Review: ‘Eternals’ is a Stumbling, Bloated Space Opera

With talk about about Eternals coming out on Disney+ on January 12, it feels time to properly address this movie which, while doing great at the box office, still missed a lot of Marvel fans worried about the ongoing pandemic to see it in cinemas. And boy, is this a movie you’re going to have to see in order to understand a lot of the big stuff happening in Phase 4 of the MCU. But is it actually worth your time?

The titular Eternals are a group of super-powered beings who are tasked with staving off the Deviants, who are trying to kill off human kind. They are given this task by Arishem, a Celestial, aka one of the highest beings in reality that, in essence, run the show. But the group—comprised of Ajak, Sersi, Ikaris, Kingo, Sprite, Phastos, Makkari, Druig, Gilgamesh, and Thena—split up centuries ago after defeating the last of the Deviants. Or so they thought, until Sersi and Sprite are both attacked by new, stronger Deviants, bringing their quiet existence to an end and necessitating a regrouping. The only problem is that their leader and main connection to Arishem, Ajak, has been killed. Now the rest of the team must reunite if they are to have any chance of saving the Earth, though that might be a bigger job than they thought. 

Ultimately, Eternals presents an interesting exercise in world-building that doesn’t quite pull off its execution. It sets up what’s going to (very likely) be the big bad for the next few films: the Celestials. Its goal is to get the audience as caught up on the massive amount of lore they’ll need to understand what the ensuing story is all about. But I think herein lies the problem with the movie, and the overall strategy of the MCU moving forward.

The way Thanos was introduced was slow and careful, spanning several movies and building up as a threat over years. We got to see characters grow and change, team up and break down, and grapple with the ramifications of their actions before Thanos became the big, real threat. But for the Celestials, we get a mention of it in the Thanos story arc, but all of the info-dumping happens in this movie. And not just that but who the Eternals are, who the Deviants are, the larger stakes at play, a serious condition that affects Eternals that could throw a wrench in things, and two literal world-altering events that the heroes will have to contend with. It’s a lot of cram into three hours worth of runtime, and that after-credits scene only serves to make things more bizarre and confusing. I get that Marvel has places to go and characters to make us care about before their untimely deaths, but between this and all the elements introduced in Shang-Chi, it feels like a lot. 

The other issue that the movie doesn’t do a good job of making Eternals feel like it’s a part of the MCU. Besides a reference or two to other heroes, this movie could be an entirely separate movie. As such, I had a hard time picturing it as a part of the whole MCU story the way I could with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Sure, they explain why the Eternals were not a part of the big fight against Thanos and what their purpose is, but that doesn’t give me much of a reason to care about them, much less their part in the bigger story.

In terms of the acting, we’re getting a mixed bag. Gemma Chan as Sersi brings a lot of warmth and care to the character and the story. Richard Madden as Ikaris is also excellent, as you can really feel his anguish and struggles to do what is right. Lia McHugh as Sprite is also a fun choice, walking the line between relatably tragic and slightly irritating. Angelina Jolie, on the other hand, is absolutely phoning this one in. It doesn’t help that her character is supposed be loopy and unresponsive half the time, but the parts where she’s supposed to be lucid are two-dimensional. And as much as I like Kumail Nanjiani in just about everything else, he sticks out like sore thumb amongst his teammates, with jokes that don’t land and a put-upon air that feels fake.

Barry Keoghan and Lauren Ridloff, who play Druig and Makkari, respectively, have amazing chemistry, and I hope that will be explored in later films. Salma Hayek is only in this for a short time, but the gravity she brings to the story and her character can be felt throughout the film and I love it. Both Brian Tyree Henry and Don Lee are great, but don’t get as much time to shine as I would like. And Kit Harrington is…well, he’s here, so that’s something.

Much has been made of Chloé Zhao coming on to direct after her Oscar-winning turn, and I will say the quality of the direction is undeniable. The film itself looks gorgeous, with excellent use of setting, color, and well-directed action set pieces. My only complaint is that Bollywood scene, which definitely feel like someone who only has a vague notion of what a Bollywood movie looks and sounds like would have made. I do think most of the weakness comes from the premise — there’s just too much to do in one movie and even the best directors struggle under that kind of pressure. 

From here on out, we’ve got to head into spoiler territory, but if you want to see my final thoughts, jump down to the bottom of the article with the ratings.

I like the twist that Ikaris is the villain of the story rather than Druig, who seemed like the obvious choice as the one with mind control powers. I think anyone who has seen Barry Keoghan in anything basically assumes his the villain, or is at least evil-adjacent. But Ikaris’s motivations are well-written, and the scene where he sacrifices Ajak for the sake of the mission (at least as he sees it) is heartbreaking. Generally speaking, the way the battle lines are drawn are compelling and make sense, and I’m glad it created some emotional payoff for Seris, Ikaris and Sprite.

The ending, in my opinion, is where this whole endeavor absolutely falls apart. If there is one major, glaring flaws, it’s that Eternals did not stick the landing. The final battle was fine, well-choreographed and well-paced, though that one bit with the mutated Deviant Kro and Thena is weirdly intimate in a way that took me out of it for a second. But it’s what happens after the battle that really gets me.

The cheesy bit at the end where Sprite becomes human is just a little too neatly wrapped up for me. Having ageless child characters provides some interesting complications to stories, but I feel like they swept her story under the rug super quickly by just “making her human” and shipping her off to school. Also the fact that Kingo just comes back after sitting out the big battle at the end? Are there no consequences for him just giving up? The ending just feels way too neatly squared away so they can make an opening for the big bad that’s coming down the line and I know Marvel can do better than that.

Also, let’s just be real here: the part where Ikaris, having lost, flies into the Sun is both random as Hell and just a touch on the nose. 

Having the other Eternals go off to find others like them is a great opener, but that end credits scenes with Eros/Starfox, Thano’s previously unmentioned brother, really threw me. I actually thought it was a joke or a parody. Pip, Eros’ helper, has such weird CG — I can’t tell if because it lives squarely in the Uncanny Valley or if its too cartoony. And Eros, in all his Harry Styles glory, doesn’t look at all like Thanos, so are they siblings through adoption? Marriage? Some sort of fellowship? We will get more answers soon, I’m sure, but the whole thing was just so weird. 

The idea that humanity will be judged by Arishem based off the memories of the Eternals presents an interesting jumping off point, with one minor problem. Is this going to matter in any of the subsequent movies? Or maybe better yet, what is the timeline here?  There’s a giant hand coming out of the Earth, every just saw a massive monster fill up the sky, and all of this is post-Blip and I’m guessing post-No Way Home. Will there be a connection in Multiverse of Madness or Thor: Love and Thunder? It just feels like one big mess, and I feel like a need a conspiracy theory-style flow chart to help me out.

All Exposition, Barely Any Payoff

Eternals presents a fascinating premise, but with 75% of the movie feeling like it’s presenting exposition for bigger things to come in other movies, it stands on its own, but atop wobbly legs. Great acting from most of the ensemble and beautiful visuals do not make up for the long runtime, unsatisfying ending, and random dips in pace and action.