Eternals

***

Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Eternals
"This is almost an hour longer than anything else Zhao has directed, and while her eye is keen there must surely have been a point where someone looked at a script and thought 'this is too much'." | Photo: © Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

After a wall of text, with key terms highlighted in capitals, your CELESTIALS, your ETERNALS, your DEVIANTS, there's a shot of a planet, Earth. One character looks out a window upon it and says "it's beautiful". Another replies "I'm Ikaris".

In focusing on these characters, that lofty remove, even that clumsy disjoint, this is indicative. It's not that Eternals is a bad film. The substrate of the Marvel Cinematic Universe means that it has explosions and quips and references aplenty. What it is though is overlong, if not interminable - mostly because at the end, between setting up yet another character who has at one point led The Avengers, we are told that they will return.

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There are ten Eternals. Do there need to be? This is a question that any adaptation might ask, but even over its millennial range not one asked here. Much has been made of Chloé Zhao's direction, how much of this is looking for something unique to hang descriptions of this the 27th (or so) MCU film off is uncertain. There are some gorgeous moments, the half lights and gloamings of dawns and dusks and the like, but these sit in and among people who can fly and shoot lightning from their eyes, invisible swords and punches, work for hundreds of special effects technicians for dozens of firms.

The script-writing credits are complex, Zhao appears twice, once in partnership with Patrick Burleigh (Peter Rabbit 2, additional on Ant-Man And The Wasp), and with the Firpos, Ryan and Kaz. The Firpos have a number of short documentary and bits of TV to their name, but their entire career would struggle to fill the run-time of 157 minutes.

Their claim to fame, such as it is, is an appearance on The Black List in 2017 for Ruin, a tale of a nameless ex-Nazi hunting down his own death squad. If that seems exceptionally bleak then consider also its tonal similarity to The Captain and the fact that The Black List amounts to a list of runners-up - it's the most popular unproduced scripts of a given year. Though even then it's already effectively meaningless, because there have been hundreds of films produced from it, and these are scripts that are already crossing the desks of decision-makers. That 'popularity' is among production executives, and one hesitates to suggest that they are fickle and travel in herds but you will have noticed how easy it is to describe one film as a combination of others.

Eternals is The Day The Earth Stood Still but with the Seven Samurai, only there are ten of them. This is a gross disservice to Jack Kirby's creation, which arguably happened twice when he left Marvel for DC, started New Gods, had it cancelled, returned to Marvel, and started it again with the serial numbers differently filed off. This was 1976, and since then they've had 50-odd issues and a couple of annuals. Not titles, issues. This is not cribbing from a deep well of story, even if it borrows a character who in the comics has sometimes been known as Gilgamesh and here just is.

That's ten of them - remember. Ten sets of powers, ten relatively famous faces, even before the rest of the cast. As I was describing someone as "Sersi's boyfriend" they said "no that's Richard Madden", and I had to explain that he was Ikaris [sic], Eternal paramour of Sersi, and not Dane Whitman, the Human who courts her. Though, this being Marvel, one can barely move for other potential superhumans or villains, so set are the stars in the black night.

Sersi is Gemma Chan, and the geometry of her and Harington and Lia Mchugh's Sprite is the core of the film. Ikaris comes to them and explains that someone is dead, and while they try and figure out what's going on they get the band back together. This is not as much fun as The Blues Brothers. This necessitates some measure of explaining how the gang fell apart, and that's not as much fun as The Blues Brothers either.

Salma Hayek's Ajak is the leader, Angelina Jolie's Thena the fighter, Lauren Ridloff's Makkari can run really quickly, Barry Keoghan's Druig can control minds, Ma Dong-seok is Gilgamesh, whose epic abilities seem to have been reduced to punching. Kumail Nanjiani's Kingo has seen a talented actor get absolutely ripped to, as far as I can tell, suspend disbelief while shilling sports utility crossovers and weaponise finger-guns. Kingo's multigenerational career as a Bollywood dynasty also allows a character often positioned as comic-relief to be accompanied by his faithful manservant (I think Alfred is mentioned, Super-Man is too). Harush Patel is firmly in 'that guy' territory, you might have seen him in Run Fatboy Run or one of the David Walliams adaptations or in his run in Coronation Street. Filming a 'behind the scenes' documentary about Kingo and the Eternals is a potentially amusing meta-narrative but I found myself concerned about what felt like head-bobbing stereotype.

