Eternals (2021)

Dir. Chloe Zhao. Starring Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Brian Tyree Henry

Eternals is not good. It’s so not-good that I actually have a hard time knowing where to start with the not-goodness of it, a problem that typically reminds me of that whiny Rise of Skywalker review that I wrote a couple years ago. It’s tough to write about plot holes or ill-conceived screenplays in a blockbuster like this without devolving into CinemaSins territory, but Eternals struggles desperately with how something can come about in favor of just depicting it. One wonders, for example, what Phastos (Henry) is doing in the middle of Hiroshima shortly after an atomic bomb struck the city. That scene has gotten more than its share of controversy, and I think a reading in good faith must understand Phastos’s lament as more general than specific. But this is the kind of scene that stands out in a movie as ill-conceived and slightly clueless as Eternals, because by its existence it gives voice to that mediocre conception. It’s the very, very serious version of Peter Parker being emo in Spider-Man 3. It’s not that it’s the worst scene in the movie, but it’s the easiest scene to point to as a mistake because it is over the top.

If one were to try to go full Hero of Haarlem on this movie, one would have to begin with the nature of the Eternals themselves. They were built by the Celestial Arishem (David Kaye) as counters to the Deviants, who turned out to be hypereffective predators and could evolve as well. The Eternals were built (spoiler, who cares, it’s a dumb spoiler anyway) to be static as well as effective Deviant-killers. Yet the divergence of its membership into three discrete camps at the end shows that there must be some kind of evolution or change. Ikaris (Madden) fights the other Eternals in order to safeguard the emergence of a new Celestial from inside Earth itself. Sprite (Lia McHugh) is in love with Ikaris and joins him against the other Eternals. Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) abstains from the battle, personally believing that they do not have the right to disrupt a cosmic cycle of birth and rebirth but also unwilling to fight to defend that principle. And then there are Sersi (Chan) and Phastos and Thena (Angelina Jolie) and Druig (Barry Keoghan) and Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), who all like or love humans too much to let them be the universe’s collateral damage. The fact that there can be this many different positions among these people is proof that they can change, because at the start of the film they were all singularly united for one purpose. The other alternative is that Arishem builds these robots with enough affect to…fall in love? disobey his will? That hardly seems to follow. Eternals, even by the standard of other superhero movies, doesn’t make a lot of sense once you brush your fingertips over the surface.

On the other hand, Eternals manages to nail a quality that I’ve rarely seen accomplished in other comic book movies. Take the Tim Burton Batman films, or The Incredibles, or, of course, Into the Spider-Verse. All of those acceded to a visual style which signified the comics themselves, a heightened, dramatized, or, in the case of Spider-Verse, actively allusive look. (This was, to my mind, the single greatest downfall of the New Mutants movie. With Bill Sienkiewicz’s instantly identifiable visual style as a starting point, there was no excuse for a film that makes your average CBS sitcom look like German expressionism.) Michelle Pfeiffer in the suffocating catsuit and the zoo exhibit masquerading as a villain’s lair in Batman Returns. The sleek Mod vibes of The Incredibles informing Edna’s costumes and Syndrome’s copycat look, as well as the spherical machines which make up the majority of his technical output. The jazzy, dizzying colors of Spider-Verse and the reliance on sound/impact cues as abstruse as “bagel!” Eternals does not meet comic book aesthetics at all, really, short of the glossy outfits the Eternals themselves wear. If I were looking for a visual analogue for the Deviants (leapin’ lizards, what a dumb name), I’d probably reach for the aliens in Edge of Tomorrow instead. What Eternals reminds me of more is Superman 1978, a film which absolutely nailed the tone of a comic book; that film works best when it’s the story of Clark Kent screwing with Lois Lane in very silly ways. Eternals is missing the jokier aspects of other MCU movies, so much so that the token efforts to squeeze those in feel especially stilted. Even compared to some of the other pointless fanservice we’ve gotten in previous post-credits sequences, the sequence where Harry Styles shows up after our three favorite Eternals have been…imprisoned?…by Arishem just feels totally off.

What it does have is the self-important, grandiose tone of comic books, that sense that there is a purpose to what these costumed crusaders are up to, that the stakes of the world are reliant on them. Other MCU movies have obviously jacked up the stakes to hilarious levels, but only Eternals feels like sitting down with a late ’70s book and reading exclamation points and bolded words and getting the sense of drama that comes with it. If the Deviants are indistinguishable from the designs of other giant monsters in other films from the past decade, then the action sequences of the MCU movies where the world is ending on top of them seem basically indistinguishable from your average White House Down style picture. There was nothing about Age of Ultron, another film in which the baddie is trying to eliminate humanity, which made the Sokovia battle feel like it had to be taking place with these MCU characters or within this particular universe. It was, in the end, just another Eastern European shootout. Eternals, with its slight distance from actual people given its focus on the robots, manages to close the distance to something more meaningful. Is it a lot more meaningful? Absolutely not. But it felt a little bit different, and that’s enough for an MCU movie to get my attention anymore.

