A release delay of over a year and a review bomb campaign that sent the film’s IMDB score to 6.4 before it was even released might have made Eternals seem like a cursed endeavor. And that was before the film was banned in several countries for the same gay kiss that prompted the pre-release negative reviews, and the movie received the lowest Rotten Tomatoes score of any Marvel film (at 48%, it’s also the only Marvel film to not be “Fresh”).
But is the newest Marvel film really as bad as its reviews are claiming?
The twenty-sixth movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Eternals joins Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019), Black Widow (2021), and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021) as part of the MCU’s Phase 4 storyline, placing the primary story of the movie after the events of the global phenomenon that was Avengers: Endgame (2019).
With half of the original Avengers dead or retired, and just as many alien and supernatural threats to Earth, Eternals seeks to find new heroes worthy (or even just capable) of defending the planet. As it turns out, the opening scenes reveal to viewers, there’s no need to find a whole new line-up: a team of ten powerful super humans, known as the Eternals, have been conveniently wandering the planet for the last seven thousand years.
If the driving storyline of the Avengers franchise was “Avengers, assemble!”, the plot of Eternals could be summed up as “Eternals, reassemble!”. While the movie starts out with the group intact, and on a mission to protect humankind from the monster-like Deviants, when the prologue ends and several thousand years pass in the run of the title card, we find the Eternals separated across the globe, having parted on seemingly shaky terms.
The idea of a film with ten protagonists might seem alarming, and the tag-team-fighting nature of the first scenes can make it hard to distinguish the characters from one another. It quickly becomes apparent, though, that the real object of the movie’s focus is matter-manipulator Sersi (Gemma Chang) whose greatest obstacle is overcoming her impostor syndrome so that she can become the leader she was born to be (Marvel gets women).
Still, there are ten characters who are vital parts of the story, and the movie attempts to individualize each Eternal by introducing them one or two at a time while Sersi, her ward/fellow Eternal Sprite (Lia McHugh), and her ex husband of a few thousand years, Ikaris (Richard Madden), go on a seemingly all expenses paid trip around the world to get the gang back together. For the most part, the slow trickle character introductions work, but if all else fails, each Eternal is also color-coded, for maximized aesthetic and organizational appeal.
Another payoff of the country-hopping family reunion that dominates the majority of the movie’s first act is the sweeping backgrounds against which past grievances are hashed out. Director Chloe Zhao (Nomadland) took pains to shoot in real locations, and it shows: one thing critics seem to agree on is that Eternals is one of Marvel’s most visually beautiful movies to date. Even the rural farms of South Dakota look interesting through Zhao’s camera.
It isn’t just the background of the shots that are breaking antiquated Marvel precedents, though. Eternals also features one of the studio’s most diverse primary casts yet. Actress Lauren Ridloff, who is deaf, plays Makkari, Marvel’s first hearing-impaired hero. In the original comics, Makkari was white, male, and hearing; Ridloff is Afro-Latina. A brief goodbye kiss between the Eternal Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) and his husband was the cause of the aforementioned global controversy; both actors are men of color. Charismatic energy-summoner Kingo is played by Pakistani actor Kumail Nanjiani, Korean actor Don Lee plays Gilgamesh, the superstrong emotional anchor of the group, and Mexican actress Salma Hayek plays the motherly team leader Ajak. The character of Thena (Angelina Jolie) presents a consideration of women who suffer from mental health issues: even the best-intentioned of her friends struggle to believe what she says.
Is the diversity presented perfectly? Absolutely not. A scene that depicts the group’s strained break up 500 years before the primary timeline feels especially tone deaf when you remember that the scene occurs in 1580. It would seem like the movie takes place in an alternate universe, as none of the eight non-white-male characters express that they experienced oppression during those centuries of setting out on their own.
Eternals is doubtlessly flawed, and deserving of criticism, but as someone who has seen all twenty-six Marvel movies, I can only wonder at its designation as the worst movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Maybe I’m just tired of the spoiled playboy to national hero pipeline story, but I enjoyed Eternals considerably more than many of the Marvel movies I have seen.
Eternals might not be the best film ever made, but it manages to break the criminally overused mold of typical action movies in order to offer a beautifully shot attempt at bringing more complex human narratives to a franchise built on violent CGI battles and tokenism. It’s a work in progress, but Eternals is at least a step towards a path beyond the one that Marvel has gladly worn grooves into over the last thirteen years.