Marvel’s Eternals: How Chloe Zhao’s bland MCU movie wastes its immense potential
Marvel Studios Eternals has divided critics and audiences like no other film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Previously, movies like The Incredible Hulk and Thor: Dark World disappointed many, but still managed to squeeze into the “fresh” category on popular review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes.
The Chloe Zhao the director, however, has a score of 48%, which essentially means less than half of critics thought it was worth it. Even most of the film’s positive reviews make it seem like they apologize for absolutely excoriating it. On Metacritic, another review aggregation site that has a more nuanced system of rating movies, shows, and games, Eternals fared slightly better, with a score of 53.
Before we go any further, here’s a spoiler warning if you haven’t seen the movie. Look at it, then come back.
What went wrong with Eternals, given that it came from the production house that fascinated this generation like few others have managed to do over the years? Despite the reviews, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a monster with sidekicks across the world.
First, let’s briefly recap what the movie is about. Eternals says the Avengers were only the second team of superheroes on earth, and the titular superhuman and quasi-immortal beings called Eternals, have lived secretly among humans since 5,000 BC, around 7,000 years before the birth of the ‘Avengers initiative.
Their heavenly overlord called Arishem told them that they were the protectors of the earth and that they were tasked with destroying the Deviants, their destructive counterparts. But the Deviants are apparently dead, but the Gentiles apparently received no further communication from the Celestial.
The premise certainly sounded interesting, and a capable director could have done a lot of good things with it. Zhao, however, IMHO, is not. I’ve only seen one of his other films, the very famous and Oscar-winning drama Nomadland, and I have some reservations about that.
Anyway, let’s start with the positives.
Marvel directors often don’t have a lot of freedom, but it looks like Zhao has managed to win, for better or for worse. There are aspects in Eternals where Zhao’s independent sensitivity improves the product. The film looks exquisite for the most part – the sweeping sweeping landscapes, the clever use of sunlight, natural lighting, and the actual locations.
Even CGI and computer-aided visual effects don’t seem as intrusive and are actually pleasing to the eye. Zhao has said that she took inspiration from Zack Snyder’s DCEU movies, and it certainly seems true. Whatever your opinion of Sndyer, he can certainly create some memorable visual images. The action is pretty good too. At least in a visual sense, Eternals is a step up from most MCU movies.
The cast doesn’t disappoint either, with a few exceptions like Richard Madden. Man cannot act at all. Angelina Jolie’s character, by far the most interesting character in the film, is strangely overlooked for some reason.
The Celestials are suitably cosmic and truly feel incredibly powerful and unknowable in a divine way. There the good things end. The Eternals plot is obsessed with the answer to the question the writers probably thought was on everyone’s mind: why Eternals didn’t help the Avengers in the fight against Thanos.
Also, why haven’t they intervened in many destructive and violent wars, genocides, atrocities, the Holocaust, etc., asks Kit Harington’s character Dane Whitman of Sersi (Gemma Chan). The response is as bland as one might expect, that they have been ordered by Arishem not to intervene unless the Deviants are involved.
It’s hard to imagine Sersi and Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), who are more connected to humans than their Eternal comrades, standing idly by as people kill, loot and rape each other around them, and destroy habitats. natural resources to plunge the planet into the abyss. The real answer, of course, is that Kevin Feige, the Tsar of the set, hadn’t thought of including the Eternals storyline until the end of the Infinity Saga and all of the shebang with Avengers: Endgame.
The film could have tended to make the perils of blind loyalty its central idea, in the sense that Ikaris, essentially Marvel’s Superman, adheres to his orders despite all the other Eternals expressing their dismay at the impending death and destruction. . Then it could have been a movie worth committing to.
Instead, what we get is a collection of ideas, and none are explored deeper than the surface level.
Zhao and other writers postulate that war helps humans develop new technology and grow taller, which is downright ridiculous, and that’s why Arishem wanted the Eternals not to interfere.
It is revealed towards the end that Arishem sent the Eternals not to protect humanity as they thought, but to let them populate the planet until they could feed the Heavenly Egg inside the earth core. The Celestial would then come out and destroy the planet in the process. The Eternals would then be responsible for helping the other planets to nourish life, until it too gives birth to a celestial and is destroyed.
It sounds like an awkward nod to climate change. Clumsy because it is deeply flawed. The reason the Heavenly Baby would come out is not a peculiar fault of humans, but simply because there are too many of them, enough to hatch a Heavenly Egg. Climate change, most climatologists agree, is not due to overpopulation, but to overconsumption. Zhao seems to have fallen into the Malthusian trap that we saw unfold in Infinity War and Endgame. While Thanos was clearly the big bad, his idea, that destroying half the life of the universe to ensure the other half thrived, was shown to be not entirely devoid of reason.
Humor is one thing that defines MCU movies. It’s the absence of it that defines Eternals. There are the usual one-liners, but they fall totally flat for the simple reason that most of them are poorly written. In one scene, Druig (Barry Keoghan) mocks Kingo by saying something like “Kingo, the movie star”. To which Kingo replies: “I have also made films”. The dialogue is so bad that you would feel awkward for the actors, most of whom are from much better movies.
There are of course weak attempts at representation. Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) is superb, and is the highlight of the final act. But why did Arishem create a hearing-impaired Lord? Why isn’t each Eternal as powerful as Ikaris and as physically strong as Gilgamesh (Don Lee)? It would certainly have solved a lot of problems. Why do the Eternals have different accents? Why do they only speak English when they are alone?
There is indeed a gay kiss, a first for the MCU, but it’s shot half-heartedly with the clear intention to appease members of the gay community but without confusing the predominantly straight audience. The kiss is also marred by the fact that Phastos, the perennial gays, was partly responsible for the erasure of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as he developed the technologies that led humans to invent nuclear bombs.
The excuse for a sex scene that everyone is talking about is so awkward and so completely devoid of the chemistry between the actors, that it would have been better if it hadn’t been there. The two participants, Sersi and Ikaris, have reportedly been a couple for thousands of years, and yet the porcelain dolls have more expressive faces.
Exacerbating every issue in Eternals is its uneven pacing, which at times stretches a lifeless scene for no apparent reason, and cuts through sections that could have been thematically important and made it more meaningful.
The post-credit scenes promise good things in the future. But then you know a movie is bad when the best thing about it is what comes after the credits start.
Eternals is a mess, a mess, but a mess nonetheless. There is a much more interesting film under all these wrecks. In better hands, the film could have been something special. All Zhao has provided is a bland, drab movie.
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