Marvel’s Eternals: Great Lore; Weak Characters

The further we get away from Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings, the more I retroactively find myself to be disappointed with it. It was a movie that started off very strong, with that martial arts fight aboard a San Francisco bus and ended up as just another one of those messy action sequences where almost everything happening was CGI. Plus, with how good the series have been on Disney Plus, by comparison, the movies I’ve seen this year have been a little underwhelming.

Is that also the case for the latest MCU release: Eternals…

Eh, yes and no. Honestly, I did go into this movie with lowered expectations. None of the trailers especially did anything for me leading up to the movie. But in my head, I thought: “Hey, maybe this is going to be another Guardians of the Galaxy, and will blow my socks off”. But then the reviews started coming out and they were very mixed. So when it came to watching this movie, I’ll admit that there may have been some increased level of obligation than there usually is when it comes to watching a movie in the MCU.

Three hours later, coming out of the cinema, was I satisfied? Yeah, I’d say I was, but maybe not for the reasons Marvel and director Chloé Zhao wanted.

Okay, I’ll break it down.

In terms of this movie being a whole new source of lore for a whole new corner of the MCU with a whole new level of scale, I loved it. The Celestials themselves, the origins of both the Eternals and the Deviants the revelations behind their purposes were things I found exceedingly cool. Literally any time a Celestial was one screen, It was in awe. I mean that literally too, the utter sense of scale of these beings was represented so well every time we saw them.

To the point where the ending scenes of the movie had this gargantuan hand and face poking out of the ocean in the background of every scene… I’m a sucker for all those Lovecraftian horror images you find online of massive creatures in the oceans or in space of incomprehensible scale, this felt like that done with a real budget.

Where the movie didn’t work for me as much was, unfortunately, anything to really do with the leading cast.

The movie is led by the ten Eternals; extra-terrestrial beings that arrived on Earth 7000 years ago to protect humanity and do battle with monsters called Deviants. All while quietly shepherding and encouraging Humanity’s development without outright giving them advanced technology to speed them along. In short, they’ll protect us from the alien threat of the Deviants, but anything else that happens: we’re on our own. Which is the movie’s good out for why we never saw them in any of the things that happened during the Infinity Saga.

And I get that these unaging, ancient beings have been among humanity for a long time, seeing individuals they care about come and go in the blink of an eye. Maybe that would make you detached. But oh boy this set of characters are uninteresting. I’m never going to be able to stop making comparisons between this and Guardians in my brain; for a movie that introduced a number of leads in one movie and made them all interesting, entertaining and active in the movie right from the get-go.

Whereas I think Guardians succeeds amazingly, Eternals really doesn’t. For the most part, the main cast feel really flat to me. Feeling little more than archetypes pulled out of a mould rather than complex individuals who have had thousands of years of life to shape who they are as people. Despite the larger cast, our actual lead in the movie is Gemma Chan as Sersi, an Eternal who can change the properties of any material through touch. She’s an alchemist, like Edward Elric.

And opposite her is Richard Madden as Ikarus, her love interest and partner for almost all of the years they spent on Earth before they suddenly broke up a few hundred years before the beginning of the movie. He can fly, shoot golden laser beams from his eyes and is a very clear Superman allegory. I mean, the movie just goes and hangs a lantern on that fact at one point in the movie it’s so obvious.

Although, is this the first time we’ve seen a reference to the DC universe existing within the Marvel one? Even as just entertainment media? I’m not sure.

It was during the movie’s introductory sequences, where we see Ikarus flying around, Lauren Ridloff’s Makkari blurring around at super speeds and Angelina Jolie, Thena jumping around with golden spear and shield that I quickly realised that all of these characters are just standings for DC’s Justice League. They’ve got a Superman, a Wonder Woman, a Flash and even a Cyborg in Brian Tyree Henry’s Phastos.

And in my head, the majority of the characters never seem to get much more depth than that to them. I mean, they’ve all lived such long lives that what kind of character arc could any of them possibly have at this point that they haven’t had already. We see characters like Phastos and Druig (Barry Keoghan) come to resent their mission and how they must watch humanity destroy themselves and be unable to do anything about it, but that’s all in flashback.

The real arc is from Sersi and how, as she becomes the leader of the Eternals after the death of their initial leader Ajak (Salma Hayek) and learns the true nature of the Eternals. Okay, so Spoilers here. We learnt that the Eternals are actually hyper-advanced machines created by the Celestials and sent to Earth to protect them and grow their population, all for the eventual purpose of sacrificing their sentient energy to birth the seed that sits within the planet’s core and give birth to a new Celestial.

