Okay, I’ll admit it: I actually enjoy action movies. Not even in an ironic, laughing-at-the-ridiculousness kind of way, but in a genuinely entertained kind of way. I actually enjoy action movies. Maybe the predictability provides some level of comfort, or maybe it’s stimulating enough to maintain my fleeting attention. Regardless of the fact that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has become subject of the ire of both cinephiles and legendary producers alike, I still find myself consuming its content regularly. I just think it’s fun, even if they aren’t examples of great cinematic masterpieces. The massive production value and popularity of the franchise suggests that I am not alone in this.
Recently, I watched The Eternals, the newest original film in the MCU. Directed by Chloe Zhao, this represents one of the (now) rare examples of an unestablished story within the MCU: it is not a sequel or part of any established plot line. It’s new. I’m glad to see something new come out, but I was disappointed while The Eternals. The reason for this can largely be summed up in two words: ineffective storytelling.
As mentioned previously, Marvel movies are generally not cinematic masterpieces, and they don’t try to be. They don’t pretend to be anything more than they are: they are not pretentious. They may not have the quirky, artistic layers of Wes Anderson films, and they aren’t masterfully emotive like Spielberg films can be. Still, they largely achieve their objectives: they tell entertaining stories that can be enjoyed by a wide range of people. Marvel movies may not change your life, but they do what all films do, in the end: they tell stories. Unfortunately for The Eternals, this was not done particularly well.
The movie tried tackling a lot of big ideas and themes, which I like. I was intrigued by the realization that everything the Eternals thought they knew was a lie, and the existential questions which come with that. The sentience of the Deviants was a riveting concept, as it showed commonality between the Eternals and their supposed antagonists. Watching as these characters guided and influenced our history was beautiful, as we got an insider’s view (from the perspective of this cinematic universe) of the real stories behind Greek mythology, the epic of Gilgamesh (the eponymous character played by Don Lee), and various historical events such as the agricultural revolution. Finally, as the core conflict of the film, the question of whether it is right to allow the destruction of one world in order to fuel the birth of millions of others is downright riveting. Still, all of these themes and ideas fell flat. The more than two-and-a-half-hour film felt slow, boring, and underdeveloped, despite the genuinely fertile ground the writers had to create a complex and beautiful example of popular film. Again: ineffective storytelling.
The reasons for this unfulfilled potential are many: interesting plot threads were left unexplored, some performances fell flat, and characters and relationships were left largely undeveloped.
First, a big issue in the development of the film comes from the sentience of the Deviants. When they gain consciousness and realize that their literal purpose in life is nothing more than to farm a planet of intelligent life for the benefit of a fetal Celestial, their interests and beliefs are challenged in the same way as the Eternals’. Their stories, feelings, and conflicts began running parallel to each other in this moment wherein both groups realized that their entire lives were a lie. Upon this revelation to us, the audience, I was genuinely excited: these two groups, which had been at odds with each other for millennia, now have a common thought and common goal. They could join together and stop the Emergence, and in so doing, explore the feelings and internal dissonance which come with a loss of belief, a sense of betrayal, and a broken sense of purpose and identity. At one point, a Deviant expresses to an Eternal its frustration that it was created for this purpose. Rather than taking a pause to realize that they shared this frustration and realizing that, realistically, they were on the same side, the Eternal continues to fight and kill the sentient Deviant. I can’t help but think that the more natural consequence of this realization would have led to some sort of conversation between the Eternal and the Deviant, as both sides realize that their mutual antagonism is manufactured by a distant god they both wish to confront. Not only did I think that this was a more rational series of events than what actually transpired (which was nothing; this plot line was dropped as fast as it was introduced), but it would have provided an excellent opportunity to explore this theme. The introduction of these questions and this theme had to have been intentional, but I was confused that nothing ever came of it. Truly, the film would not have been any different had the Deviants remained nothing more than the mindless predators of humans. These emotional beats were only half-heartedly explored and did little to nothing in the exploration of character or plot development.
