Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB
United Kingdom/USA, 2021. Marvel Studios, TSG Entertainment. Screen story by Ryan Firpo, Kaz Firpo, Screenplay by Chloé Zhao, Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo, Kaz Firpo, based on the Marvel comics by Jack Kirby. Cinematography by Ben Davis. Produced by Kevin Feige, Nate Moore. Music by Ramin Djawadi. Production Design by Eve Stewart, Clint Wallace. Costume Design by Sammy Sheldon. Film Editing by Dylan Tichenor, Craig Wood.
At last, Marvel fans finally have a film that goes beyond magic powers and toppling buildings and gives audiences what they really want from their adventure franchises, three hours of superheroes crying. The backstory is more complicated than it ever was before, taking us to the origins of the universe when the overseeing god Arishem (imagine the Wicker Man rendered in stone) has created flawed, monstrous creatures called Deviants (where’s Anita Bryant when you need her) that need to be kept in check by the humanoid Eternals that Arishem has also crafted and sent to Earth. The Eternals’ mission is to not interfere in any human conflict unless it involves Deviants, though like most of the overly explained rules and regulations in this monstrously long film, the execution is unclear: magic scientist Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) keeps slipping humanity hints about technology like steam engines and, oops, the atom bomb (he didn’t know we’d use it for destruction despite having been here for thousands of years), while mind-control expert Druig (Barry Keoghan) keeps wanting to take over all human minds and do away with all of earth’s problems, but Eternal-In-Chief Ajak (Salma Hayek) reminds them of their directive.
Flitting about through numerous locations around the globe like a reboot of The Chipmunk Adventure, director Chloe Zhao takes us back and forth through numerous periods in history (those of antiquity looking like really great computer games) as the Eternals eventually get rid of the Deviants and, flash forward to present day, the bad guys have not appeared on Earth in centuries. Unfortunately, just as Sersi (Gemma Chan), who has a magnificent gift to transform rocks to dust, is happily living a human life with her boyfriend (Kit Harington), a deadly creature emerges from the river Thames (no surprise there) and puts the Eternals back in the fight to save humankind. It also puts her back into the path of her old friends, including ex-boyfriend and laser-eye-shooting en volant hero Ikaris (Richard Madden), and they, along with permanently youthful Sprite (Lia McHugh) must travel the earth to reunite the old gang who have scattered like the wind and are covered by more than a few cobwebs. The goddess Thena (Angelina Jolie) has been in a mentally fractured state since their last stand-off and can’t always be counted on to attack just the bad guy, her care overseen by the powerful Gilgamesh (Don Lee), while fireball throwing Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) is enjoying life as a century-old Bollywood superstar.
Eventually, Sirsi discovers Arishem’s true endgame of their fight with the Deviants and it puts her relationship to humanity and her overlord in a new light, necessitating a new ultimate plan for the messy finale, but will it be easy to get all the Eternals to follow her on her path? Hard to say given that we spend a lot of time with characters who are so vaguely drawn that, despite the fact that they are constantly breaking down into sobs over their arguments, we are never pulled into their emotional reality. Referencing numerous actual religions in the names and abilities of the godlike Eternals is meant to make them more inclusive, as are the characters’ range of sexual orientations, cultural origins and abilities (there’s also the deaf Makkari, played by Lauren Ridloff), but representation must support personality, it cannot replace the lack of it, nor does it help that the actors playing them seem completely at a loss as to what they’re doing. Jolie is the only cast member who wields weapons convincingly amid performers who seem like they put down the remote for a few months in order to do whatever their personal trainer told them, while Nanjiani’s character’s humour, performing the Marvel version of Vanity Smurf, is so canned and contrived that it fails as miserably as the attempts to create poignant drama.
The logic of a creator who keeps accidentally making flawed beings (I know, it sounds familiar, but I don’t believe in that one either) is never properly explained, nor is the fact that the Eternals are placed here to protect us but keep wanting to ditch their gig, Wings of Desire style, in desperation to be mortal like us (they’ve watched us destroying ourselves and our environment for thousands of years and they want more?) Any time the story crosses back on its own logic it tries to compensate with more endless jargon to explain yet another origin story of the universe, adding no depth but far too much gooey misery to a film that mistakenly thinks it is succeeding at its own importance by never being the least bit fun.