Y’see, this is the kind of shit I loved in this movie. It’s all so cool conceptually to me. Coupled with the fact that we learn the Deviants were also created by the Celestials to cull the predators on a world in order to promote the evolution of intelligent life. Only, there was a mistake when making them, allowing them to evolve and take on the natures and appearances of the things they killed. Something that eventually led them to begin attacking the evolving intelligence in a drive to gain sentience themselves.

This aspect of the movie feels like one of the biggest wasted opportunities of the Eternals, one that gets brushed under the rug a little bit during the climactic scenes of the movie. But I’ll come back to this one.

While all these ideas are amazing to me in terms of world-building and lore, they’re let down by a cast and a script that really underplays the magnitude of the events that are taking place around them. When we learn of this truth, it’s very easy for us, as the audience to see it as a bad thing. After all, we’re biased. But if you take a step back and look at it from the outside perspective, at a grand scale. It’s just a necessary stage in universal evolution. We just so happen to have the bad luck of it being us it’s happening to.

But the thing is, once the Eternals themselves learn of this plan, there isn’t really much of a moral dilemma over the whole thing. I mean, they were lied to, sure, but this is is a massively vital part of the growth of the universe. The creation of a Celestial seems like a really important thing, which means more stars, planets and civilisations can be grown. And yet almost all of the Eternals just treat it like it’s something to be stopped.

I would have liked to see more of a division between the groups and a real argument about whether Sersi’s instant conclusion that the emergence of Tiamut needs to be stopped. To which everyone agrees. The only one to actually continue to believe in their true purpose is Ikarus. And notice how I saw true purpose there, which might make him sound like he’s become a little unhinged. Welp, that’s because that’s exactly how the movie presents it.

All of a sudden, with the idea of defying their Celestial leader being thrown about, Ikarus goes into a murderous rage and starts fighting the rest of his friends. I really should have seen this coming to be honest. At this point, if you’re going to have a character in your movie that is supposed to be a direct parallel to Superman, of course, he’s going to become the unstoppable bad guy at some point in the movie. Because God forbid we allow the core of the character of Superman to exist in any shape or form these days. But yeah, they just paint the guy who wants to follow the original plan as a murderous villain, so actual moral dilemma is conveniently shelved.

It’s too bad that neither Serci nor Ikarus have a lick of charm between them, because otherwise this could have been a lot more dramatic. Honestly, the best characters in the movie are pretty relegated to the side-lines. To me, the best characters in the movie are Gilgamesh, played by Don Lee, who is very funny and charming throughout. right up until the point he gets killed off. Then there’s also Kumail Nanjiani as Kingo. Who, along with his valet Karun (Harish Patel|) almost steals the movie in every scene they’re in.

Nanjiani is so charismatic and charming throughout the movie, dropping one-liners and then swaggering around firing finger lasers and Hadoukens during fights, all for the camera that Patell’s character follows them around with, recording the story of the Eternals. Honestly, I loved Harish Patell in this movie, he was such a sweet guy, one who really does have the soul of a hero. Admittedly, a somewhat childish vision of heroes what the Eternals do, but nonetheless I loved the pair of them in the movie.

Which is why I am so perplexed that both of them vanish during the final battle sequence of the movie. Just before the final battle, and the plan is hatched to put Tiamut back to sleep, there is a rift amongst the crew, where Ikarus admits his role in the death of Ajak and vows to stop them if they try to prevent the Emergence. At which point Kingo throws his hands up and says that none of them can stand up against Ikarus and leaves.

I thought for sure, he was going to jump back into the movie at the very last minute. Getting his Han Solo rescue moment, which would be incredibly fitting for the swashbuckling rogue he was playing in this movie. But nope, he just walks out and we don’t see him again until the end of the movie where everything has already wrapped up. Wait, what? How does that happen? He might have been the best character in the movie and he’s not there for the final battle?

Honestly, of the whole cast, he’s the one I would like to see get his own standalone project. It just seemed like such a massive wasted opportunity.

Speaking of wasted potential, I want to get back to one of the other issues I had with the movie: The Deviants.

The Deviants are these CGI creatures that feel like these hybrid animals. Like the rest o the characters in the movie, there is some connection to ancient mythology to their appearance, this being the Chimera of Greek legend. They’re creatures that can absorb the attributes of creatures they kill, meaning that some of them look like Wolves while others have wings and can fly.

At a point in the movie, one Deviant kills Ajak and absorbs her power to heal. From absorbing the essence of an Eternal it gains some level of sentience and caring instinct for its own kind, healing them and giving them additional powers. Later still, this same Deviant is able to kill and absorb the super-strength from Gilgimesh. At this point, it takes on a much more human appearance and gains true sentience. At this stage in the movie, we’re introduced to a whole new element to the story that we never even thought about before.

