There are very few Marvel Cinematic Universe projects that can be simply dismissed as bad or inessential. But that doesn’t mean they all are home runs.
“Eternals,” in theaters Friday, is the third MCU film of the year following July’s “Black Widow” and September’s “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.” As usual, Marvel spared no expense with this lavish production about immortal beings coming out of the shadows to protect Earth from a literal Celestial threat.
A lot of accomplished directors have tried their hands at making a Marvel movie, but none of them were coming off winning best director at the Academy Awards like Chloe Zhao did earlier this year. No other filmmakers can compose landscapes or sunsets shot like hers, and anyone who saw “Nomadland” will recognize her gorgeous handiwork in “Eternals.”
Though there’s definitely some fun to be had with this film beyond Zhao’s glorious compositions, “Eternals” ends up being one of the more overwrought and, frankly, silly additions to the MCU canon. It was a respectable idea to go for the kind of melodrama that’s often absent from MCU films, but the spectacle ends up overshadowing any real emotion coming from the complicated dynamics between this makeshift alien family.
The story of “Eternals” spans multiple millennia, basically starting in ancient Mesopotamia and running through the present day. Yes, an explanation is provided for why the Eternals never intervened in any of the other major conflicts in this series and why they suddenly feel the need to reveal themselves in a post-”Avengers: Endgame” world. It technically makes sense, but only in the broadest possible terms.
Their backstory is easy enough to follow. Basically, the Eternals were sent to Earth by ancient beings known as Celestials to eradicate creatures called Deviants. Ten Eternals have been here for more than 7,000 years: Ajak (Salma Hayek), Sersi (Gemma Chan), Ikaris (Richard Madden), Thena (Angelina Jolie), Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), Sprite (Lia McHugh), Druig (Barry Keoghan), Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) and Gilgamesh (Ma Dong-seok).
After splitting up due to seemingly irreconcilable philosophical differences, the Eternals reunite in modern times after Deviants begin popping up again. They slowly begin to understand what’s really going on and learn more about their true purpose on Earth, which doesn’t sit well with some of them.
Marvel movies are all brightly colored theme park rides at their cores, but “Eternals” might be the most beautifully shot of all thanks to Zhao’s impeccable eye for the most aesthetically pleasing version of any given scene. It has that same unmistakable sheen as every other MCU film, but at least this time it’s covering some breathtaking sunsets and some brutally staged battles between the Eternals and Deviants.
It was clearly a conscious decision to intersperse the 21st-century story with flashbacks to how and why the Eternals decided to separate, though it may have been a smarter choice for clarity’s sake to just lay it all out chronologically. Their individual motivations for disbanding and how that manifests in the present day mostly track. It does, however, eventually feel like a convoluted excuse to set up the need for getting the band back to together centuries later.
One of Marvel’s signatures has been a certain level of cheeky humor to keep proceedings light. “Eternals” is one of Marvel’s least funny films yet, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but also means there’s less to break up some monotonous and, frankly, slightly boring interplay between the main squad. Nanjiani’s Kingo provides most of the film’s laughs, but “Eternals” is definitely more focused on the drama of it all than on comic-book giddiness.
Of course, that doesn’t mean “Eternals” skimps on the action. This film relies a lot on CGI throughout, even for a Marvel movie. All the magic and monsters look great, though certain fights devolve into folks blasting energy at each other and end up feeling more like a live-action episode of “Dragonball Z” than an epic MCU duel.
Everyone on screen does their best with the material and it’s commendable that they were able to complete takes where some of this dialogue didn’t send them into giggling fits. Chan steps up the most as Sersi, who may be extremely powerful but has to learn not to doubt her instincts. She has a reasonable romantic connection with both Madden’s Ikaris and fellow “Game of Thrones” alumnus Kit Harington as her human boyfriend, Dane Whitman.
The rest of the cast do their best to leave no questions about what they want and hope to gain by who they ultimately align themselves with before the final showdown. Jolie and Henry leave the strongest impressions as Thena, a warrior who can’t always trust her own mind, and Phastos, the group’s technology guru who might have the most to lose of anyone if the situation escalates too far.
Of the three Marvel movies released in 2021 so far, “Eternals” is definitely the weakest. That doesn’t mean it’s without anything to recommend, especially Zhao’s direction and a few particularly fun mid- and end-credit surprises. Just enjoy all the pretty vistas Zhao composes and do your best with some of the film’s more contrived plot elements.