I've left Bryan Tyree Henry's Phastos for last because his role among the Eternals is to be their technology guy. We see him in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon trying to get away with giving them the steam engine. Not Hero's Engine either, but what appears to be a full locomotive. He's talked down to given them the plough, but even that seems to be one where the cutter is drawn by a beast and not by hand. His commitment to progress has two forms. One laudable, an open, gay, relationship, with a child adopted by these two husbands. One risible, Phastos in the ruins of Hiroshima as he laments the consequences of his actions.

I must confess I looked for the hole that Wolverine was hiding in. I've seen discussion online that Phastos' costuming is meant to reflect what they wore at The Manhattan Project but it's not like they had a uniform. It's a suit from about the 1930s. What's less clear given how rigidly divided the Eternals power sets seem to be is how two of the ones who can't fly got to Japan from wherever they'd been earlier, through the not yet finished Pacific Theatre. It doesn't really matter.

Which is perhaps true of the film itself. There's flashbacks to time 5000 years and six days previous. There's a sex scene, another MCU first, but what relationship depth that grants pales in comparison to those in The Old Guard or Interview With The Vampire or any number of others. There's mention of Tony Stark and of Captain America and who will lead The Avengers next, and there's talk of Thanos too. There might have been mention of ten rings for Shang-Chi but if there was I missed it in and among the metal used for crowbars elsewhere.

Having already saved half the universe, saving some old friendships might feel like stakes but Eternals is too dilute to manage it. Fatigue was always going to be a foe to Marvel's Cinematic Universe and we are a long way in and this is a long way to go. This is almost an hour longer than anything else Zhao has directed, and while her eye is keen there must surely have been a point where someone looked at a script and thought 'this is too much'. Some directors have been able to achieve something like a vision upon the material. Branagh threw so many Dutch Angles into Thor they apparently wanted to straighten some of it out digitally. Taika Waititi (now announced attached to The Incal) managed to make Thor: Ragnarok off-kilter in a different way. Folk like Joe Johnston and Shane Black and Ryan Coogler made movies in their own rhythms within the MCU, but this doesn't feel a fit for Zhao. This is only the second MCU film directed by a woman, Cate Shortland helmed Black Widow and one wonders given how often Zhao's films have been about individuals in changing circumstances what she'd have made of that. We'll never know, unless forthcoming multiverse shenanigans break apart this monopsony of imagination.

Certainly Celestials are not the only audience who might look at what's going on here askance. There isn't a lack of clarity from skipping back and forth in time to give us context, but there's also perhaps a lack of urgency. Formulaic, elegaic, these are unkind words, but the pattern set by The Avengers and its preceding and subsequent films is a heavy one. The Eternals is too.

There's a scene as coda, in the credits, that set up other films. That's the issue with the continuing story, the weight of Marvel parliament. Each of these is an outpost, an invitation to a subforum discussing the Easter eggs and the like. Eternals perhaps comes the closest to the negative experiences of following comics on paper, requiring reading, 'geek homework', meandering to a conclusion that isn't an end, leaving one tired from heavy lifting and feeling a need to wash ones hands of it all.

Reviewed on: 05 Nov 2021
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Eternals packshot
The saga of a race of immortal beings.

Director: Chloé Zhao

Writer: Chloé Zhao, Chloé Zhao, Patrick Burleigh

Starring: Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek, Kit Harington, Kumail Nanjiani, Lia McHugh, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Ridloff, Barry Keoghan, Ma Dong-seok, Harish Patel, Haaz Sleiman, Esai Daniel Cross, Alan Scott

Year: 2021

Runtime: 157 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: UK, US

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