These Deviants are just animals, following their instincts. And yet, their creators denounce them and send Eternals after them to essentially commit genocide on their kind. At which point, I was kind of on the Deviant’s side, they’d never had the opportunity to talk for themselves and plead against the absolutely tragic hand they’d been dealt. Just like humanity and their role in dying for a Celestial to be born, the Deviants weren’t given a choice of how they wanted to live or die.

Except, unlike humanity, nobody is standing up for the Deviants and their right to live. Except for this one who managed to gain a mouth. It ends up being such a waste when he eventually gets reduced to little more than a target for Thena’s revenge. Sure, there are more Deviants out in the Universe, but considering how little attention this movie seemed to want to give the creatures and their own rights, I’m not sure if we’ll see them standing up for themselves.

The Eternals are creations that learn they’re being lied to and manipulated, the only thing they have to look forward to is an erased memory and then to be sent to do it all again. If anything, the Eternals should be brothers in arms with the Deviants if they really want to rally together against their creators…

And herein really does lie my strongest feelings about this movie. There is so much potential in there from a storytelling perspective. I don’t think the Celestials are villains. They’re forces of nature just going what needs to be done to keep the Universe ticking over. They’re like Galactus, a character whose appearance in the MCU feels like it has been delayed significantly by the introduction of the Celestials and their very similar role in the destruction of planets.

The thought of Eternals, Deviants and Celestials all going to war with one another, betraying one another and making alliances sounds like this fantastic ongoing story, one on a scale the rest of the MCU would probably mostly oblivious to. It’s the potential of the story that excites me.

But what do I feel about the Eternals as an individual movie… eh, it’s okay I guess.

Honestly, we’re getting to the point in the MCU now that I feel merely being within the shared continuity is the one thing actually carrying some of these movies forward. Had this been an original movie, with no connection to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and something made to kickstart a whole new movie franchise to follow, Like Dune for example. I strongly feel like this movie is one that would bomb. Or at least perform very poorly in the box office. All of the interest and excitement from this movie comes from how it could potentially affect the rest of the MCU.

Without that, what does this movie have going for it? None of the characters are especially memorable in my eyes. Kingo and Karun being the sole exceptions. Cerci actually has powers that could make her the most powerful of the Eternals, but doesn’t seem especially interested in doing anything about that, as a lead she feels pretty uninteresting, and I never feel like her love and connection to humanity as a whole is established in the movie strongly enough.

Even her connection to Kit Harrington’s character, while cute, makes it seem like she just wants to save her human boyfriend rather than humanity itself. In a movie full of allusions and parallels to the Justice League and Superman, I felt like it would have been a much better conclusion to the movie to have Cerci stand up and make the Superman-esque speech about the potential, the goodness and justice that they deserve to the guy who is floating there like Superman.

But instead she’s just a shrinking violet whose strength comes from a quiet determination.

I really can see why this movie is getting such a mixed reception. All of the best things about it feel like they come from the potential stories and characters that could come out of it, but as a single movie in of itself, I feel like Eternals is lacking. Some of the visuals are stunning, but most of the cast feel shallow, maybe because attention is spread too thin, the moral dilemma that really should sit at the core of this movie is left on the table and what we get is one of the worst examples of how Marvel’s homogeneous storytelling style ends up giving us movies that seem afraid to tonally and stylistically step out of their deeply established norms.

2021 has been a real success story for Marvel and their T.V. shows. Entries in the franchise that mostly do feel like they’re branching out, doing something different and reaching to try and say something. By comparison, the movies have felt very stilted and predictable in what they’re trying to do. If I were to be as cynical as I could possibly muster, I’d say there were elements of them trying to recapture what Black Panther did for certain underrepresented sections of the fandom, only to fall very short by comparison.

The only movie we’ve got left for this year in the MCU is Spider-Man, which I hope to dear God is better than the three movies that preceded it. I’m not sure if I could take it if we got another bad Spider-Man movie.

I liked bits of Eternals, but not the bits the makers probably wanted me to like. If you’re a die-hard Marvel fan, you’re not going to need to me help you decide whether you want to go and see this movie or not. If you’re on the fence or just not that committed, then I’d say you’re not missing out on just letting this one pass you by. Or waiting for it to hit Disney Plus in a few months time.

I don’t know how many years its going to be before we see any of these characters again, but at the very least I’ll be intrigued to see which aspects of this story Disney chose to focus on when it gets its inevitable follow-up. It makes me wonder how much of Disney’s strategy is making a movie they know isn’t going to be up to snuff, but doing it anyway because of the characters and lore it could potentially create to work with further down the road.

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