WARNING: The following contains spoilers for Eternals and all of the MCU. Read at your own risk.
I’d like to apologize for ever suggesting that someone could make a movie of Gemma Chan doing nothing but standing there and breathing. Because boy howdy did I vastly overestimate how interesting the results of that experiment would be.
I wanted to like this film. I really did. It’s got a great cast! It’s got diversity in front of and behind the camera! Queer characters actually shown to be queer! A Deaf character played by a Deaf actress! Expansion of the concepts of what makes the Marvel universe!
Sadly none of that translated to something that felt worthwhile watching. Sigh.
This movie was a slog. The runtime is just over two and a half hours but it felt like it took me three years to get through. I’m pretty sure part of me is still watching it and I’m only hallucinating the freedom to sit and write this article.
It’s not the worst movie in the world by any means. But boy is it not the best either. Frankly part of the problem is that it’s not really anything. Like if it was a worse movie at least that would come back around to being interesting. Even the first Suicide Squad gave us meaty things to make fun of like “This is Katana!” and Jared Leto’s entire existence. Eternals doesn’t have any of that. It’s just... there.
If someone was curious and wanted to watch I’d say sure, go for it. If you’re looking for people in colored costumes who occasionally do super powered stuff then this movie does have those things. But I wouldn’t put it as a must watch by any means. I can’t even single out one or two moments that stand out as highlights. Yeah a reaction here or a line there but nothing that lasts long enough that it’s worth trying to find as you fast forward through the rest of it.
I’ll be honest: the movie is so meh that, even as I was taking notes while I watched, I genuinely wondered if it would be worth it for me to do a writeup for you guys. But I know some people were looking forward to my thoughts (which my ego appreciates, thank you) and I figure if nothing else maybe Eternals can serve as a point of reference for how things go wrong compared to movies where things go right.
So let’s talk about that.
What Wasn’t Bad
I want to first take a moment to talk about what did work in the movie. First up, props for how Lauren Ridloff was always shot so that you could see her signs when she spoke. As we’ve talked about before, if you don’t show the signs you are cutting off the actor’s performance in much the same way as if you don’t have a microphone on when actors speak verbally. I kept my eye out every time Makkari was on screen and as far as I could tell they always showed her signs and kept the focus on her rather than on anyone who was translating for her.
Which isn’t to say there weren’t some odd moments, like towards the end when Makkari was talking and Thena was standing several feet behind her yet was somehow still able to know what Makkari was saying. But if the error is on the side of keeping the actor doing the signing in frame I’m all for it.
Speaking of Makkari and Thena, the two of them along with Gilgamesh and Phastos were apparently part of a much more interesting film so it was nice of them all to stop by and share their lines and performances from that. The four of them were the only ones who showed any sort of hint of life and personality. I’ll give honorable mentions to Kingo and Sprite but for me you could’ve taken the two of them out of the film and not missed much. Whereas Makkari, Thena, Gilgamesh, and Phastos were some of the few saving graces of the entire movie.
On that point, while I know why they didn’t do it, let me say that one huge improvement to the movie would’ve been to make Phastos the main character instead of Sersei. Bryan Tyree Henry elevated every single line he was given, plus Phastos’s story was more interesting. Him having a human husband and child was a more personal and immediate reason for him to go against his millennia long mission than Sersei’s supposed motivation of really liking humans, for real, we swear.
Which I suppose is as good a place as any to start talking about what didn’t work in this movie. Sigh.
What Didn’t Work (aka Most Of It)
I can’t even break this down into smaller sections, it’s such an interconnected mess of problems.
May as well start with where we just left off, which is that Sersei, and frankly most of the characters, brought nothing to the screen. Which frankly I’m going to put at the feet of Chloé Zhao because I’m sorry, in no world do I buy that folks like Salma Hayek either wouldn’t or couldn’t give better performances than what we saw. When you have that many talented actors being so flattened down in a story which gives their characters little to no motivation for why they do what they do and the director is also one of the writers? That’s a common denominator.
Sersei had no personality. We’re told she likes humans but why? No, literally, why? Yeah we see her working beside them and letting them braid her hair or whatever but what about that was appealing to her? What made her be the official representative of Team Human compared to characters like Phastos or even Druig? Does she like their empathy? Their humor? Their art? Their language? Their smell? What?
And this lack of motivation for things extended to the other characters as well. Ikaris loves Sersei because... why? Their big romance montage was literally him spending the day standing a few feet away from her while she did stuff. Which I suppose could be him learning enough about her to fall in love but when the time comes for him to make a speech about it the first thing he says is that she’s beautiful. Which, yanno, it’s Gemma Chan. You don’t need a full day to come to that conclusion.
