Monday, July 15, 2024

I Wish I Liked Eternals

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There is so much about Eternals that works as a concept. It is a sprawling superhero epic providing a sort of origin myth for Earth and the human race. An award-winning auteur was brought on to direct the film. A star-studded, proven cast put faces to the characters. The Marvel Cinematic Universe already proved its ability to make these kinds of sprawling, stuffed movies work with The Avengers and Civil War.

Everything should work. I really wanted it to work for me. I was excited for the movie to finally hit Disney Plus. Unfortunately, I did not like Eternals. I not only did not like Eternals, it easily falls among my least favorite MCU movies, alongside Iron Man 3 and Age of Ultron.

Ikarus from Eternals

The number one sin, and biggest surprise about Eternals, was that the MCU committed the one sin they had so skillfully avoided with their ensemble movies to this point; they DC-ified it. Or to be fair to the entire DCEU, they Justice Leagued it. Think about the plethora of bad decisions that went into Batman vs. Superman and Justice League. Mainly, the way it shoved so many characters into those movies and could not find a way to give any of them the attention or stories they deserved, and the utter lack of compelling villains due to the same reason.

DC rushed to make its own Avengers without putting in the work, and then Marvel turned around and did the same thing with this movie.

Eternals totally failed to do right by anyone in its cast of heroes because there are simply too many, and too much is happening. There are ten Eternals introduced, Kit Harrington’s Dane Whitman, Phastos’s family, Kingo’s valet, and they all have to fight each other for screentime and attention. Even worse, Eternals seems to take for granted that the audience is already invested in all these characters when we have never seen them once before this movie.

At least DC had the excuse of using the freaking Justice League.

Then add on top of that how Eternals also crunches the time available for ten new characters by trying to have two (arguably three) antagonists, who all fall short because they also have to share time with all the protagonists, and one of those antagonists is a former protagonist who changes sides in the last third of the movie.

Spending so much time on the Deviants, only to drop them like a bad habit the second the Celestial and Ikarus’s true motives are revealed, just feels like the movie wasted my time for the two-thirds of its runtime spent focusing on the Deviants. Pick one or pick the other. There is no time for both, especially in a movie that had so much work ahead of it to introduce so many new heroes.

Eternals tried to do both by still including some weird evolved Deviant who got no screentime and shows up just for Thena to have an underwhelming, predictable fight scene at the end. All the potential of Deviants and the heroes trying to stop the same catastrophe goes unaddressed and we get nothing from this intelligent creature who was meant to be the main villain until half an hour earlier.

I am stunned that Marvel, of all companies, made this mistake after getting this formula so right before now. They effectively established all the Avengers before the first of those movies, and almost always managed to properly introduce further characters into the mix as the Thanos saga continue. The MCU always perfectly understood the how and why of establishing important characters and pacing them properly. They just managed a huge multiversal success with like 6 different villains and three Spider-Men in Spider-Man: No Way Home. How did they so badly fail at something in Eternals that the MCU has always been so good at?

As a result, Eternals ends up with a mess of flat, one-note characters with muddled, often contradictory motivations. For example, Kingo deciding to stay out of the final battle because of his respect for Ikarus plainly makes no sense with the character we see every moment beforehand. Of all the Eternals, he is the one who most visibly connects to and cares about humanity. He was defined by his love of human pleasures.

Then suddenly he won’t lift a finger to defend them from complete extinction because of loyalty to Ikarus we did not see before, certainly not in any level worth choosing to do nothing to help.

Eternals makes this mistake far too often. It loves to tell you one thing and then fail to show it. I am supposed to believe Sersi and Ikarus have/had this grand romance that would cause Ikarus to abandon his mission to birth a Celestial, but the two characters/actors have the chemistry and spark of a ham sandwich and a bottle of water. Dane is supposed to represent the love of humanity that inspires Sersi to defy Areshim, yet he is barely in the movie and their romance is shown to be fledgling.

There are characters I wish I liked more. Phastos is probably the best character in the movie, and the one who makes the most of the limits on his screentime and development. Makkari became a quick fan favorite for good reason but gets the least amount of time and development of the entire cast. Even the things the movie almost does right are stifled by how much is stuffed into it.

