Review: Marvel’s drab Eternals is as weightless as its PS4-level CGI stand-ins

The Eternals in their iconic, dour class photo.

Marvel’s latest and most esoteric effort, Eternals, is the studio’s most misguided showing of brand bravado since their irredeemable (and already forgotten) Inhumans. Like that series’ two-part theatrical premiere, Eternals gives us a diverse ensemble of superpowered people, their personalities divided into The Serious Ones, The Insufferably Jokey Ones, and The Functionally and Mercifully Mute One—and for some reason they’re all always ending up on beaches. Also like Inhumans, it’s hardly worth a watch on a TV, let alone the big screen.

Based on the comic of the same name created by the legendary Jack Kirby, the film tosses out most of its coolest parts (Kirby’s bold, vibrant designs) in service of grounding all the dumbest shit (explaining how and why these different people have different ways to swing or shoot goldness, and providing sub-Friends-level jokes and love triangles). The titular stars are a ten-wide extraterrestrial, unaging (yes, eternal) crew that look like an age-progressed photo from a university brochure cover. Each has a different power that is both narrowly and vaguely defined—you know exactly what you’re getting, but you never know how good it will end up being. It’s like a purchase from AliExpress, except that it always manifests itself in this gold leaf CGI linework that is the movie’s only visual throughline outside of “sometimes we try to film in the ‘blue hour’ but otherwise gave up on giving this a look.”

As laid out early on (honestly, half the movie is just laying out its own premise, backstory, thin relationships, and thinner personalities), the Eternals were sent to Earth some 5,000 years ago to fight off the Deviants. The Deviants are some nasty critters originally created by this giant, six-eyed space dude (not even worth getting into) to kill off apex predators that would hinder intelligent life from evolving on a planet; instead, the Deviants themselves evolved into the new apex predators. And now, for reasons never really explained, they just sort of randomly show up every now and then. They look like tire art by way of Michael Bay’s Transformers and the Edge of Tomorrow aliens. Just a lazily over-designed mess of charcoal-grey sinew and limbs. One briefly even evolves to gain sentience and a more human appearance, but—surprisingly yet endemically—that’s basically a pointless footnote in the final film. There’s a lot of those here.

By now, you might be thinking, “Wait! If the Eternals have been here for millenia, why didn’t they stop Thanos or [insert major crisis here]???” Or maybe you didn’t! Either way, you will be forced to ponder the matter very soon into Eternals, because it spends an inordinate amount of time lampshading the issue.

As repeatedly laid out, the Eternals meant to deal only with Deviants; no human-to-human conflicts, natural disasters, or whatever. It would be a perfectly fine explanation were we not treated to innumerable instances where they very clearly break that rule in the most insane, pointless ways possible.

Firstly, it’s expressly stated that Brian Tyree Henry’s inventor Eternal, Phastos, gave humans basically all of its technology. From the plow, to the engine, to—Jesus Christ, the atom bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Why even bring that up!? Barry Keoghan’s Druig, capable of manipulating the minds of others, does so repeatedly, at one point living amongst and mind-controlling an entire indigenous tribe. Again, why introduce this problematic thing!? Within the first ten minutes of the movie, Gemma Chan’s Sersi, able to change matter from one form to another, saves a schoolgirl from a falling fossil by rendering it dust. For some reason that girl was fine to intervene with, but Anne Frank’s gonna have to suck it up.

That Eternals credits Phastos for providing mankind’s innovation is also utterly at conflict with its own message. Like so many sci-fi stories—about a third of all Star Trek franchise episodes, to name a few hundred—one of its main themes is that humans are so special, unique, and worthy of salvation. The crux of the film hinges on man being deserving of saving and also dating. And director Chloé Zhao makes a point, and spends a tediously indulgent amount of time, to likewise humanize these Eternals. Sersi is in a t-shirt and flannel for like half the movie. It’s so boringly pro-human, but then it’s also like, “Mankind never actually invented anything and they’re just apes we’ve given tools. Can’t even figure out the goddamn plow.” One of numerous painful running gags is that Sersi is addicted to her smartphone, and the single bit of restraint shown by Zhao is that we don’t have to see Phastos hand a CGI Steve Jobs a gilded iPhone blueprint. (Judging by the Eternals’ jokey interactions even several millennia ago, it seems the Eternals also gave mankind our modern “uh, seriously?”-style humor, so thanks for that!)

At this point, we’ve been pretty shy on plot points, and that’s not by accident—likewise is the film. It takes like two-thirds of the thing to even get to its anticipated world-ending bullshit and predictable theme of coming together to overcome. Prior to that, it’s just a series of vignettes showing our beloved Eternals (your favorites!) doing their D&D party roleplaying, introducing their one-dimensional characters, and doing some dull, consequence-free action with their aurulent space magic. We love to see Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) do finger guns to shoot his golden eggs, don’t we, folks?

That’s ultimately the film’s thing. Gilded in the Marvel brand, this otherwise completely forgettable sci-fi/fantasy spectacle is offered as cinematic riches. It’s not. The Oscar-winning Zhao deserves better, as do even Marvel-gobbling audiences. At 157 minutes, Eternals—to exhaust what must surely be the running trope of its lackluster reviews—feels like an eternity. Not even clearly defining a conflict for most of its outrageous runtime, one rarely knows where they even are in the narrative arc. While the film’s titles reveal where we are in human history, it would be far more helpful if they offered up where we were in its two-and-a-half-hour-plus runtime.

Promoting the film, Zhao boasted that Eternals contained Marvel’s first sex scene. It indeed does—and it’s one that’s perfect for this movie. Presented from the shoulders up, the brief scene uses its time to make clear that sex is for when two people love each other. Incredibly childish, and why wouldn’t it be? Bringing in a high-profile, Oscar-winning indie director hasn’t suddenly made a Marvel movie into Adult Art. It’s splashed some seaside pastels onto Yet Another Marvel Movie. A long, drab, joyless Marvel Movie with a raison d’être of introducing some characters no one should ever reasonably want to see again. The post-post-credits promise that “THE ETERNALS WILL RETURN” is this action movie’s most dire threat.

Grade: D+

Director: Chloé Zhao
Studio: Marvel Studios
Runtime: 157 minutes
Rating: PG-13
Cast: Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Kumail Nanjiani, Lia McHugh, Bryan Tyree Henry, Lauren Ridloff, Barry Keoghan, Ma Dong-seok, Angelina Jolie, Kit Harington, Salma Hayek

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