Critics are not quiet in their complaints about films from the incredibly successful Marvel Cinematic Universe. Everyone from Martin Scorsese to Francis Ford Coppola to Denis Villeneuve have complained about Marvel’s place in the film industry, producing what they say are uncinematic, formulaic movies. Though one can see the merits of these claims, Marvel’s latest release is neither of these things.
“Eternals” is probably the most ambitious film Marvel Studios has released, being a massive departure from its typical superhero fare. The movie surrounds a group of cosmic beings adorned with great power from an ancient celestial and their evolving relationship with Earth over the centuries.
This is not your typical superhero movie. Marvel has had several films with ensemble casts, but none that introduce upwards of ten uber-powerful characters. This large responsibility and its unorthodox plot create a film that is incomparable to any other MCU film.
Though it creatively expands the Marvel universe, “Eternals” is not a great film.
I often discuss in these review columns the importance of setup and payoff in the structure of a film. Stories are the most satisfying when what happens in the third act is foreshadowed and developed in the first act, usually in forms of character and plot elements. I also discuss the importance of thematic message and character development over the course of a picture. These two pieces connect to one another, as the elements set up in the first act should pay off in the third act, helping culminate in a character arc or in a clear thematic message. That cohesiveness and clarity in plot structure is often difficult to accomplish, requiring exquisite writing and direction, but greatly improves the final result of the movie.
“Eternals” fails in both aspects. For one, it is difficult to delineate the plot into a clear three-act structure, as the first act occupies almost 75% of the runtime. In general, the plot is convoluted. On the point of setup and payoff, the film establishes countless elements and MacGuffins that lead nowhere in the story. By having to juggle ten different character arcs, the film gets so wrapped up that it loses its internal cohesion and any sort of plot structure. This lack of structure ultimately lessens the effectiveness of the arcs present in the film, as the unnecessary plot elements dilute the audience’s attachment to the story.
While the story is the main issue of the picture, I have several other criticisms.
For one, the dialogue is not especially effective. There are countless platitudes that are said throughout the film which do not bear any meaning or resonate effectively with the audience. Though there are some well-executed comedic sequences, there are several scenes where the dialogue just falls flat.
Additionally, while director Chloé Zhao’s visual style is exquisite, there is a clash between her naturalistic lighting and direction and the CGI environments of the MCU. There is a quite noticeable difference in visual quality between the scenes shot on location by Zhao and co. compared to the visual effects shots created by artists and animators. This inconsistency doesn’t completely ruin the visual style of the picture, but can be a bit bothersome, especially when you cut between high-definition close-ups and heavy motion-blur VFX shots. Though such CGI is the nature of big-budget superhero flicks, I would have liked a more cohesive visual style.
Even with all these negative aspects there are some redeeming qualities to this picture. I think all the actors do a brilliant job in “Eternals.” Gemma Chan is fantastic in the lead role, proving that she can handle the spotlight of a blockbuster film. Richard Madden and Kumail Nanjiani are also great in this picture, handling the more emotional and comedic aspects of the film respectively. The rest of the cast, including Bryan Tyree Henry, Barry Keoghan, Lia McHugh, Kit Harrington, Salma Hayek and Angelina Jolie are successful in their supporting roles. Specifically, what “Eternals” proved is that Chan, Madden, Nanjiani and Harrington are capable of headlining a feature film.
In typical Marvel fashion, this movie, though lackluster in itself, does a brilliant job setting up the next features in the franchise. Whether that is a sequel to the movie at hand, or new films or television shows, the interconnected nature of the MCU remains strong in this picture.
While “Eternals” is definitely in the lower-tier of Marvel films, fans of the franchise need not fret. One of the main reasons the franchise has been so successful is its ability to learn from its mistakes. The mistake of this latest entry is not the creative departure from a typical plot structure, but the poor story development and execution. If Marvel can continue to creatively innovate and tell great stories, there is no reason to believe that a disappointment here or there will slow it down. The train of the Marvel Cinematic Universe will keep on chugging for now, but the future will determine whether “Eternals” is a slight bump or a critical blow in its journey.