New from Every Movie Has a Lesson by Don Shanahan: MOVIE REVIEW: Eternals

Image courtesy of Walt Disney

ETERNALS— 3 STARS

Without a doubt, Eternals is the most mystical, talkative, and far-fetched the Marvel Cinematic Universe has endeavored to date. That’s rather telling considering the interconnected franchise’s track record of popcorn storytelling sprinkled with all the grains of salt in a comic book shaker. Forging a creation-busting path of human and superhuman history that spans beyond this world, Eternals is asking for a leap, a huge one that even the most fervent fans may not be able to comprehend or embrace. 

Stoically opening with a long “In the beginning…” crawl, Eternals immediately begins to stack its bricks to build the eons-long interdependence between the planet-creating Celestials, their enlisted titular defensive force of humanoids, and the helpless people of Earth. First seen and referenced in the two Guardians of the Galaxy movies, the Celestials seeded Earth’s core millions of years ago with a future new one of their own. They also dispatched ten unaging Eternals to foster the human race’s social and technological evolution and safeguard them from the monstrous Deviant creatures who would spoil the Celestials’ planetary fruit-on-the-vine.

LESSON #1: TRUST YOUR LEADERS— Leading the ten is Salma Hayek’s Ajak, a wise healer given the communication authority to converse with the Celestial judge Arishem (voiced by David Kaye), who observes Earth’s progress for what is growing inside. Decisions are made in the past, present, and future that change the entire course of civilization. Ajak wears that authority with reliable credence. She is flanked by a tight-knit brigade of warriors charging forward with different superpowers, sociological disciplines, and, as you can see from scanning their names like Thena and Gilgamesh, future cultural influences. 

LESSON #2: KNOWING OR QUESTIONING YOUR PURPOSE— Some of the Eternals are devout to the chief mission of staying uninvolved while others have developed an affinity for the people they protect. The group disbanded after a division of ideologies during the Fall of Tenochtitlan in 16th century Mexico when the last Deviant was defeated. The group members have since folded themselves with bardic fables among earthlings as cult leaders, movie stars, museum curators, scientists, or vagabonds with a range of weak or strong value of innocent lives and overall faith in humanity.

That dichotomy is seen and explored the most in the failed romantic relationship between the group’s genteel elemental manipulator Sersi (Crazy Rich Asians ensemble member Gemma Chan) and their most powerful champion, the flying Ikaris (Richard Madden of Cinderella) with his cosmic eye beams. Circling back to the present day, she has a new human beau named Dane Whitman (Game of Thrones star Kit Harrington) are new and more indomitable Deviants have reappeared, jarring the post-Blip MCU public. Their resurgence forces the estranged Eternals to reform their ranks. 

The eclectic cast of Eternals, combining elders with fresh faces, is a windfall of demographic milestones. Among them, you have Marvel’s first deaf (Lauren Ridloff of The Walking Dead), Latino (Hayek), Korean (Train to Busan’s Don Lee), Pakistani (Kumail Nanjiani of The Big Sick), Irish (The Killing of a Sacred Deer’s Barry Koeghan), and gay (the busy Brian Tyree Henry, in his fifth 2021 film) superhero portrayals for the big screen. Some armchair finger-pointers are going to try and call for deliberately planted tokenism, as if Disney is trying to check off audience approval boxes. 

As Eternals progresses, that crowd will be rendered silent by the actors’ combined and invaluable screen presence. They were chosen for their talent. Gemma Chan steps to the front as the heart and soul among many others channeling the same spirit. Although it is quite difficult to give sizable focus or deep roots to this many new characters, even in a movie stretching beyond two-and-a-half hours, each and every Eternal earns tipping point moments, where the spotlight performer conveys the suitable gravitas for this epic scale.

Oscar-winning Nomadland director Chloe Zhao, breaking hardcore cinephile hearts by taking this blockbuster commission, brings her patient and artful touch to what to many of her eminent peers have devalued as silly theme park roller coasters of content. Her invested involvement was a coop for Disney, made for an “incredible experience,” and one that does not deserve to damage her emerging career and prestige cinema cred. 

Echoing a little bit of Lesson #1 to the production side, the lurid pageantry of a superhero flick is still here, guided by eye-catching special effects and costumes laced with animated spirograph ribbons of digital filigree. However, cinematographer Ben Davis, working on his fifth Marvel film, slows down to match the endurance of Zhao to soak in the bright kinetic action as well as her signature magic hour backlighting in sumptuous locations like the Canary Islands. The normally bombastic composer Ramin Djawadi, returning the MCU from the first Iron Man, also dials down his danger music to include the soulful aim of his director.

The grandiose convergence of mythic themes is all the talk of Eternals written by Zhao, screenwriter Patrick Burleigh (Peter Rabbit 2), and documentary short specialist cousins Ryan and Kaz Firpo (Refuge). It not so softly preaches the specialness of the planet and its people in the larger realm of existence where the exchange of energy at the end of one life begins another. Such heady motivations, coupled with heroism, is a lovely core away from the usual costumed good vs. evil throwdowns, but it’s very, very profuse, complete with all of the intergalactic gibberish in between.

LESSON #3: REWRITING HISTORY AND LEGEND— Honestly, Eternals swells the Jack Kirby fantasy to a level that is too excessive to absorb. Folks are going to need an atlas and a social studies tutor to get the ancient history and a stenographer to write it all down. Remember when Michael Bay’s Transformers movies upturned and bastardized Arthurian legend, dinosaur extinctions, Apollo moon landings, and teleported massive entities to orbit or collide with the planet for all to see? This movie is guilty of similar offenses. While Bay was deservedly chastised for the ludicrousness, the good graces of Marvel’s popularity will likely spare Eternals a butt-of-all-jokes fate. Still, this may be the movie we look back on where Marvel jumped an ocean of sharks it didn’t need to after having such a good thing going. 

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