Review: Eternals Is A Great Movie, But Very Different For A Marvel Studios Joint
Upon the end of the second post-credit scene in Eternals, many viewers will want to see it again. That alone is a measure of success since filmmakers want people to watch their films. And Eternals is eminently a watchable movie, again a high point of success for those dismissive of comic book film. However, the film directed by Oscar-winner Chloé Zhao is much more that, representing an ambitious shift from Marvel Studios. Despite a few passing references to Thanos or the mention of the odd Avenger, one could easily forget this was a Marvel Studios joint. Sure, it’s bright, full of superpowers, and MCU Banter™. Yet, this film stands apart from the others in several ways both narrative and technical.
For better or worse, Marvel Studios introductory films typically follow a formula. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings messed with this format a little. Ultimately it fit the mold more than it didn’t. However, Eternals feels like an entirely different kind of movie. Films that immediately come to mind are the “epics” from various eras, like Alexander or even Gone with the Wind (in terms of scope). They tell a large story with many characters over a long period of time. In modern times filmmakers often break up these stories into non-linear chunks. They all want to pair spectacle with making larger-than-life legends feel like human beings. In this the movie is successful, but (as per usual in a Marvel film) some characters may not get all the space they need.
We’re going to get into spoilers below, so be warned.
How Reconcile Low Review Scores With the Movie We Get
image via Marvel Studios
I am one of those viewers who thought as the movie ended, “I need to see this again.” Having seen it once, I suspect that the reason the Eternals film is the lowest-rated movie in the MCU is more about reviewer confusion than quality. This film does not fit nicely into a box. MCU movies have a very specific kind of box, and even auteur-driven films like Nomadland also fit into a box, though a less rigid one. This film tries to fill all the boxes, and in doing so it sort of eschews our modern vocabulary for these kinds of stories.
The characters are dealing with some high-concept conflict, including weighing the destruction of the planet Earth against trillions of potential lives elsewhere in the galaxy. There is no Big Bad to punch, not really. There’s also not an easy answer here. When the Celestial was, uh…hatching(?) I thought the Eternals might use the uni-mind to somehow allow it to be born without destroying the Earth. Instead, the Celestial apparently also joined with the Eternals to end its life to save Earth. If we drill down like super-nerds, this plot doesn’t make a lot of technical sense. However, this conflict feels more metaphorical than that.
We’re used to Marvel Studios movies having a clear ending, and a little set-up for the next thing. Yet, Eternals doesn’t tell us that kind of story. One could argue that everything after the Celestial dies is set-up. Yet, if we look at this like a movie epic, it’s that thing where we see a certain event in “history” and history keeps rolling on even though the movie is over. (I mean, the post-credit scene with Kit Harrington’s Black Knight is pure set-up, but perhaps that why it comes well after the credits.)
What Story is Eternals Telling Us?
image via Marvel Studios
Again, I have to see it again, but I feel like Eternals is a movie all about power. It’s about how power is granted from “on high” to those who think they are in control. Yet, they are part of a larger system that has been rigged from the get-go. Some characters like Salma Hayek’s Ajak reject this system, and other characters, like Richard Madden’s Ikaris, embrace it because it’s all they have. There is potentially a very powerful story about power and purpose unfolding here. The reveal of the true purpose of Eternals, Deviants, and Celestials hits the audience hard, but the impact of these revelations on the characters are more subtle. The family dynamic at play is, like real families, inconsistent, driven by fear or other emotion, but ultimately not destructive. (To their relationships, the surface of the Earth? That’s another story.)
The other major departure from other MCU films in the Eternals movie is that there is no winning this battle. There is no “good” solution, and the actions of our “heroes” may ultimately be destructive and troublesome. I mean, there is a giant Celestial head and hand on the surface of the Earth now. That’s gotta have some kind of impact, right? We’re used to our MCU films wrapping up the story (or at least the central conflict) and setting up something fun for later. This movie still does that somewhat, but Eternals is not as neat as previous entries in the canon.
This makes sense though. We’re at the 20-year mark of the “modern” comic book movie, and a decade-plus of Marvel Studios. They’ve perfected the comic book epic that appeals to a mass audience and shares a continuity. But, like comics before them, these movies have to evolve. Even Marvel Studios has to mess with the formula a bit to stay relevant and, if they’re really lucky, grow and evolve the form even further.
Eternals is currently in theaters.
What do you think of the Eternals movie, and how it compares to other Marvel Studios films? Are you ready for a less clear-cut Marvel Cinematic Universe? Share your thoughts, reactions, and ideas about the future in the comments below. (Also, let’s about the giant Celestial head.)
Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. The first books he read on his own were comics, and he's loved the medium ever since. He is the greatest star-pilot in the galaxy, a cunning warrior, and a good friend. His book "What I Learned: Stories, Essays, and More" is available in print from Amazon and from all electronic booksellers.