I had the rare opportunity since the onset of the pandemic to see a movie in the theaters opening weekend. My wife and I elected to attend the earliest matinee on a Saturday and were the first to purchase tickets to anything that day, according to the box office attendant. We strapped on masks, got our popcorn and Coke, and settled in for the two and a half+ hours of the latest Marvel film “Eternals”.
Buckle in; this won’t be pretty.
Movies do not need to be this long. Yes, this is an epic film that spans centuries, but we don’t need to see all of those centuries on screen.
But I’m being unfair. “Eternals” is a lengthy film, second only to “Captain America: Civil War” in the MCU, and its length is somewhat necessary to encapsulate all the story presented. However there are large sections in this film that are sloooooooow.
One can’t expect this to be a slick 90 minute action romp. There are nine – count them, NINE – principle characters who need introduced and fleshed out in order for the story to make sense or matter. It would have been nigh-impossible to do stand-alone films prior to this because of the characters’ very genesis.
One of the reasons “The Avengers” worked so well is every character was introduced either in their own film or as a supporting character in a prior film. We had an idea who they were and what the brought to the table before Loki opened a portal and attacked Manhattan.
New film; who dis?
The Eternals were literally created at the same moment, given the same task, and sent to do it. As we go, we learn their powers and abilities, but only in so much as “This one shoots lasers from his eyes, that one heals, that one is super-strong,” etc.
What would normally be its own movie had to fill the first chunk of the film. “Civil War”, while admittedly long, earned its runtime because we knew all those characters and understood the conflict before the Marvel Studios logo even graced the screen.
But who are these guys? Weird aliens from space before time began and their sole purpose is to fight psychedelically-colored tentacle creatures because a giant robot in space told us so? It’s a lot to accept, even this far into Phase 4, but let’s keep moving.
Linear stories are for wimps
The story jumps around in time a lot, so make sure you’re taking note as you watch. We start in the far past when the Eternals arrive on Earth to defend it from Deviants, the aforementioned party monsters. Only later do we learn the origin of those guys, but that might be a spoiler, so never mind.
Then we’re present day and all of them look great still (rude) and we follow Sersi, (Gemma Chan) in London and meet her cutie boyfriend Dane (Kit Harrington). A massive earthquake rocks the planet and we learn this is a precursor to a global event that may be the end of life on earth as we know it.
You know; that old chestnut.
Time to get the band back together because, obviously, after hundreds of years, nobody talks to each other anymore besides Sersi and Sprite (Lisa McHugh), who is unfortunately trapped in the body of a tween for a millennia. When a Deviant attacks them in London, Ikaris (Richard Madden) shows up with his aforementioned laser eyes and helps save the day.
First place they go is to – say it with me – NORTH DAKOTA to find Ajak (Selma Hayek), their former leader. Sadly, they are too late as she is found dead in her back yard, seemingly attacked by Deviants. Rallying the rest of the team bring Gilgamesh (Don Lee), Thena (Angelina Jolie), Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), Druig (Barry Keoghan) and Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) into the mix.
Remember how there are NINE members of this team?
Between flashing back and forth through various key points in history, we learn of their rise as near-gods to the peoples they helped to realizing their mission to defeat the Deviants was probably finished, so they go their separate ways. Keeping the timeline intact in one’s mind is tricky enough, but we also travel to Australia, Mexico, and Iraq to name a few places. All before we truly know what this story is all about.
Here’s what works
Everyone is fantastic in their roles. Chan does what she can with the paper-thin character of Sersi. Madden plays the stoic Superman-proxy with aplomb, despite his limited character development. Nanjiani is the comic relief (thank god) but not without the character’s own problems down the line. McHugh handles most of the emotional core of the film, fittingly as the apparent youngest member of the team, though only body only. Henry plays probably my favorite character in Phastos as he is one of the few to have moved as far from his old life as he could, being married with an adopted son. Also the first openly gay superhero in the MCU! Jolie and Lee work well together, mirroring Black Widow and Hulk somewhat in their caretaker/ticking time bomb relationship.
The action sequences were very well done. This many movies into a franchise, it’s easy to become disenfranchised with yet another scene of two superheroes punching each other, but I thought Academy Award-winning director Chloe Zhao did a solid job creating her own style. We’re also introduced to some important characters literally at the end of the film. And (searches notes) that’s about it.
Oh, they do explain why they didn’t intercede against Thanos, so points for that.
Here’s what doesn’t work
It’s very hard to make a dramatic superhero movie. The success of the prior films is the mix of comedy and action. Sure, we have some tear-jerker moments scattered throughout, but never before have we had a straight-up dramatic Marvel movie. Zhao’s previous work is three features and four shorts, but that Oscar in her pocket gives her a lot of clout. Not enough to make this film work, however.
It’s so long. So, so long. The middle slogs so much, I almost got up to use the restroom; a huge no-no personally as a movie-goer. Also based on how many people were audibly snoring during our screening, I don’t think I was alone in thinking this. There are too many characters and not enough time to get to know them or enough development to really connect with them. Or, even worse, the ones I did connect with were either more minor characters or met their demise sooner than I hoped.
By far the weakest point of the film is the overall story. There are Celestials and ancient gods and 17 different points in human history (exaggeration) and globe-trotting locations, which makes it very difficult to get footing as a viewer. Having learned their lesson from collateral damage in previous films and fans saying, “Uh, a crap load of innocents died in ‘Avengers’, guys”, more and more Marvel movies are getting set in barren locales, either void of human life or void of any civilization.
The climatic battle of this film is on the Canary Islands and, while beautiful, this lessens the perceived threat to the world. Thanks for not killing a bunch of people, but also who knows this is happening/who cares? Without spoiling the ending, I did have the thought, “Yeah, duh” when they have to defend their actions.
I’d say don’t trust reviews, but…
This is currently trending as the lowest-rated MCU film on Rotten Tomatoes at 47% and, sadly, I understand why. That does not mean you should skip this film! It is well-made, well-acted, and important to what’s to come in Phase 4 and beyond. As an actor, I never like to say “wait for streaming” because there are so many people involved in filmmaking that I want everyone to see everything in the theaters, buuuuuuut you can probably wait for this to be on Disney+ in a couple months. Hopefully it tees-up great things to come and I’m excited for everything coming in the next few years.
Rating: 2 out of 5 Snack Packs
Lincoln L. Hayes is an actor and writer in NYC. Follow his ramblings on Twitter @lincolnlhayes, especially if you like cat pictures.