Now I was spoiled for this movie long before it aired and in an earlier iteration of the story it was said that part of the big reveal was that Ikaris and Sersei were programmed to fall in love with each other every single time. Which I thought was an interesting concept and thus would’ve explained why their falling in love montage lacked the part where they fell in love. I’m all for the storytelling device of “it’s not an error, it’s a plot point.” But that reveal never came so we’re back on meh.
Which is as good a place as any to talk about how one of the many problems with this movie is that it felt like it was riddled with the ghosts of earlier drafts that hadn’t been properly integrated into a final form. Kingo’s entire deal felt like a remnant of a more Ragnarok-y comedic take on the story. The Deviant who stole powers and evolved to speak felt like another draft where he’d been intended to be the big bad. Phastos and Gilgamesh’s scenes felt like a version where the plot was a vehicle by which to show a found family story.
And then you have what I suspect was Chloé’s contribution which was for yet another movie called A Thousand And One Shots Of Actors Silently Standing Still During Golden Hour While Nothing Else Happens.
To be fair: I’ve not watched anything else that Chloé has done. I’m not familiar with her directing style enough to say these things for certain. But at the same time there are certain parts of movies which tend to be the responsibility of the director which is why I’m pointing the finger in her, well, direction. Especially because part of the problem with this movie is that it felt like it didn’t want to be what it’s actually about, which is super powered beings fighting monsters. It felt like it was ashamed of those concepts and as much as possible wanted to sneak away and focus on moments of characters with the sunlight glinting off their hands.
And you can do that! I actually thought it was smart to get someone like Chloé for a movie like this because when you’re dealing with enormous concepts like the creations of solar systems and life itself one way to make that story relatable for your human audience is to focus on the more intimate details. Respond to the going big by going small, so to speak. But here again the movie didn’t really do that. We don’t know why most of the Eternals do what they do or even what most of them feel about anything. Even the ones who do get some stated motivations, like Druig, aren’t consistent. He likes humans enough to want to help in cases of genocide but not enough that he won’t mind control them all and start a cult?
(Also why a cult? And if you can mind control people and want to mind control people enough that they treat you as their leader why wouldn’t you have them build a better place for everyone to live? And have more of them? And... you get the idea.)
Which also gets us into the way that the movie makes no sense even by its own rules. Here I cannot stress enough how much I am happy to both forget that Endgame ever happened and apply the MST3K principle of “repeat to yourself it’s just a show” on logistics. But if the movie brings it up then it’s fair game. If you don’t want me thinking about it, don’t mention it!
To wit, don’t bring up Thanos and mention in the world’s worst casted post credit sequence that Thanos is a relative of the Eternals if you want me to believe Sersei when she said the Eternals didn’t interfere with the snapture because it was a solely human problem. Likewise don’t mention that the snapture postponed the plans for the emergence if you don’t want those of us in the audience pointing out that, by definition, that interferes with the emergence and therefore stopping it should’ve been on their To Do lists.
Also, reminding the audience that the snapture happened undercuts the supposed tension of the film because one planet is fewer beings than half the god damn universe. This both ruins any stakes in the movie itself because it’s objectively smaller plus it makes the supposed heroes look like ass too. When Sersei talks about not supporting that kind of death apparently what she means is that she’s fine with death but prefers it to be less organized.
Also no part of what the Eternals do makes sense. Starting with why in the tapdancing fuck does Arishem not program them to do the fucking job he actually needs them to do. He created them! He started from scratch! Why would he create a program for them that requires them being fed a false story? They’re blank slates! They could be told fucking anything!
And then, since he repeatedly reboots them, why wouldn’t he fix that? My dude, if you’re taking the server down for maintenance upload a fucking patch!
I’m pretty sure the moral of Eternals isn’t “Make sure to hire qualified IT professionals and coders” but boy is that what I came away with. Like I’m sorry but if Arishem can’t even program a single living creation of his to do what he needs it to I’m not really feeling confident about what he and his offspring can manage as far as creating entire solar systems. He can’t manage a circle of life ecosystem well enough to realize introducing Deviants wouldn’t cause a problem and I’m expected to trust him with stars and planets?
And again: I’d happily handwave except it was plot points in the story! The actual goal of the Eternals was to help get the population of the planet to the size that the Celestial could be born. Hey you know what actually helps population growth? Advances in food production. Yet there’s a whole fucking scene of Phastos being told he’s not allowed to do that!
