Eternals: A Beautiful Info Dump, by Tyler Smith
Chloe Zhao’s Eternals is Marvel’s latest foray into cosmic expansion, which started with the first Thor and continued into the Guardians of the Galaxy films, ultimately leading to the introduction of Thanos. These attempts to grow the Marvel universe can be applauded for their ambition, but too often the incorporation of new mythology clashes with the mainstream blockbuster instincts to simplify for all audiences. Soon, whatever visual or mythological novelty these films contain gets bogged down in extended scenes of exposition, creating a sluggishly-paced film that too often feels like a very expensive Wikipedia entry. Zhao does what she can to elevate the tone and narrative stakes of Eternals, but her film isn’t immune to these same pitfalls and the result is a great-looking, well-acted film that never seems to invite its audience into the elaborate world it is working so hard to create.
With such narrative complexity, it can be difficult to describe the story without giving away too much, as there are big reveals every thirty minutes or so. The long and short of it is that thousands of years ago, cosmic beings known as Celestials sent out a group of super-powered beings known as Eternals to defend mankind against a race of murderous animals known as Deviants. Having successfully accomplished their mission thousands of years ago, the Eternals go their separate ways, remaining on Earth until they are commanded back to their home planet. As our story begins, Eternals Sersi (Gemma Chan) and Ikaris (Richard Madden) reunite when a new Deviant reveals itself, forcing them to get the rest of the Eternals back together to figure out the mystery of its existence.
Of course, we know that at the core of that mystery is a series of lies and betrayals that force the Eternals to question their purpose and the perceived benevolence of the Celestials themselves. This is hardly a spoiler, as it all fits into the larger Marvel narrative, in which the systems in place meant to protect the status quo – from S.H.I.E.L.D. to Stark Industries to the Presidency itself – are shown to be corrupt, ultimately used as instruments of oppression and death. Marvel’s continued attempt to undercut its own mainstream status by embracing a cheap anti-establishment stance could have worked in small doses, but when it’s as consistent as this, it actually works to undermine the story elements, as the audience will inevitably find itself waiting for the big moment when it turns out “nothing is as it seems”, knowing from the outset that it’ll come sooner or later. In the case of Eternals, however, these reveals work with the rest of the material – which sees our heroes lamenting the specific sins of Western Civilization while never quite finding the time to witness any Eastern transgressions – to suggest a uniquely counter-cultural agenda that can be off-putting in what battles it chooses to pick. This would-be punk rock stance is better left to the atrocious superhero series The Boys instead of a film as lofty as this.
The cast does what it can, which is saying a lot. The film features a strong ensemble of reliable actors whose earnestness and humanity help to bring these otherwise-flat characters to life. Faring the best is Kumail Nanjiani as Kingo, the cocky Eternal who reinvents himself as a Bollywood star. Nanjiani has always been able to bring a nice mix of arrogance and insecurity to his roles, and his ability to stand outside the portentous tone of the film while still being invested in the story is refreshing. The always-interesting Barry Keoghan and Brian Tyree Henry turn in solid supporting roles and every moment spent with them is a joy.
As dependable as the cast is, there’s only so much they can do with a script that is so laden with exposition. While the mythology of the film is fascinating, it is so dense that the only way to clearly convey it to the audience is to bring the action to a halt so that the film can all but pull out a whiteboard and explain it directly to the audience. Even the best actors struggle when burdened with this much pure information to communicate, and the film suffers for its refusal to allow these cosmic concepts to speak for themselves and let the audience try to catch up. Certainly, nobody goes to a Marvel film expecting 2001: A Space Odyssey, but one can’t help but wonder how invigorating it would be if these films – which have embraced formula to such an extent as to become rote – took some narrative and stylistic risks and let some concepts remain nebulous.
To be sure, the visual aesthetic of the film could more than stand up to any ethereal qualities that the director might have embraced. While not quite matching the gorgeous look of Chloe Zhao’s previous film Nomadland, the beauty with which she and cinematographer Ben Davis capture the Earth’s landscapes – as seen through the eyes of immortals – cannot be overstated. Where the script is too often reductive of the grand concepts being contemplated, the camera and visual effects genuinely convey a sense of cosmic scale, both intimate and epic.
In the end, Eternals is a fine movie – and sometimes significantly more than that – that is too mired in exposition and predictable, franchise-informed plotting. It takes a few narrative risks but quickly sabotages them by overexplaining them. As always, it will be interesting to see where the Eternals fit into the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, but that may be the primary point of interest here. And when the audience is more enticed about what will happen next than they are engaged with what is happening right now, that’s an indicator of a lack of immediate investment on the part of the storytellers, who are possibly too weighed down by the details of this particular mythology to find creative and exciting ways to explore it.