A decade ago, having multiple leading characters together in one film was thought of as a disaster waiting to happen. These days, since the dawn of the new era of superhero films, ensemble casts in major blockbuster films are the norm. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (“MCU”) proved as much with heavy hitting films like Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, that were more ‘major events’ than just blockbuster films.
Having proven that a single film can certainly handle more than a handful of major characters while giving them all equal importance, there was little doubt in anyone’s minds that Marvel Studios’ could knock it out of the park again with their latest ensemble superhero film, Eternals. So why didn’t I walk out of the cinema feeling that same adrenaline rush, excitement and satisfaction that I had when walking out of The Avengers and its sequels?
Eternals, directed by award winning independent filmmaker Chloé Zhao, was meant to be the superhero film of the year, being the first introduction to the superior non-human team of heroes. Withsuch hype since the announcement of the film, followed by the reveal of an all star cast comprising of Angelina Jolie, Barry Keoghan, Brian Tyree Henry, Don Lee, Gemma Chan, Kit Harrington, Kumail Nanjiani, Lauren Ridloff, Lia McHugh, Richard Madden and Salma Hayek, one would have expected the film to have been on par with Avengers: Infinity War, or at the very least, The Avengers.
Unfortunately, much like the Greek mythology of Daedalus and Icarus, Zhao’s Eternals flew too close to the Sun in its grand ambition, ultimately resulting in a lacklustre Marvel Studios film, in my opinion.
The film follows the plot of ten Eternals, a race of immortal beings created by the Celestials, the creators of the Universe, to protect Earth and mankind from the terrifying Deviants. In living among humans for centuries, each Eternal adapts to life on Earth, resulting in some questioning their duties to not interfere with human strife such as poverty, war, chaos and other non-Deviant related disasters. Of course, with any film, there’s more to the story than meets the eye.
Eternals starts off with great promise, setting up the film for a grand spectacle involving larger than life beings. The premise and overall plot was certainly intriguing and I thoroughly enjoyed the idea of the Eternals keeping watch on mankind, each with their own set of skills and abilities to protect the Earth from Deviants.
The introduction to each character and their respective abilities at the start of the film was marvelous, especially the way in which they worked together to fight off the monstrous Deviants. However, in the same way that the characters grew tired of simply standing idly by for centuries when there were no Deviant threats, the film too started to get tired, moving from what was an amazing set up to becoming more of an arthouse love story between Ikaris (Richard Madden) and Sersi (Gemma Chan).
Despite so much happening around them in terms of world building and larger conspiracies at play, Eternals felt more like “The Ikaris and Sersi Show” than anything else, which would have been fine, had there only been three or four main characters all in. Instead, the other eight characters and everything happening in the world became a secondary focus.
For example, characters like Angelina Jolie’s Thena, who was worshipped as the Goddess of War during her time in Ancient Greece, and Salma Hayek’s Ajak, the Prime Eternal who was said to be the best of them all, did not get their chance to truly shine, bar a fight scene or two. In fact, it was incredibly disappointing to see Angelina Jolie’s acting prowess be reduced to playing a character who wasn’t stable and therefore was not able to do all that much. I’d have thought that we’d see some wild emotional outbursts or some sort of anguish at not being the warrior she once was.
Speaking of characters in the film, having a solid background is so important when introducing them, especially those that we’d likely see again in the MCU. Unlike previous Marvel films that gave each hero their own film for us to get to know the characters better and feel a kinship with them before they joined forces as the Avengers, Eternals didn’t give us enough of a backstory. We were just supposed to accept that what we saw was just how they were. That lack of emotional kinship made it difficult to truly identify with the rest of the Eternals that weren’t Ikaris and Sersi, making it somewhat tough to really feel for them and their individual struggles.
Unlike that of Ikaris and Sersi, the relationships between other characters like Gilgamesh (Don Lee) and Thena (Angelina Jolie) or Druig (Barry Keoghan) and Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) were so powerful that they didn’t need the entire duration of the film to show just how strong their bonds with each other were. Though, I very much would have preferred having a bit more back story around their relationships with one another. For example, why were Gilgamesh and Thena so close? Why weren’t Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) and Makkari much closer? Where did Ajak, Sprite, and Phastos fit in when it came to being bonded to another Eternal? There were several questions that went unanswered.
Zhao’s indie filmmaking style certainly came out in this film, which was brilliant to see, however this appeared to clash with the MCU formula, which she clearly tried to keep front of mind throughout the film. This was evident in the slow pacing, disjointed scenes and rushed storyline towards the second half of the film, which ultimately caused Eternals to be neither an independent arthouse film nor a true MCU film. It almost felt as if the two genres struggled to find a middle ground that was harmonious and enjoyable. It was this struggle of trying to define what kind of film Eternals was that really had me feeling lost and ultimately, bored, in some parts.
What truly saved the film, for me personally, was the diversity apparent throughout the film. Not only was the casting choices incredible but the representation was absolutely on point. It was so breathtaking to see sign language being used so openly in the film, as well as the natural way in which an openly gay relationship was portrayed on screen. Both of these depictions were done in such an organic yet profound way that it shows just how far superhero films have come to truly represent all people. Having seen Marvel be so open to representation and diversity through its comics and other media, it was truly sensational to see that this is being incorporated more and more in its feature films too.
Of course, as a South Asian woman, I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about how gratifying it was to see the South Asian culture depicted in several scenes in the film. Viewers were treated to a traditional Hindu wedding, South Asian attire and a Bollywood number too! Not to mention the wonderful portrayal of a typical Indian assistant in Kingo’s valet, Karun (Harish Patel). Seeing my culture represented and portrayed not only in a Western film but a blockbuster Marvel Studios film was incredibly moving and allowed me to see people just like me in the Marvel film, a first to be very honest.
There were several other factors in Eternals that helped sell the film for me and paved the way for future films that could potentially be very exciting. This included Kit Harrington’s role as Dane Whitman, who we were introduced to in this film. While initially a ‘nobody’, we learn towards the end that there’s a lot more to the character that we’ll most likely see in the very near future. Not only that, but Eternals confirmed the existence of the DCU within the MCU as well, with mentions of Batman and Superman! These little nuggets are important to keep in mind because well, with Marvel, you just never know.
Overall, Eternals just didn’t do it for me as a Marvel film compared to the many other films in the MCU that we’d been given in the past. Though it attempted to do a great job of being an independent Marvel film, which I’d have really enjoyed, it was too ambitious for its own good. Perhaps the focus on Ikaris and Sersi, and not enough on the other characters, was done on purpose in this particular film. Perhaps the other characters will get their due in future films. At this stage, it’s hard to tell.
While I didn’t enjoy the film as much as I’d have liked as I sat and watched it, Eternals is, without a doubt, a game changer for the superhero genre. Having seen what it was able to achieve in the sense of diversity, I can’t wait to see what else Marvel Studios has in store for us in the future.