Marvel’s overstuffed space opera Eternals is a muddled mess

November 5, 2021
Marvel's overstuffed space opera Eternals is a muddled mess

Even before the arrival of Eternals, critics were raising concerns. In Hollywood, the force more powerful than Uatu the Watcher — the Rotten Tomatoes score — started dropping, with the film currently ranking as the lowest in MCU history. 

So how did a movie from an Oscar-winning director and an army of A-list talent fall so low?

CBC movie and Marvel experts Eli Glasner and Jackson Weaver break it down and deliver their verdicts.

Space Gods, galaxies and deviants (oh my) 

Panels from the original The Eternals issue #6 by artist and writer Jack Kirby, circa 1976. (Marvel Comics)

ELI:  The Eternals are supposed to introduce something majestic, a new galactic scale to the Marvel Universe, beginning with the arrival of massive celestial beings who we’re told are responsible for essentially seeding the cosmos. 

Like bespoke Power Rangers, the Eternals arrived thousands of years ago, hovering above the Earth in their sleek triangular spaceship.  With their colourful costumes and array of powers, they were designated as our planet’s protectors, keeping the evil deviants in check. Similar to Star Trek’s prime directive they were told not to interfere in human affairs, but have lived among us for thousands of years waiting for the deviants to return. 

Gemma Chan has the most screen time as Sersi, the Eternal who can change the physical properties of inanimate objects.  She works at a museum during the day (I guess Wonder Woman gave her career advice). But the return of the deviants brings her old flame Ikaris back. Richard Madden played the stoic hero who flies about with a flapping loincloth zapping people with his eyebeams.  But this is only the latest version of these superpowered protectors. 

JACKSON:  For sure. The Eternals has been through numerous reboots and retcons — the age-old comic book tradition of altering old plot points at will —  throughout the years.

While main character Sersi — and, to a degree, Richard Madden’s Ikaris — remain mostly consistent, the rest are barely recognizable. The characters Ajak (Salma Hayek), Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) and Sprite (Lia McHugh) have been gender-swapped from their most common depictions. Brain Tyree Henry’s Phastos is depicted as a married gay man with a child, and others — including the comic’s original “prime Eternal” Zuras — are completely ignored.

Arishem the Celestial who judges planets is a sign of the cosmic scale Eternals aspires towards. (Marvel Studios)

While changing aspects of their source material is nothing new for Marvel, the extent to which the characters are altered here speaks to why The Eternals never really worked. The comics did not see mainstream popularity, largely because the truly ensemble-style story never landed on a clear main character — instead dragging up a different one of the Eternals’ 100 members to focus on for each outing. 

Even readers of comics had a hard time latching on to a favourite character when it was always so difficult to pin down who any of the heroes really were.

Kingo, played by Kumail Nanjiani, uses his energy blasts to keep a deviant at bay in a scene from Eternals. (Marvel Studios)

Too many heroes, too little time

ELI:  It’s a pity because the idea of secret celestial sleeper agents living among us certainly has potential.  But the film’s biggest problem is there’s just too many of them.  There’s a good reason the modern Marvel era started with Iron Man, then Hulk and Thor,  slowly teasing out the characters’ backstories and connections. Imagine if The Avengers was the first Marvel film and spent half the time introducing Black Widow, Hawkeye, Captain America and more. Eternals has that problem multiplied by ten and without the pre-existing pop culture familiarity. Many of us had heard of the Hulk at one time or another, but Thena? Phastos? Ajak? Druig? 

With four credited screenwriters including director Chloé Zhao, the result is a story filled with shallow character sketches. Then, just as we’re still getting our bearings, we’re thrust into a cosmic showdown.  And by the way, where’s the rest of the MCU? Dr. Strange?  Captain Marvel?  A cameo would have been great but everyone else seems missing in action.  

From left to right, Karun (Harish Patel), Kingo (Nanjiani), Sprite (Lia McHugh), Sersi (Chan), Ikaris (Richard Madden), Thena (Angelina Jolie) and Gilgamesh. Just some of many new characters introduced in Eternals. (Marvel Studios)

JACKSON: I can’t say I’m surprised. The Eternals was never supposed to fit into the Marvel super-hero world, and required an incredible amount of exposition over multiple years to do so. 

Comic book legend Jack Kirby was first inspired to write The Eternals after reading Chariots of the Gods? Unsolved Mysteries of the Past,  a 1968 book about alien contact with a prehistoric Earth. He meant to keep the final product separate from the universe of Iron Man, Captain America and Thor, but was pressured by editors to meld them together. 

Unfortunately, it was no easy feat to connect a story about society being forever altered by the discovery aliens once visited Earth, and a comics universe where aliens seemed to invade the planet every other day. The solution is a complicated backstory involving space gods called celestials, multiple secret human species a mysterious army called “the horde” and a peculiar force called “the fulcrum.” 