Also not to put too fine a line on it but if your goal is population growth and one of your team is a mind controller there’s a super easy way to make that population growth happen. Not a consensual way or a way that’s going to be fun for everyone involved, but from Arishem’s point of view how would this be different than factory farming?
Which brings us to another issue which is that Arishem created the Eternals to do this job and yet nothing explains why they have the powers that they do. Yes, I know in the comics you get things like Makkari’s speed is used to scout out planets but that’s not mentioned in this movie. We get multiple scenes of them fighting Deviants but absolutely none of them show the use of teamwork or any indication that they know how to have their powers compliment each other.
I’m fine for the first fight scene not having that since when they arrive on Earth they just got booted up again and as far as they’re aware this is the first time (which... again just program them so this isn’t an issue!). So sure, first time, no teamwork, fine. But they go on to do this for thousands of years and we see nothing to show they know how to work together. Sersei gets all the way to the final battle of this movie and still looks like she has no idea of how to use her own powers in a fight, let alone how to use them together with a team.
Which gets to another issue which is that the fight scenes were boring. I’m not saying every movie has to be at Shang-Chi levels of advancing the story through every altercation but when you have super powered beings in the mix they should at bare minimum not be more boring than folks who only have marital arts on their side.
What makes it worse is that we have things to compare it to! Think of Tony’s fight against Thanos in Infinity War vs Phastos fighting Ikaris. Tony comes up with a new and situation specific uses for his nanotech with each move, meanwhile Phastos... hits Ikaris with the same projectiles multiple times and then eventually realizes hey maybe restraints might be handy. Which wouldn’t be a problem except Phastos is supposed to be a god of invention! Not to be all “you have ONE JOB” but, well.
Likewise compare any time Ikaris fights to when Captain Marvel does. They have the same power set, with really the only difference being that Ikaris’s energy beams come out of his eyes and Carol’s out of her hands. But when Carol fights she does it with zeal and clever uses of her environment. Ikaris just flies, and shoots beams, and then does more of that. There’s no variety or interest.
All of which wouldn’t be stuff I would care about if there was an interesting story tying this all together but there wasn’t. There were many interesting concepts, and I was for all of them! This could’ve been a high level intellectual story about ethics as they relate to the cycle of life on a universe level, or the idea of robots gaining free will (which has been done pretty well by a couple of other properties). Or it could’ve been a lower level story about an oddly matched group of powered beings coming together to fight scary looking monsters. I was on board for any of those options! I think at certain points there were drafts of this story which were also on board for those options. Sadly none of those made it to the final cut.
Because I’m me, let’s take a moment to talk about how yet another thing that didn’t work was the costumes. I read this article about the making of them and, well, bless your heart Sammy Sheldon Differ, you tried. Kinda.
Look first up the costumes look like hot ass. They look cheap in still photos and they look cheap when you see them move, which is particularly impressive since some of them were entirely made via CGI. Yeah, the costumes in Shang-Chi also looked stiff but at least there they had the explanation that they were made of dragon skin. Here there is no explanation and the one given in the interview was that they were supposed to look organic? Really? Do you have a different definition of “organic” from the rest of us?
Part of the problem is that I think a key premise behind the costumes was flawed, namely that each character had to look individual. The problem they didn’t need to solve for is making the characters distinct. Nobody is confusing Kumail Nanjiani with Barry Keoghan (Richard Madden and Kit Harington, maybe but Kit doesn’t have enough screentime for this to be an issue). So we don’t need to color code each individual person in order to know that if we see some variation on blue and gold, even in civilian clothes, it’s Ajak.
Putting everyone in a different color without rhyme or reason as to why they were in that color did a huge disservice to the audience and the job that costumes can do. Compare this with another movie with a super powered cast of thousands. Encanto managed to have costumes for each member of the family which showed their individual personalities while making clear connections between the family members. You see yellow, you know it’s Pepa’s family for instance.
Whereas with the Eternals you can’t draw any connections. Yeah they all have gold swirly things but beyond that there isn’t enough in common. According to that article supposedly there was something to show the “fighters” of the team vs the “thinkers” but I have been staring at pictures of these outfits until my eyes cross and for the life of me I cannot see it. (And feel free to insert your own joke here about how if I of all people can’t conspiracy theory my way to a connection, it ain’t there.)
Which isn’t helped by how it’s not clear who the “thinkers” of the team even are. Like you’d think Thena being a warrior would make it clear that she’s a fighter and therefore her outfit could be used to try to translate the rest. But I can find elements of Thena’s outfit in everyone else’s so there goes that out the window.