You would think that with so much happening, Eternals would move at a breakneck pace, but instead, it feels glacially paced. It is a rare mistake for a movie to have so much happening and yet feel like nothing is happening for large swaths of its runtime. Things constantly bog down in stiff conversations with equally stiff performances by everyone involved.

And then I have to mention how little to none of what Eternals establishes within the MCU actually fits or makes sense within the MCU.

Sersi in a vision from Eternals

For example, we hear how Thor apparently knows Kingo and used to follow him around. If Thor knows about beings as powerful as Eternals, why did he not even think to enlist any of their help to stop Thanos? It is the most common complaint about the movie to bring up how the Eternals should have helped, but it is even worse when an Avenger freaking knows about them.

But seriously, how can the Eternals just sit out the entire Thanos saga, unknown and uncaring? If Areshim’s goal with the Eternals is to foster life along to a point where a Celestial can be born, why in the world would Areshim NOT have his handpicked champions stop someone who was going to set that plan back by hundreds or thousands of years by halving the population of all life in the galaxy? It is ridiculous.

Then you have the events of Eternals itself. Massive, planet-wide earthquakes precede attacks by terrible, unheard of monsters. This eventually culminates in a gigantic being partially emerging from the Earth as multiple ultra-powered characters beat the hell out of each other. How are the Avengers nowhere to be seen during any of this??? Does no one think to pop their head in as Earth is rocked by Tiamat’s emergence?

Problems like these always tend to pop up in comic stories, where massive planet-wide emergencies are handled by a small group of heroes while the dozens of others on the planet sit it out for no reason. Or you will have one or two heroes save a city like New York City while the 200 who call it home cannot be found. And this is why those stories tend to be annoying. It is even worse to see this in the film universe because everything has been so interconnected.

Just look at Infinity War. Peter Parker happens to see an alien ship land while riding the bus to school, so he ends up involved in the entire plot. In Spider-Man: Homecoming, Vulture gets his tech from alien pieces salvaged after Loki attacks New York. These kinds of things have to happen when so many characters operate within a single shared setting. You cannot just ignore the existence of your characters without a good excuse why.

Eternals could have solved this problem by taking place hundreds of years ago or something. Tiamat could be disguised as some sort of strange natural formation people could not begin to explain until now. Or this could have been an origin story on a different planet, where the Eternals fail to stop an emergence and now want to stop the same thing from happening on Earth. They could have had Stephen Strange or Thor pop in at the end. They could have taken any number of routes to at least pay lip service to the existence of the heroes of the MCU, who would never ignore a catastrophe of that scale on Earth.

Instead, it tried to be this totally independent story within a densely interconnected universe, and it just does not work when the story revolves around the total destruction of Earth. Don’t even get me started on how upset I will be if no one cares about the massive alien robot god who appeared in the sky for the entire planet to see.

I really do not like how much Eternals did not work for me. These issues are just all so prevalent and unavoidable, though. They spread their roots throughout the framework of every single scene in the movie.

I always admire when the MCU takes risks. This franchise became so successful in large part because it has never been afraid to take risks. As the MCU became more and more successful, it increasingly tries new things. It started with taking heroes no one heard of in the Guardians of the Galaxy and making them A-tier Marvel characters. They gave Taika Waititi a Thor movie and he made it wildly successful. Ryan Coogler got a chance to turn Black Panther into the most profitable non-Avengers movie the MCU ever made, at least before No Way Home recently surpassed it.

And obviously, anyone who watched WandaVision and Loki can tell you how delightfully weird those shows were.

Letting an indie director like Chloé Zhao take an obscure group of Marvel gods and make a Marvel version of a sci-fi art house film is a cool idea. These kinds of high concept existential themes are also something the MCU could afford to tackle in-depth. I really, really wanted to like it, and my bias can be a strong thing. I walked out of Spider-Man 3 happy, purely through the power of positive bias walking in.

I just could not do that with Eternals. I wish I liked it, but I really, really did not.

Images Courtesy of Marvel Studios

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