Getting all that into even a slightly overlong movie, while keeping it entertaining, is a pretty tall order.  

Brian Tyree Henry shines as Phastos, the technology expert worried about humanity’s destructive potential. (Marvel Studios)

Dull deviants

ELI: If there’s one element that marks a great superhero film, it’s a villain who can hold their own. Consider: the chaotic energy of Heath Ledger’s Joker from The Dark Knight. Killmonger nearly stole the show from Black Panther. Heck, even the Scarlet Witch had Agatha all along.

 While Eternals features the all-powerful celestial Arishem pulling strings behind the scenes, too much of the film is about battling forgettable deviants — snarling creatures that are powerful but lack any personality.  But Jackson, you see some possibilities there? 

JACKSON: While it was a challenge to force the square pegged-Eternals into the round hole of Marvel, it does allow them to significantly up the ante. The various MCU heroes have already saved their respective cities, countries, planets, and galaxies — how do you keep things exciting when you’ve already clawed back half the population of the universe?

While we don’t see all the scariest aspects of Arishem, the spooky space gods certainly open up the playing field for Marvel. And while the deviants may lack personality, they offer a potential way for the franchise to finally introduce another property: the similarly altered mutants of X Men

From Nomadland to the maw of Marvel

ELI:  After the Oscar-winning triumph with Nomadland, it was exciting to imagine what director Chloé Zhao could bring to the Marvel movie universe. With her films such as The Rider and Nomadland she showed an instinct for blending documentary with drama, recruiting real people for moments on film where the boundries between fact and fiction blur. 

But like Galactus gobbling a planet, Zhao’s unique filmmaking style has been subsumed by the mighty Marvel maw. The movie shares some superficial similarities to her previous works.  Her love of natural landscapes and a certain Western esthetic, even going so far as to have Salma Hyek icking back at her own private ranch as the leader Ajak.

But behind the golden light and endless sunsets is a film lacking the human touch that was Zhao’s signature. 

Deaf actor Lauren Ridloff plays the speedy Eternal Makkari. The deaf hero is a first for the MCU. Previously Ridloff played a deaf teacher in Sound of Metal. (Sophie Mutevelian)

JACKSON:  Zhao’s final product may not have reached the heights we hoped it would, but there are some welcome additions. Her commitment to diverse characters is a more-than-welcome change for Marvel: Phastos’ unquestioned and unemphasized representation as a gay man was both powerful and empowering, while Ridloff’s turn as Marvel’s first deaf actor to play a superhero was a remarkable milestone. 

At the same time, blurring fact and fiction when talking about human history can be a fraught endeavour. The Eternals are to thank for many of humanity’s accomplishments, instead of the real people and cultures who did so, while tragedies — such as the 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — are mined for shallow character development

Jackson enjoyed the character Gilgamesh’s fascination with cooking, and praised the performance of Harish Patel, left, as Kingo’s dedicated human valet (Sophie Mutevelian)

Ranking the Eternals

ELI:  I would like to briefly praise what worked for me.  I’d watch an entire film with Bryan Tyree Henry as Phastos the technologist. As the IT guy for the Eternals, Henry added such a soulful and heartbroken component to the character it gave us a glimpse of what the movie could have been. Also, for all the attention of Kumail Nanjiani’s new physique, his greatest asset is still his funny bone.  As Kingo the part-time Bollywood star, he added much needed levity to the overly earnest production. 

JACKSON: Eternals the movie suffers from the same thing The Eternals comic did — it focuses more on a concept than it does on characters. For that reason, I’m less impressed by Sersi’s ability to turn someone into a tree, and more enamoured by the characterization when it does peek through — like the fascination Ma Dong-seok’s muscle-bound Gilgamesh has with cooking, or the PTSD-like affliction Angelina Jolie’s Thena struggles with.

If I could stretch our definition of who counts as an Eternal, my hands-down favourite would be Karun, played by veteran stage and screen actor Harish Patel. Patel’s depiction as Nanjiani’s dedicated, though under-equipped, assistant is the highlight of the movie for me. 

Final Verdict

ELI:  I wouldn’t describe Eternals as an absolute failure but more a disappointment considering the talent involved. If you want a film that has something to say about our place in the universe, I think 1997’s Men in Black did it better.  Eternals has moments of awe, but mostly it’s a celestial bore. 

JACKSON: I’m disappointed by the movie, though not surprised. The epoch and galaxy-spanning story’s original comics run was never a commercial success, and almost every other attempt to make The Eternals work has either failed, or found lacklustre response. Still, this movie is sure to be required viewing for the committed MCU fan — though you may be better served by simply reading the NeGaiman comics and calling it a day.

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