(Also let’s take a moment to eyeroll at how the most distinctive part of Thena’s outfit is that it makes sure to remind us all that Angelina Jolie has two breasts.)
Also, while we’re talking about a failure to make the actors look good, what in the tapdancing fuck was up with the wig they used for Sprite? I’ve seen better wigs in flashbacks on CW genre shows. Lia McHugh’s hair is perfectly lovely! Why couldn’t they go with that?
Could They Fix It?
Obviously this is a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking on my part. My goal here isn’t so much to say I personally could do it better but, rather, to give some ideas for how as a concept things could be better for those looking to learn either from the movie analysis perspective or for when they’re working on their own stories.
So first up if I was given the challenge of only being able to use what was shown to us on the screen, I would say the biggest and easiest fix is in the editing. Get rid of the opening explanation which is useless and can be covered by showing us instead of telling.
Then change the order of the flashbacks. Part of the problem with the movie’s pacing is that the flashbacks were oddly placed both in terms of timing and in terms of setup. For instance we’d have a character say something about how Ajak had always been their leader and then cut to a flashback that has exactly nothing to do with Ajak leading the team.
Instead what I would do is start the story in modern day. Remove the bits that show Sersei having powers. Do the setup of her at the school, her being connected with Dane but edit out the part where they’re already in a relationship since making it still at the flirting stage gives their characters somewhere to go. Keep the parts where she’s holding back on him for some mysterious reason, then make the big reveal be when the monster appears and she transforms the bus.
At which point you either cut to the flashbacks or take it all the way up to Ikaris meeting Dane and then do the flashbacks.
But you see how this makes it a little more interesting? I mean obviously the promos for the movie give away that Sersei and Sprite have powers but making this the start would get the audience interested in what’s going on. Did Sersei lose her powers? Her memory? Is she in hiding?
Which then makes a nice segue into the backstory about the team. So stack all of the flashbacks on top of each other instead of spreading them out, then bring it back to modern day and getting the band back together and ride it out until the end of the film.
It wouldn’t have made this the best film of the century but it would’ve at least improved the setup and audience investment.
Moving away from just using what we already have, another big improvement would’ve been to show the characters actually having relationships with one another. We got a few throwaway lines which hinted at it, like Phastos telling Sprite that her sarcasm never helped anything. More of this! They knew each other for thousands of years. Why no in jokes? Why no traditions? Why is there nothing that indicates these characters ever hung out together, let alone know how to fight beside one another?
Beyond that, pick one of the story options they hinted at and just go with it. Be a comedy! Be an indie film! Be something! As it is it just... was.
As always, things that don’t fit anywhere else
- A genuinely interesting bit is that they worked with an expert in the field to get the spoken Babylonian as close to right as they could.
- I genuinely can’t tell if the scene of Kingo “dancing” is telling us that Kingo is a bad dancer who thinks he’s a good one or if it’s trying to say Kingo is a great dancer while downplaying how Kumail could barely do the most basic of choreography. And look, in all fairness to Kumail Bollywood is hard. I wouldn’t wish Bollywood on someone as their first dance performance in a movie anymore than I would Swan Lake. But he was being tasked with “Stand here, put your hand there” and I’ve seen mannequin heads with more rhythm. And you can work around this! One of the easiest options is to say Kingo’s ego is bigger than his performance talent. But as I say it wasn’t really clear that’s what they were intending to do. So put that down as yet another thing that needed tightening up.
- What is the schedule at Phastos’s house that the first thing they do after a game of catch gets interrupted is ask the kid to brush his teeth? What version of catch are they playing that causes tartar buildup?
- Maybe the Eternals would’ve been better at fighting as a team if they’d spent more time practicing battle tactics instead of rehearsing standing around in a V formation.
- This is going to sound like a backhanded compliment but I liked that Dane's role was limited. This is no shade on Kit Harington or his performance which was perfectly fine. But when you compare it to Shang-Chi and how Katy vastly overstayed her welcome, it is nice that they understood you can have restraint with characters and only show them for as long as you need to.
- Sersei giving a lesson in apex predators was another thing which made me think an original draft was more about the idea of Deviants vs Eternals with the intelligent Deviant as the big bad.
- Another directorial pet peeve was the color filter on everything. Don’t get me wrong, it can be done well. David Fincher’s made a whole career out of it. But here it just made me squint at my screen and wish I could actually see what was going on.
- Why wouldn’t Dane believe Sprite telling him the truth about her and Sersei? Superheroes and aliens are real and well known. Sprite’s story barely registers as odd in comparison.
