Saturday 13 November 2021

Marvel Review Round-Up: Eternals

So, although I've been watching all of Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as it's been released, I've not found time to sit down and review the films. Having just got back from watching Eternals, and with Black Widow and soon Shang-Chi up on Disney Plus for a rewatch, I'm going to work my way backwards along the films over the next few days. (Probably won't bother with What If? because, although it was great fun, I haven't much to say about it.)

Eternals has received some very mixed reviews, some absolutely scathing, others glowing, and I can completely understand that. It feels both very different to the rest of Marvel's films, yet at the same time just another in a long line of superhero films. The decision to hire Chloe Zhao to direct (and largely write) the film was an interesting one, and the greater creative freedom that Disney/Marvel are giving their directors can only be a good thing for the franchise's future (one of the better decisions that DC/WB made in its attempt to rival the MCU was to let directors have considerable creative control, and Marvel is finally following suit). There's a much slower, more melancholic feel to Eternals than to any previous MCU production and this gives helps it stand out. A film embracing the truly mythic side of Marvel's canon is overdue, with characters who have lived for millennia and literally world-shattering events granting a sense of scale that we really haven't seen before. The huge range of different location shoots helps as well (although I was pleased to see the film start in London's Natural History Museum, one of my favourite places). 

Yet it still feels somehow more of the same. Your mileage may vary, but I'd say the modern era of the superhero film began in 2000 with X-Men, although you could certainly push it back further if you wanted. Still, I'd say that was the start of the current run of hugely successful film properties based on, largely Marvel, comic series. That was twenty-one years ago. Even if you don't look further back to the many popular superhero films of the nineties, eighties and even seventies, that's a long time with a lot of movies packed in. The Eternals, in spite of being the alleged inspirations for various mythical heroes and gods, come across as just another superhero team. You've got the super-fast one, the zappy one, a couple with magical-type powers, the one with superstrength, flight and laser-eyes, who's explicitly likened to Superman... While some have more interesting and less common powers, notably Phastos who can build anything and create mechanisms from nowhere, it's still mostly stuff we've seen time and time again. 

Likewise, the fight scenes, although impressive, are the most standard Marvel the film gets, and while they're visually interesting, their style and magical graphics look too much like those scene in both Shang-Chi and Doctor Strange to stand apart. I get it, this is what magic looks like in the MCU, but could we not have some more visual variety? When fighting the Deviants, reimagined here as elaborate but mostly uninspired monsters, Eternals falls into the trap of looking like a video game, something that the MCU had largely managed to avoid so far. 

Which is a shame, because there's some wonderful stuff in here. The cast is both star-studded and truly impressive, while also being proudly diverse. Unlike the comics, which had largely white male Eternals in the main line-up, the film has a cast that involves people from various ethnicities, equally split down the sexes but largely focused on the women. We have a deaf actor in the form of the wonderful Lauren Ridloff, and finally some prominent gay characters in the MCU, and while half of this is getting cut for Middle Eastern and Asian releases (where they haven't banned it altogether) at least they're doing something. And look, this is, as far as I'm aware, the first time we've had Salma Hayek and Angelina Jolie together in a film, which is an incredible thing in itself. Both are absolutely brilliant, of course, still incredibly beautiful and playing powerful, noble characters who push the narrative in interesting directions.

Gemma Chan is very good as Sersi, although I feel she has relatively little to work with for the first half of the film. Once things kick up a notch she really gets to take a bit of the role. Oddly, she's already been in the MCU, painted blue as Minn-Erva in Captain Marvel, and clearly the PTB were impressed with her seeing that they brought her back so quickly. It's good to see a solidly strong actor finally get a major movie role. Standing out is Lia McHugh as Sprite, fifteen but playing someone eternally twelve/thirteen years old, but giving the role more depth and pathos than many adult actors I've seen in a long time. Whereas everyone in the cast is strong, not many of them really give the impression they've lived for seven thousand years; McHugh, in spite of being the youngest, manages it best. 

I particularly liked Don Lee as Gilgamesh, reinterpreting the legendary warrior in an entirely new way, and Bryen Tyree Henry as Phastos, the Enternals equivalent of Hephaestus, but my favourites are easily Kingo and his valet, Karun. Kumail Nanjiani is hilarious as the Eternal-cum-moviestar, and Harish Patel provides a much needed human touch. Obviously we're going to get sequels to this, but I really want to see a prequel with Kingo and Karun building a Bollywood career in the 1950s. Richard Madden is suitably inscrutable as Ikaris, but there's surprisingly little of Kit Harington as Dane. Hats off to them for resisting the urge to drop in some Game of Thrones jokes, especially when they were both there talking to a character called Sersi. Harington is very likeable, though, and the film sets up his inevitable return as the Black Knight, with a whole plotline that runs along in the background unseen. 

That's probably, though, where the film struggles the most. While the shout-outs to the MCU are some of my favourite moments, they feel weirdly detached from the rest of the film. Had this been entirely separate, it would have stood on its own merits more, but as it is, it feels like an uneasy insert into the existing continuity. The reason given for not interfering Thanos's assault on reality is slender. Sure, the Eternals have their prime directive which prevents them from interfering in human conflicts, but this falls down on numerous fronts. One, we see them interfering in other conflicts in human history, even though they agonise over it. Two, an alien invasion is scarcely an internal conflict. Three, they talk aboit how they helped Odin fight the Jotnar, which proves the point of number two. And four, gratingly at least for any fans of the comics, Thanos is a bloody Eternal so why the hell wouldn't they get involved with that? It's a small thing in relation with the film it itself, but it makes it hard to accept as part of the overall story.

Really, this is Eternals all over. There's so much in there that's good, but it doesn't quite gel together, finally giving us something that's enjoyable but ultimately unsatisfying for reasons it's hard to articulate. It's certainly too long, some of the dialogue is spectacularly clunky, but the real problems are deeper than that. It's a shame, because there's a lot to recommend it, but ultimately it's an also-ran in the MCU.

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