Assumed audience: People who care (at least a little) about our popular culture; and people who either have seen or do not care about being spoiled on Eternals, because this post discusses it freely.
Last weekend, Jaimie and I watched Eternals — one of the most recent of Disney/Marvel’s unending slate of superhero movies. Eternals is Marvel doing what it has been doing since Iron Man came out now almost 14 years ago: grabbing characters most people in the public have never heard of and turning them into blockbuster movies. But Iron Man was Marvel doing that with a second-tier character — with nowhere near the name recognition of Spider-man or the X-men, but someone that a nerd-adjacent person might have heard of.
The Eternals are not someone that almost anyone would have heard of. They were, as I understand it, a Jack Kirby creation in the 1970s, when Jack Kirby was doing a lot of drugs. (I, like most people, have never read any Eternals comics, and they definitely did not appear in the handful of Marvel comics I did read back in college.) The movie makes a game effort to mostly ignore the wackier bits of the Kirby parts and to tell an interesting story with these characters, and it succeeds better than it should, given the fundamental silliness and incoherence of the conceit, the impossible scope of the cast (10 main characters!), and the inevitable Marvelized ending.
Honestly, it shouldn’t work at all. It’s not that it is a good movie; it isn’t. But I also keep thinking about it.
Big bad Arishem, besides being a demonic figure who claims to justify repeated genocide on the basis of future good, apparently decided for… reasons… that he would make one of the Eternals a permanent child and another of them deaf. Why? The movie does not have time for that question (despite its two hour and forty-five minute runtime). Nor do we have any explanation for why these characters have the assortment of powers that they do, nor for the particular distribution of them per planet (apparently there are lots of these, Cersi’s mid-movie vision notwithstanding), nor for the specific number of them, nor why if there are so many copies of them they have their memories wiped after their missions instead of just being replaced, nor why a being as powerful as Arishem (who can zip them up off the planet at whim) couldn’t just do that with his first creations, nor why or how the absorption of memories and identities into a particular Deviant doesn’t change it in any way… In sum, the characterizations here fall apart at a blush.
And yet: the on-screen presence of both of those characters is interesting. Having a deaf woman acting and interacting completely naturally and normally with the rest of the cast was beautiful, and as head-scratch-inducing as Makkari was if I stopped to think about it for half a second, I really enjoyed the character as a character — even for as relatively little as we saw of her. I could say much the same for nearly all the characters. Too little development of a lot of interesting potential.
The visuals of the movie have a rather unique flavor in the context of the Marvel-verse. A far heavier use of location shooting and a distinct cinematographer’s eye gave this movie a different palette and a consistently different feel than Marvel’s heavy-on-CGI standard. At the same time, the CGI which is present is even more boring than usual. Chloé Zhao’s directing and Ben Davis’ cinematography were nothing striking — except in the context of a Marvel movie, where they were very striking.
The visuals are one of the things I keep coming back to as I think about the movie. They have nothing like the brilliance of Arrival, still less of something far more indie like Slow West. But they were a tiny step in those directions and away from the visual sameness of Marvel movies to date. It was nice. It could have been more.
For the score, I have almost nothing good to say. The theme is catchy, in the way of Ramin Djawadi themes, but it has otherwise nothing to commend it: it is just as nondescript and generic as nearly every other Marvel movie entry, the culmination of Hans Zimmer’s style having taken over the entire industry. In this regard, it stands in contrast to the rest of the film. Whereas the rest of the film has at least the shadow of a good movie in it, this score is truest to the Marvel formula.
Here, in fact, is perhaps the greatest failing of the Marvel film franchise: an utter lack of vision for how their film scores could mark out distinctive identities for each film, each character, with an eye to meshing them effectively at the meetups. With the few exceptions in Silvestri’s work for the Avengers and Captain America, Jackman’s work on Captain America and the Falcon, and a very distinctive set of motifs for Wakanda, the films have stuck to safely generic modern movie scoring tropes, to their great loss. (Even those more distinctive bits are also all still quite safe!)
On the runtime: the film, despite its length, was rushed in many places. Key arguments — perhaps the most interesting possible point of conflict in the movie! — go by in a blaze, the basic gist of the conflict (“Should we stop this baby Celestial from destroying all of human civilization, or let it exist so it can help create more life in the universe?”) set out and then left alone in favor of the required Marvel fight scene at the end. Likewise, the plot’s turns are incredibly predictable, and it left the one potentially interesting (if still predictable!) turn off the table in favor of Angelina Jolie swinging CGI weapons through a CGI bad-guy’s head.
Kingo walks off stage having chosen not to fight any of his friends, and after having laid out the only possible case for the Celestials… and having given his friends no chance to argue it. Right there was one of the two genuinely interesting hooks in the movie — the other being: what might it be like to live with humanity for 7,000 years? The movie, sadly, has time for neither of those hooks, nor the way they might relate. Had it dropped the obnoxiously CGI Deviants and focused instead on that conflict from the outset, it might have given the final confrontation some of the heft it ultimately lacked. Indeed, it might have given the whole film a gravity the entire MCU has lacked. (It turns out: ever-larger catastrophes are not the source of stakes. Moral and personal freight are.)
Instead, in the end
Superman Icarus fights most of the surviving Eternals while Gemma Chan’s Cersi turns a giant monster into stone in the middle of the ocean, her own “oh that’s new and different” powers left unexplained (presumably for a future entry), until the “hey, we’re both really hot” dynamic which passes for their love story makes him decide not to kill her and instead to fly into the sun in a remarkable moment of nominative determinism. And after that, big bad Arishem shows up and says, “So you killed a Celestial. Whatever. I may let the humans live if your memories show they measure up to my standards. KTHXBAI.” Any seriousness the movie might have had was completely undermined by its last 25 minutes: and no surprises there!
The more I reflected on this particular point, though, the more I came to understand why the movie kept sticking in my head. The movie as it stands is… fine. It is just a standard Marvel-quality movie with a few nicely distinguishing characteristics and a few failures which fell out of its oversized cast and a runtime unmatched by actual gravitas. I understand why others found it boring, though I did not. But I keep thinking on what some of the moments in this movie could have been, almost were — but were not. There were hints of a movie that I think I would have really enjoyed: a much less safe film, and frankly much less of a blockbuster. No doubt that’s why it wasn’t that film.
But wouldn’t that have been nice?