Eternals ★★★★

“Eternals” is the film I have wanted Marvel to make for years. And for that gratification alone, I am willing to overlook some obvious, but not catastrophic deficiencies in the final product. A superhero multiverse, in which the confines of time and space have been shattered beyond the point of return, is a canvas for all kinds of ambitious storytelling and worldbuilding. In light of that, I have found some of their output during the past thirteen years disappointingly unadventurous. Creative directorial hires like Taika Waititi and Ryan Coogler injected occasional jolts of energy and cultural diversity into a franchise that until this year remained mostly white and male both in front and behind the camera. That admittedly isn’t the only issue. “Black Widow” was one of the most lackluster films to have come out of that studio in quite some time. But a bit of innovation has never hurt anyone and handing the reigns to a celebrated virtuoso like Chloe Zhao, who has zero experience with blockbusters but knows how to craft a piece of art, is almost surely among the boldest decisions the executives at Marvel have made in ages. The result is nothing less than a beautiful, epic journey through the entire history of humanity. I would honestly have paid to watch a ten-hour cut of the Eternals just spending time all over the world in different time periods in recreations of Ancient Mesopotamia, Babylon, India, South America and other astounding milestones of early civilization.

There are inherent problems with a 2 ½ hour film revolving around a group of all-powerful, virtually immortal deities and asking viewers to relate to their conflicts and struggles. But as a kid, I loved reading stories from both Greek and Roman mythology and “Eternals” in many ways emulates those tales of gods interfering in human affairs either for their own amusement or to assist in the advancement of their species. Some of this information is relayed via contrived exposition, but long story short, the Eternals were sent to Earth by their omniscient bosses, the Celestials, colossal beings with the ability to manipulate energy and create new worlds. The Eternals are forbidden from meddling in human development, with the lone exception of killing extraterrestrial predators called Deviants, which have infested the planet and keep the Eternals occupied for millennia. Some of them, mainly the empathetic Sersi, bond with the humans over the ages and subscribe to a rather loose interpretation of their non-intervention directive. She, and a handful of her peers, come to value their hosts as remarkably curious and emotional beings who are capable of both inspiring kindness and unspeakable evil. Their leader Ajak, played by a regal Salma Hayek, manages to keep everyone focused on their primary mission until they kill the final Deviant during the Spanish conquest of Tenochtitlan, after which none of them remain certain of their purpose. They scatter and over the centuries more or less successfully integrate into human society. Until an earthquake accompanied by the arrival of an unusually powerful Deviant shakes them out of their lethargy.

The script is not entirely sure how to integrate all ten Eternals into its present-day narrative, so some of them get parked in remote corners of the world until the main party remembers to pick them up. One of them literally hangs out in their ship for centuries and waits for their recall to their home planet Olympia. But once they do pop back up, they usually make a strong impression. Kumal Nanjani gives an A+ performance as Kingo, who single-handedly creates a multigenerational Bollywood acting dynasty and thinks it a good idea to invite his valet on their mission to film a documentary. His wisecracking, but endearing attitude has rightfully won Nanjani fans worldwide and “Eternals” is a surprisingly fitting platform for him to combine that humor with some hero antics. Brian Tyree Henry isn’t far behind but doesn’t reenter the scene until considerably later in the film when his technological insight is required. Some of this tendency to reintroduce characters whenever the need arises for them in the plot is distractingly transparent, but it also gives everyone enough time to take center stage before making room for the next team member to rejoin this eclectic group of former gods who did their jobs so well that they ran out of stuff to do.

Perhaps the strangest aspect of the film though is its skewed moral compass, which has some perplexing views on good vs. evil. The role of the Eternals, which they initially assume is to serve as protectors of the planet and its inhabitants, turns out to be far more sinister than they suspected and it’s then that they begin to question their purpose and history. I find it hard to believe that this planet is so uniquely awesome in the universe that we were the only species that impressed their benevolent overlords enough for them to contemplate mercy. And the Deviants, which we come to find out have ethically problematic origins, are not really affected by this new information, even though it should give the Eternals a greatly altered perspective on the beings they have been hunting since they first arrived on the planet in 5000 BCE. The film also falls victim to the not uncommon problem of superhero films moving the goalposts when excusing the moral failings of its godlike protagonists. Druig, who can manipulate people into following his commands to the point where they become brainlessly obedient zombies, is quickly forgiven for his lapse in judgement. So is Sprite, whose understandable frustration with being stuck in a teenage girl’s body and never being taken as seriously as the other Eternals leads her to make some problematic choices.

The film places major emphasis on the romantic history of Ikaris and Sersi, who fell in love all the way back in Mesopotamia and stayed together for centuries. By the time we meet Sersi in present day London, giving a lecture on apex predators, she has moved on from Robb Stark to his foster brother Jon Snow, a joke that hasn’t been lost on anyone ever since the cast was announced. After that, Harrington vanishes until the very end almost, when they are suddenly all happy together again, as if the past two hours never happened. I admire the scale of what Zhao attempts here with a large ensemble of for the most part equally important players over a hitherto untested timespan. But she covers so much ground that she sometimes just breezes past developments that we needed more time with and before we know it, it’s already hundreds of years later. The preview, as epic as it was, annoys me in hindsight because it contains a major and blatant spoiler about a character’s level of knowledge about information being kept secret from most of the Eternals, and the audience, until about halfway through the film. Because there are time jumps, the film tips its hand too early, a significant faux pas that undercuts the emotional core of a relationship that has lasted thousands of years. “Eternals” is a film of big ideas and big errors, a beautiful beast that I much prefer over the cookie cutter fare Marvel has dished out over the years to appease fans and avoid risks to the bottom line.

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