Warning: This review contains spoilers – though, be honest, do you care?
World, meet the Eternals – the least dynamic, least exciting troupe of superheroes ever assembled. When I tell you they’re boring – a lifeless, sterile band, styled by director Chloé Zhao on George Lucas’s Star Wars prequel characters, then you better believe me. If you don’t, you could be spending two and a half hours with these mirthless, preening duds, becoming increasingly exasperated, if your senses can remain active, at their propensity to stand in formation; the blocking being one facet of the movie’s conspicuous design.
Late in a story that takes forever to crank up, there’s the revelation that these original Avengers – sent by a god-like race to, ostensibly, protect humankind from predatory monsters called (sexual) Deviants – are sophisticated androids. This explains their notional immortality, and perhaps their lack of personality, but not their diversity; a feature of the group that anticipates attempts to address representation on the big screen by several thousand years.
Why, we wonder, would a race of alien superbeings, with galactic ambitions, resolve to make their small group of champions both racially diverse and inclusive of groups like the deaf and LGBTQ+ community? Isn’t deafness a design flaw in an immortal warrior (perhaps in an enlightened universe it’s considered a superpower) and wouldn’t it be rather cruel to only include one homosexual in a group that’s destined to stay together and fight together over centuries? But we digress.
Early on, when we’re still getting to know these nobodies, Kit Harrington, hoping to romance Gemma Chan’s Sersi, dares to ask why the defunct and dormant team didn’t intervene in existential threats to the humans they were supposed to be protecting, like the Thanos snap for example. The mealy mouthed answer is that would exceed their remit – the Eternals only licenced to fight the now thought to be extinct Deviants, and unable to intervene in human affairs.
But later Richard Madden’s portentously named Ikaris reveals he’s known for centuries the Eternal’s true mission, namely to keep the human population healthy as our lifeforce nourishes a superbeing gestating in the Earth’s core – ejaculated there by the Eternal’s god-like creator. Yes, that old story. So why didn’t Madden, as the team’s de facto leader, not insist the band reform and help out Earth’s mightiest heroes? Because stories written backwards seldom make sense.
What’s been reached for but manifestly not achieved with Zhao’s movie is an attempt to broaden the MCU – a more philosophical approach underpinned by an expanding mythos. Perhaps producer Kevin Feige, in an implicitly racist move dressed up as progressive, thought Chinese director Zhao would bring an Eastern approach to the material – a mediative style at one with the film’s brand of otherworldly mysticism. But the reality is a movie that’s Richard Madden-ingly slow, ponderous and low-key to the point of inhumanity. It’s an emotional cripple of a film, incapable of expressing itself and therefore making a connection with its audience.
This matters because the only thing Eternals has going for it, at least on paper, is the relationship between its main characters; their loves, hopes, desires and, crucially, and potentially most intriguingly, their loyalties. But when we’re asked to invest in Madden’s inner conflict over honouring his 7,000 year-old mission or enabling Chan, the love of his life, to betray their cause for the greater good, we feel nothing, as there’s no chemistry between these characters, no sense of an epoch shared.
Other threads – the mental illness of Angela Jolie’s Thena, Lia McHugh’s desire to be a real girl (her character Sprite designed to resemble a child for no reason), and Oirish Barry Keoghan’s Druig frustrated by the ban on using his telepathy to influence the human condition (ditto for Brian Tyree Henry’s curb on advancing human technology) are barely felt. What might have been a fascinating interplay of psychologies and ideas, is rendered in broad, lifeless strokes.
Ultimately, Eternals is a featureless waste of potential that neutralises any anticipation for the Marvel movies that will follow. A caption promises the group’s return. We’re left to hope that with Eternals on thousands of worlds, the term is catch-all, and the next group will be the personable ones; the immortals who picked up the concepts of humour and wit – hell, even hedonism and decadence, on their host planets. The idea we’d want to see any of this movie’s characters again is the funniest idea in Zhao’s plodding fantasy – a joke cruelly saved to the bitter end.