Eternals... The MCU epic deconstructs the superhero genre with mixed yet frustrating results
Considered to be the lowest-rated MCU movie in Rotten Tomatoes, I was actually excited as there could potentially have a strong discourse. My feeling about the discourse it got was validated, however, it's also deserving of its polarizing reception.
Let me preface this... I want the MCU to change up its formula. Already, it's beginning to get a bad rep of being repetitive, and formulaic to a point even the "quips" or the humor is dangerously becoming generic with each and every movie as the Phase-4 goes along. Sure, Spider-Man: No Way Home has those flaws as well but it made up with the fact that it had the passing of the torch moments between the different iterations of Peter Parker(s) and some villains not only got redeemed like Jamie Foxx's Electro but some like Willem Dafoe's Green Goblin even elevated much more than what he was in the original movie to greatness. So, seeing the trailers for Eternals, I was in a way cautiously excited because it looked like it could potentially move away from the formula. With Academy Award-winning director Chloe Zhao at the helm (a first for the MCU only Kenneth Branagh being a nominee himself), the possibilities were endless as far as what she had in mind. Now, with the movie's reception being visibly mixed and considered to be the lowest-rated MCU movie in Rotten Tomatoes, I was actually excited as there could potentially have a strong discourse around it à la Zack Snyder's DCEU works. Now available on Disney+, my feeling about the discourse it got was validated, however, it's also deserving of its polarizing reception.
The thing about Eternals here is the movie strays far away from the MCU formula which is in a way admirable, and in fact what audiences have been yearning for. It doesn't follow the narrative beats of the usual superhero origin story nor it doesn't usually meet the checkboxes needed for a team of superheroes/gods. I use the latter term as these beings called Eternals almost have a pristine grandness in their approach and are always bound to a design created by higher beings called the Celestials (very impressively mounted creatures from space, those are meant to be seen on the biggest screen possible). So, despite all of that what went wrong here?
The story follows a group of superpowered beings called Eternals who are sent to Earth, to kill off Deviants, another species of monsters who feed off the native population, and in a way, the former ensures the continual growth of the human population as ordered by their higher-ups i.e. Celestials. But, after 5000 years of existing alongside the humans, and with no response from the Celestials to go back home, they see that Deviants have come back despite wiping them all off centuries ago, and on the way, they realize their mission isn't what they originally were serving. This premise quite actually provides some great ideas and what-if scenarios regarding a superhero team:
- What if the team is ordered not to interfere in any event or catastrophe by the Celestials as it could potentially lead to a population boom?
- What if one of them learns of the true mission as to why they're sent here and decides to oppose the mission?
- What if the deviants who were disposed of by the Eternals, all of a sudden reclaim their powers by killing them and also learn of their true purpose as well?
- What if another member of the team goes against them and decides to betray everyone to appease the Celestials?
These ideas are put forth and are on display but in bits and pieces. The reason why it is like that is that the writing takes a non-linear approach of narrating the events which shape and transpire the Eternals. This is one of the major issues of this movie, and quite frankly, it takes away the grandness of the visuals and robs all the character development. This problem is unfortunately on full display with the way all the Eternals act here, except for Phastos all others have a monotone way of delivering their dialogue. I don't know if that's intentional considering they're playing godlike beings from space, so in a way, they're a bit dead inside as they have to endure a lot of pain and heartbreak thanks to mankind's cyclic tendencies of greed, self-destruction, and warmongering. But, they're also considered to care for them as they begin to like humanity as flawed beings and in a way influence their personalities within civilizations. The latter part feels hypocritical at best, and it seems odd for an MCU movie that is at least is known for handling great character development and how we as an audience care for each superhero and their own personal struggles.
Eternals, while visually breathtaking to look at, and with some of the promising names within the ensemble; from Gemma Chan leading as Sersi, Salma Hayek as Ajak, Richard Madden as Ikaris, Kumail Nanjiani as Kingo, Don Lee as Gilgamesh, Lia McHugh as Sprite, Barry Keoghan as Druig, Lauren Ridloff as Makkari, Brian Tyree Henry as Phastos, and Angelina Jolie as the strong yet psychologically broken warrior Thena, the performances are uniformly bland and monotonous. It's also not great that their powers nearly look the same and we don't exactly know what they do save for Makkari's powers as a speedster, Ikaris as a Superman-proxy, and Thena who could materialize weapons from nothing. It lets them become indistinguishable and for a movie based on a team of superheroes, the camaraderie does not feel organic. The other major issue is the amount of exposition used to drive the plot. It's not that expositions are inherently a bad thing but overusing them to drive the narrative almost seems like a fatal flaw. It grinds the movie to a halt and when any action sequence appears, those come as a rarity of sorts. Add that with a time-jumping narrative, it makes the movie infuriatingly boring. Also, did this movie make us forgive Thanos? It sure did with one major plot element, that makes the Russos-directed Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame seem pointless now as the sacrifices in those movies are now worthless. Also, a plot point involving another character for seemingly betraying the team seems super rushed, and for some reason, that character at the end is cracking jokes about "going to school" now as she's permanently a child.
And yet, this is not the worst of the MCU, far from it. Chloe Zhao, at least shows what a distinctive voice she has as a filmmaker, it seems her Oscar win does not cloud her talent as a director. The writing may have failed her but she's clever enough to set the tone so melancholic, one wonders if she actually put care on her characters so much, she could have made a game-changing superhero flick. Yes, this movie, despite having all the flaws, has the deconstructionist aspect of how superheroes live and fight to save the day, with some of them turning bad and in the process, breaking up the team dynamic for good. It's also commendable for the movie to at least never follow the traditional beats of the superhero-origin-story narrative beats, and instead try to tell the events influencing Eternals to side with humanity. And when it does try in the end, you gotta feel for the filmmakers for giving a highly flawed movie yet a stepping stone in the MCU franchise.