It looks different than you average MCU movie as well, at least in the sense that it is not overwhelmed with the gray sludge of digital color grading. What’s going on is literally better, because visually Zhao is still doing that discount Malick stuff that has won her, among other things, an Oscar for Best Director. This picture has a very pure “Microsoft XP background but at sunset” aesthetic, and in its own way the final battle on a beach has all of the leveled dullness of that German airport that a bunch of nerds got amped for in Civil War. Emotionally, though, this is a film which treats its characters’ decisions with seriousness and without undercutting them with quips. Eternals is not seeking fun, precisely. Nothing that’s trying to pull from the legacy of 2001: A Space Odyssey with a giant black monolith carting around the influences that will move humans to the next stage of their evolution as a species was ever going to be light work. (Really can’t overstate what a huge mistake it was to make that spaceship look like the monolith! Why would you invite that comparison?) The Avengers was seeking fun, which is why the biggest moment in that film’s final battle is Hulk throwing Loki around and not Tony Stark countermanding Cap’s chide that he wouldn’t make “the sacrifice play.” But I don’t think Eternals is aiming for “I understood that reference” so much as it’s going for something like this:

Visually there’s no comparison. Zhao’s boutique indie palette, the stuff of hushed lens flare and faded jeans, literally pales in comparison to the bold rush of color in these panels, the transition from Jean Grey’s orange-red hair to the deep red silhouettes in the foreground to the pinkish rectangles in the third panel. And for better or for worse, the dialogue of Eternals is not the abundantly overwrought prose of Chris Claremont. All the same, there’s nothing goofy about this. I think it’s fair, if uncharitable, to look at this and say, “Yowza, this is childish and doofy, read a real book someday which can create a nuanced conflict out of something less ostentatious than the End of All There Is.” That’s basically how I felt about Eternals by the time Phastos breaks out the Uni-Mind for the anti-Celestial Eternals to use together. The stakes have been laid out. Nothing short of the fate of humanity is at stake for the heroes, a humanity that they have been witnessing and abetting and even loving for the past five millennia. There’s nothing funny about it, no real opportunity for one-liners or roguish winks. It is a battle that has the old-fashioned dourness of your average ’60s Marvel book, for better or worse, and even the same episodic and paneled quality. The villain, Ikaris, attacks. He knocks one of the arrayed heroes out of the battle. Someone gets the drop on him. He ultimately releases himself from his bonds. He is allowed to leave the scene of the battle. Where some villains do so they may return again and again, Ikaris is of that rare type who leaves to die on his own terms, self-immolating in the literal Sun. The combat in Eternals is far slower than the rapid punching that the MCU has used to signify good choreography in stuff like Winter Soldier, Black Panther, or Shang-Chi, and that in itself is a choice that makes it feel more like a comic book, where the images are static and it only goes as fast as you can read the image and text alike.

What those old comic books had that this movie never gets close to finding are compelling characters. These people are as wooden as a coffin and their demeanors are roughly as heavy. Gemma Chan is absolutely blank in this movie. So is Richard Madden, but it kind of works for Ikaris. If Sersi is meant to be secretly just as powerful as anyone else in the film and also filled with compassion and wisdom, then it seems like it’d be important for us to get to see those latter two elements surface eventually. There’s just nothing there; this is quite possibly the least charismatic lead performance in an MCU movie ever. Richard Madden is almost as blank as Chan, but it kind of works for the character. Ikaris seems like such a sociopath even when we think he’s a decent guy that the dead eyes and hard jawline kind of work for him. I don’t know how we’re supposed to believe that those two have had some kind of tragic love affair over the past several hundred years, given that I think they could be impassively stone-faced at a cat cafe. This is a failure of writing, but it’s more a failure of the two leads. Nor can anyone else really raise the standard. Salma Hayek, playing team leader Ajak, has a nothing part. Nanjiani and Henry, who I typically find charismatic, are not any better than their material. (What an indictment it is of the screenplay if they can’t find a way to get Brian Tyree Henry some running room.) The same is true for McHugh, who could be a decent actor for all I know, but whose role as a an adult stuck in the body of a child is utterly baffling. Angelina Jolie and Don Lee are both interesting, I guess, but Jolie spends a lot of time dealing with something called “Mahd Wy’ry,” legitimately said “mad weary,” that never distinguishes the story’s eighth-most important character. No movie with a screenplay this bad was ever going to reach mediocre, let alone good. Better performances would have made this screenplay feel less tattered, and it’s hard not to feel like Zhao struggled to figure out what would have made these performances better. There’s significant talent in this cast, and it’s troubling that there’s not a single actor who doesn’t make a hollow noise when you knock on their work here.

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