The Eternals are created by Celestials who are solar system-sized, god-like beings. The Eternals stick around on the planet and foster humanity’s growth while fulfilling their charter to leave human-on-human conflicts alone and only get involved in conflicts with the Deviants.
OK, I gotta jump in here. Going back to the characters…uh…Based on that description, I’m just wondering why there is an Eternal who’s a kid and another one who’s deaf?
Whoa, man. This movie is a triumph of diversity. Honestly, I thought it was awesome that the movie never once calls attention to the fact that Lauren Ridloff played a deaf superhero. Her fellow Eternals use sign language. She is charismatic and badass. I loved it.
I meant in the world of the story why would—
I LOVED IT.
Let’s get back to the story.
Fine. How did the story unfold? I have seen reviews that criticized Zhao’s pacing. There are a lot of long beats of people staring at sunsets, sure. I mean, it’s not as slow as Nomadland and it has 100% more laser eye beams to spice it up.
My real analysis is that sequences and individual scenes had some jarring cuts in and out of them, but the parsing out of information was well laid. The flashbacks built on each other quite well. In some scenes, a Deviant will just pop in like Kramer and muck things up. Those are two different pacing metrics, and thus the mixed review makes sense.
You were comfortable with the run time, then?
If they wanted to trim some material, I would cut the entire Deviants plotline.
Aren’t they the villains?
I mean, technically.
You want to cut the villains?
There is a lot of interpersonal character study happening in Eternals. That conflict was five times more interesting than winged or tentacled CGI monsters growling and thrashing all over the place.
The film is grounded by the use of real locations and a masterful understanding of natural light. I would have preferred it if the main conflict focused on this practicality to the extent possible. Like any family, the Eternals do not always agree and that conflict was the real heart of the story.
All that whining finished, I did like the action sequences. They are just as gorgeous as the stark landscapes. My point was just that you could take some of the Deviant battles out to streamline the thing.
Now I have some more specific questions. Are there any moments that might feel a bit awkward with my small, but not too small child?
Yes! The first sex scene in the MCU! Sorry, is this a spoiler? Tony Stark and Star-Lord both wake up with some kind of woman in their beds. Captain America’s whole cinematic arc is about a dance and a kiss. We’re getting thrusting now?
Is Jon Snow involved?
I won’t say. I will just say that Kit Harrington might be in more of the end credit than the rest of the movie.
What are the Motherboxes?
That’s from that Justice League Movie.
I feel like I’m losing my grip here.
Ask me more about the diversity.
…When is it diverse?
Is that a question? Whatever. I know we touched on Lauren Ridloff’s involvement, I just wanted to go a bit deeper. Marvel started its reign with three cis white guys and now has a truly diverse cast of characters, including their first openly gay character. Bryan Tyree Henry’s Phastos is a tech genius who cares about his family above all else. He also shows some combat chops. Don Lee’s Gilgamesh demonstrates that his strongest muscle might be his heart. Gemma Chan’s Sersi must make complex leadership decisions, showing equal compassion and strength.
My point is that these characters are not one-note side characters, they’re fully realized three-dimensional portrayals. (spoiler coming up) I would even add that the greatest warrior among them is a 46-year-old woman with the Eternals version of dementia.
My only criticism of these portrayals is how disappointing the kiss between Phastos and his partner ended up being. Their moment of love should look and feel just as passionate as the sex scene from earlier in the movie. I’m very glad the moment happened and there is room for improvement.
I cannot stress enough how valuable proper representation can be. Normalizing our differences is so important. Dealing with issues spanning from sexual identity to mental health in a movie about people that can fly is meaningful because that’s exactly how to subtly start vital conversations. The love, bravery, compassion, empathy, and even anger of these characters is not solely dependent on or related to aspects of their identities.
Is Iron Man in it?
What? Spoiler Warning!
That was in Endgame! How about I talk about the greater MCU connections? With Marvel’s Phase 4 in full swing thanks to the Disney+ shows and Shang-Chi, I was a bit relieved to see that this film was largely a stand-alone. There are some references to the Avengers, but one could actually see this movie, and enjoy it, without seeing many of the other films. I did want to know what Phastos’ thoughts on Tony Stark’s tech abilities are, but maybe I can get that in the sequel.
I have two other nitpicks. (SPOILERS- SKIP DOWN TO THE NEXT QUESTION)
The Eternals face a tough choice at the end. Do they save the billions of lives on Earth and stop the emergence? Or do they follow faith in Arishem and believe that billions and billions of lives will be created if the Emergence goes through? It is a real question of moral proximity. We tend to care more for people the closer they are to us. Both emotionally and physically. This is an augmented test in that respect.
Kumail Nanjiani’s Kingo decides to remain neutral in this final conflict. My issue is that we never circle back to him until the very end of the movie. And while he’s wearing an incredible turtleneck when we do meet back up with him, there is no resolution to that decision. I would have liked to see if he joined in the uni-mind with the others while he was away from them. It just felt weird to me to completely sideline him.
My second nitpicky question was around Sersi’s ability to turn the Deviant into a tree. She states that she can’t transform organic matter and everyone is surprised when she does. That ends up being vital to the conclusion. They were on earth for 7,000 years! She wasn’t trying to push herself or do any sort of experimenting in that time? The only logical conclusion I could come up with was that the connection with the Emergence that she uses later was already starting to affect her. Maybe?
OK, second-to-last question. If you were trying to start an article with some sort of opening paragraph, what kind of metaphor would run through it?
I think the idea that the MCU is in its teenage years is spot on. This movie plays right into that. This movie is like the MCU started painting after school and getting really serious about its “art.” It also slept until noon and then stayed out really late. By that I mean, the first act is a touch slow and the whole thing is long.
But just to reiterate, you would recommend it?
I would give it 3.5 out of 5 Celestials. I do recommend it. I am a huge comics fan and I had no idea who the Eternals were three years ago. Kevin Feige, the Marvel Czar, and the whole team have not been afraid to take these types of swings. They know we all want an X-Men movie and yet they can make this far inferior team interesting. They pulled it off with Guardians of the Galaxy and while I don’t think this will be as financially successful, we are still in the middle of a pandemic.
To put my recommendation in context, I rank Eternals right up there with Shang-Chi and high above Black Widow in terms of the Phase 4 offerings. This film is worth the watch for the lighting alone. Even if I wasn’t writing about it, I would still be thinking about the characters and their individual journeys. To make that more active, I AM still thinking about the characters and the mise-en-scene of the movie. The more time I’ve had to digest it, the more fondly I think of it.
Thanks for your time. You are an excellent interviewee.
No, thank you. You asked fantastic questions.