Eternals is the third MCU film of 2021 and the first film in the franchise to have a negative Rotten Tomatoes rating. The question is does it deserve this unfortunate distinction?
The Eternals are an immortal race of superpower beings who have been on Earth since 5000BC. They have been sent to the planet by Celestial Arishem (David Kaye) to protect humanity from the Deviants. After 500 years with no Deviant sightings, one appears in London and the Eternals must regroup for the first time in centuries.
The MCU is the cinematic equivalent to a conveyor belt. The franchise has been able to churn out multiple films in a year and generally able to keep to a high standard. However, Marvel Studios has been criticised for being overly safe and formulaic. The films often stick to a template, particularly a CGI-filled third act, and some directors like Destin Daniel Cretton have struggled to make their mark on the Marvel machinery.
Eternals felt different to many of the MCU films. It was a big sci-fi fantasy epic, there was less humour than was usual in a Marvel film and the film looked different from many other MCU offerings. Eternals was directed and co-written by Chloé Zhao who won an Oscar by the time this superhero film was released, and she gave Eternals this weighty, serious tone.
Eternals played like the Marvel version of Highlander. The film opened with a text crawl saying Celestials made the stars which allowed life to flourish, but the Deviants came out of the darkness, so the Eternals were created.
The film goes back and forth in time, showing the Eternals living with, protecting, and guiding humanity over the centuries. These flashbacks showed The Eternals slowly becoming divided and developing different viewpoints. Some saw humanity as brutalist and believe they shouldn’t bother saving humans, some wanted to use their powers to stop war and genocide and others wanted to let humans find their own way.
The Eternals were gods amongst men. Some of them became legendary figures we know. There was Ikaris (Richard Madden), who was the basis of the Greek legend, the exploits of the super-strong Gilgamesh (Don Lee) influenced the epic Mesopotamian poem, and Thena (Angelina Jolie) was seen as a Greek goddess.
The story of Celestials bared similarities to the Bible because they created stars and sent down their creations to protect humanity.
This thematic helped Eternals stand out amongst many films in the MCU. It wanted to show the ideological shift amongst The Eternals and raises a lot of philosophical and moral debates about their role and what makes humanity tick. I prefer a film being ambitious than seeming like it came off an assembly line.
Gemma Chan’s Sersi was the heart of the film. She was the main character because she was the one who had to bring The Eternals and was the one who cared the most about humanity. She lived in London as a regular person and had a human boyfriend.
Yet Sersi went out of her way to save a person when required and she was the character who had leadership thrust upon her. As a fan of Chan I am happy to see her get a leading role in a blockbuster and she gives a strong performance as Sersi.
The rest of The Eternals lived away from humanity. Ajak (Salma Hayek) lived in a remote cabin in South Dakota, Gilgamesh and Thena lived in the Australian Outback, and Druig (Barry Keoghan) lived in a village in the Amazon Rainforest. The only other Eternal that lived with humans was Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) and he was working as a Bollywood star.
Whilst Eternals was attempting to be a more thematic film, it was still a superhero film. It had to supply plenty of action and CGI spectacle and Eternals manages that. It was fun to see The Eternals fighting the Deviants and saving civilians in the past. The climax was the usual CGI fest from an MCU film, but there was still a sense of weight and urgency because of the global and personal stakes.
Eternals also had to leave some breadcrumbs for the future MCU installments. The most obvious was the role of Celestials who are Gods in the universe. There were also references to The Black Knight and there were some events that could have an impact on other Marvel properties but going into further detail could lead to spoilers.
Eternals did have a massive twist halfway through its run time. It changed the story and brought in the moral and philosophical themes of the film. But it did lead to a problem because Eternals’ story became overstuffed.
The storyline involving the Deviants was pushed into the background to the point that it was easy to forget they were a threat. When they appeared during the climax it led to thoughts of ‘oh yeah, they’re still around’.
On a final note, Eternals was the first film in the MCU to have a gay character. Unlike other times Disney has announced a gay character in their tentpoles, Phastos’ (Brian Tyree Henry) sexuality felt important to his character. He was shown to be married, had a son, and the filmmakers showed Phastos kissing his husband.
Eternals was a bold and ambitious offering from the MCU and it doesn’t deserve its status as the worst Marvel film. It was at least felt different and original and not formulaic like many of the other origins stories. It was my favourite Marvel film of 2021 so far.