What They Say:
The Eternals, a race of immortal beings with superhuman powers who have secretly lived on Earth for thousands of years, reunite to battle the evil Deviants.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
With Marvel Studios having likely exiled the use of the Inhumans concept for some time to come, the arrival of The Eternals on the film slate wasn’t a surprise when it happened back in 2018. It did leave a lot of fans in a kind of “huh” mode because, well, they’re not a deep cut they’re just a cut that most people don’t have much interest in. It’s one of those areas where original creator Jack Kirby just got to do his thing, and we had some use of them later on with Neil Gaiman, but the original work is something modern fandom just doesn’t deal in. It’d be for a smaller audience of diehards, those like me that would get excited to see the original or 90s version of Guardians of the Galaxy get a film in full. With the project pushed back because of the pandemic and having a more limited group of people seeing it than the larger overall MCU fandom that would attend, I was definitely curious to get past those thoughts and feelings to see for myself with its arrival on Disney+
The premise here is simple and one explored in a lot of science fiction over the years in vastly varied ways. The ages-old Celestial, Arishem, uses a group of beings called the Eternals to guard over worlds throughout the galaxy to protect intelligent species from attack by creatures known as Deviants. This story focuses on a group of ten of them – Ajak, Sersi, Ikaris, Kingo, Sprite, Phastos, Makkari, Druig, Gilgamesh, and Thena – that are sent to Earth about 7,000 years ago from the present in order to do just that for humanity. Some of them fell in love with humanity more than others, as some of them saw this as just a job before they could return to their homeworld of Olympia and prepare for the next job. It took thousands of years to defeat the Deviants, mostly just a kind of feral creature that killed people indiscriminately, but they’ve been ended for the past five hundred years and Arishem has not called them home, to their confusion. That led to the group basically breaking apart and going in their own direction. One ended up living in South America controlling a group of people, another finds herself living in London while others take hold in remote locations while trying to help each other through various issues that are playing out.
That has mostly worked fine until now as some Deviants have started to appear again. And this time they’re working some different powers, one of which seems to be similar to the power of one of their own Ajak. The Deviants are evolving and this initial one has found a way to absorb the powers of those it kills and is now hunting the rest with its pack to gain more of those abilities. That’s what’s finally pushing the group to come together as initially Sersi and Ikaris figure this out and then begin to look for the others, especially after they find out that Ajak was killed. It’s a pretty standard arc here where some are more interested than others in joining on this after several hundred years and old issues crop up, from unrequited love to others that have found love within humanity and are focused on that. There’s a sense of not wanting to rock the boat of their own little world, not realizing the larger implications here.
Now, the film does change all of this along the way as the truth of the Deviants is revealed and what Arishem’s grand plan in the galaxy is, which again is not new to anyone who reads a lot of science fiction. From my perspective, it all felt like it was laid out well, and with the 2 ½ hour running time it’s given the space to breathe so that we see who this group is in flashbacks across the millennia and understand how they came together to how they broke apart. The time in the present is about trying to heal some of those wounds and focus on the big picture, but those connections are millennia deep and have to be dealt with. It’s not a classic “guess we’ll just fight together!” at the drop of a hat thing, and with this many characters, it takes time to dig into the various connections and dynamics. And that worked well for me, as did the more relaxed place. Yes, there’s a sense of urgency about things but it’s not hyper, and the main focus of getting from set piece to set piece to fight. There are a lot of areas where the movement to new locations doesn’t lead to a fight scene and that’s really welcome after so many other films just using these quieter scenes as bridges to the fight scenes. You can, and I did, become invested in these characters and their stories because it’s shown and talked about across the film as we get to the final climactic battle. The Deviants do show up along the way before that so it’s not just all talk and walk kind of stuff, but it’s played well and not overdone.
I really enjoyed this film for its grand scale but the personal touch that was brought to it, even while juggling this many characters. And having read so much on it in the time since, it’s definitely yet another film where I seem to diverge from a lot of others in how they felt about it. The way the characters fracture in who will actually stand and fight at the end is important and felt natural based on their history, where they came from, and how loyal to the mission they are regardless of what new things are learned. The inability to change is not just a human thing. Others can’t bring themselves to fight at all because of their conflicting feelings. And if we want to take this to the larger theme that many view it through in that this is all about the abortion issue, the way the sides react feels even more honest and upfront. It’s not going to come down to just two ways two feel about it and some people are just going to tap out of being involved in the argument overall.
One of the things that really is a huge strength for the film from Chloe Zhao is that Ben Davis’ cinematography is just so good. We’ve all gotten used to the Marvel “style” of how the films look but with this already going with a slower approach, having so much filmed outdoors and on location with natural light and the overall style of it is just such a radical difference. If you binge these films a lot it’ll stand out even more and it left me really hopeful that Marvel will allow a bit more. It was also welcome to have large older actors at this point as most are in their late 30s or mid40s with a couple in their 50s. You don’t start a franchise with that variable, you drop in a film that lets the group break and mingle into the world itself as time goes on.
I do like that very early on we get a scene where Dane, the human boyfriend of Sersi as played by Kit Harrington, asks her why they didn’t get involved in all these events over the years. It’s a normal question and the response is largely the right one, about letting humanity evolve without interference by them or the Deviants. They’re there to stop the Deviants as their mission from Arishem. Many have grown attached to humanity and even with Thanos and the snap, it was still outside of their mission scope and they were pretty broken up at that point anyway. And really, events with that first film really did move fast. This is also why some of the complaints about this frustrated me in wondering why nobody else showed up amid all that’s going on. Beyond being a question that no comic book fan should ever answer considering what goes on in that realm, the events that unfold here are scattered worldwide and depending on how long after the Blip, not everything is really up to speed and we’re still getting a handle on what heroes are around and can do things on a global scale. The post-Blip MCU is radically different overall, and even then most of what does happen is isolated-yet-connected in a way that may not be on a lot of people’s radar. And the end fight itself, which goes massively big in a wonderful way for an anime fan like me, is also something that happens so quickly.
With just one viewing under my belt, I can see myself coming to really love this movie even more over time. It’s one that I can easily background watch and listen to because it’s not overstuffed with action or a boisterous score that dominates everything but rather one that lets the dialogue stand out. I thoroughly enjoyed the pacing of it, the use of flashbacks, the bigger picture elements with the Celestials and their plans, and the smaller human moments throughout it. This was the one film that I think really felt worldly about it in a way that few others have managed, and so many on-location aspects that it delivered a very different experience. While it doesn’t succeed for some, I hope it does succeed in getting Marvel to branch out more with how they present their films. I’m definitely excited to see how the strands of this film influence the other projects in the future.
Streamed By: Disney+