- I get why this doesn’t work given that the actor is a child, but within the story Sprite’s physical nature makes no sense. They establish that it isn’t that she’s a child Eternal. Which means that from the Eternal perspective it isn’t that she’s young it’s that she’s short. There’s no reason in the story why she and Ikaris couldn’t date or whatever (other than Ikaris not being into her, but they made it sound like it was her body that was the problem.) Again something that could’ve been fixed by handling it differently. Like don’t have her ask why Arishem made her look that way and then not give us the answer for it. Or just say she’s a child Eternal! Plenty of easy fixes with just an added line of dialogue.
- Why remind the audience that the story of Ikaris is a guy who flew too close to the sun if the ending of this character is that he flies into the sun? Just don’t mention the myth! Let the audience make the connection on their own and that way some of them can feel smart!
- I was not a huge fan of the implication that humans couldn’t invent a plow without help. Was even less of a fan of them reducing Hiroshima to an “oopsie” character development moment for Phastos 1) at all and 2) when he got over it offscreen.
- I was spoiled for Ikaris being the bad guy but even if I wasn’t him going “It was a Deviant!” the second they saw Ajak’s body would’ve given it away. To paraphrase Seth Meyers, it’s like a husband who shouts “I didn’t cheat on you!” when his wife asks him how his day was.
- The bit about who will lead the Avengers felt super forced to the point of giving me secondhand embarrassment. Also don’t remind the audience about the Avengers if you don’t want them wondering why none of them showed up to try to help with a world ending event.
- Back on how shitty Arishem is at his job, but the Eternals aren’t even set up to fight Deviants that well either. They have one job and he can’t hook them up with better trackers? Deviants are effectively invisible if they’re around some ice? Also neither Arishem nor Phastos ever thought to hook the team up with some communicators in case they needed to keep in touch while on other sides of the planet?
- Also from Arishem’s point of view what was the reasoning behind everyone’s powers? What exactly did he see the teamwork synergy being here? Like sure, Ikaris and Thena fight, Ajak heals, Makkari scouts. But what’s the point of Sersei’s power? Why give Kingo tiny pew pew hands that he can only sometimes level up a little bit if he strains himself instead of energy beams like Ikaris has? Why not just make everybody Ikaris with Ajak’s healing ability, for that matter?
- Nobody noticed that there were no signs of a fight at Ajak’s property? It’s not like Deviants are subtle in their hunting.
- The kisses between Sersei and Ikaris were painful. Like to the point where you wondered if one of the actors had bad breath or something.
- Speaking of painful, let's talk about the songs on the soundtrack. They felt forced and offered no cohesive addition to the story. Are they thematic, like the Pink Floyd song? Are they humorous like the BTS song? Other? C'mon, guys. You've got Ramin Djawadi doing your score. Get out of his way and let him handle the music for you.
- Given that the plan was to try to put the Celestial to sleep, and given that Thanos setting the emergence back by five years wasn’t a big enough of a deal for the Eternals to interfere with, why wouldn’t Ikaris be okay with a plan to put a snooze alarm on the Celestial long enough to save the humans? I know there’s logistical problems with bringing the humans elsewhere but his objection was to futzing with the emergence at all, which makes no sense given the history. Like they didn’t even know that humans would be brought back in five years so arguably they’re ahead of post-snap schedule. A week or even year or so isn’t a big problem.
- Why didn’t Druig try to mind control Ikaris? Why didn’t Ikaris fly out of the way of Makkari’s punches? Why didn’t Makkari zoom Sersei over to where she needed to be before going to fight Ikaris? Why didn’t anybody put two seconds of thought into any of the fight scenes?
- You’ll die if you make a drinking game out of “Take a shot every time Gemma Chan is on screen looking like she and/or Sersei doesn’t know what to do.”
- So it was a huge deal not to let the Celestial be born but apparently it could be okay if a case is made for humans to survive? Which couldn’t be brought up earlier?
- Also how is this a cliffhanger given that Arishem grabbed arguably the three Eternals who are most fond of humanity? (Yeah Kingo was fine for them dying but he still loves his current lifestyle - though to that point, why grab Kingo at all since he wasn’t involved in stopping the Celestial from hatching?)
- IMDB says that the voice at the very end talking to Dane was Mahershala Ali. I’m down for that, if so.
And yeah. That’s all I’ve got. Wish I liked it more. Hope that they do better if there really is a sequel. But otherwise am not going to be rewatching this movie any time soon. Woof.
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