This example of unrealistic writing is further reflected by dialogue that felt flat, forced, and cliché. In one scene, the Eternal responsible for inspiring the ancient Greek worship of Athena (played by Angelina Jolie)—goddess of not just warfare but also wisdom—delivers a speech that is meant to be uplifting and inspirational to another down-trodden character. However, the speech effectively boiled down to little more than a trite “everything happens for a reason.” In the film, this mundanity somehow functions as a spur to action for the hurt character, but as a viewer, it was nothing but blasé. It seemed that the actors themselves struggled with the writing. It’s a bad enough sign when you can visualize the lines written in the script book; it’s even worse that I could easily imagine the acting directions given to Angelina Jolie being something along the lines of, “show no emotion; just look pretty.” “Monotonous” is not a substitute for “ethereal.” Meanwhile, the delivery given by the actress for Sprite (played by Lia McHugh) often felt flat, forced, and unnatural. Surely, a multimillion-dollar production could have provided resources for this young actress to feel comfortable and relaxed enough to perform to her full ability, not to mention a script full of realistic, natural dialogue.
Speaking of Sprite, the introduction to her character proved one of the best, most adept ones I’ve seen in awhile. The scene opens in a lounge. A pretty, redheaded woman sits at the bar, clearly flirting with the man in front of her until he goes to touch her hand. Her hand disfigures, and the man is clearly confused. The girl tells him he’s had too much to drink, excusing herself to a private room. She lifts the illusion to reveal her true form: that of a child.
This scene is an absolutely brilliant introduction to a character: from that one scene, we are introduced to this character’s primary internal conflict (the mind of an immortal being trapped in the body of a human child), desires (love and connection), and personality (a bit mischievous). All of this with only one or two lines of dialogue. However, this is the first and final scene that effectively introduces characters to the audience. This brings the conversation to the biggest flaw in the movie: the underdeveloped characters and relationships. In this movie, the relationships between the characters—as well as a solid understanding of the characters themselves—should have been the substance of the film. After all, why should anyone but ex-lover Sersi be affected by Ikaris’s betrayal? When one character admonishes Ikaris by referring to the group as a family, I was taken out of the movie. “Family?” I thought, “how can they call themselves family when no emotional ties have been established between these characters?” We knew that Gilgamesh and Thena were close, we saw flirtation between Druig and Makkari, and we were shown the romance between Sersi and Ikaris. Still, what’s the particular dynamic between Phastos and Kingo? How does the lighthearted Gilgamesh get along with perpetual edgelord Druig? These relationships should have been the heart of the film to give weight not only to the final betrayal, but also their own internal struggles: how do these characters weigh their love of their so-called “family” against their now-shaky beliefs? We don’t know. Relationships are not explored, but used as cold, flat plot devices.
This left so many opportunities unexplored. I think this is best evidenced by once again reflecting on that brilliant scene of Sprite’s illusion in the bar: we see her desperation for the human connections and credibility that come with adulthood. We see her intense sadness at her circumstance, to the point of her questioning why she was “made this way.” It’s established that she is in love with Ikaris, which is made complicated by the fact that she lives with Sersi, Ikaris’s long-term lover. Rather than exploring the conflict between the love Sprite has for her best friend versus the envy she holds against her, Sprite’s character remains undeveloped. These characters have no internal lives. They do not have thoughts or feelings beyond the mechanics of the plot, a factor that ultimately becomes the film’s most fatal flaw.
I wish to emphasize that I do not hate or even dislike this movie. Like I said before, I am very easily entertained, and this was no exception. However, I am frustrated by the unfulfilled potential this film brings. Truly, I think it had many elements which could have made this a truly stand-out addition to the MCU. The themes and questions posed are high-minded, philosophical, and intriguing, but these are only made truly impactful when masterfully handled, and this film simply wasn’t. Perhaps The Eternals will age well as it takes its place in Marvel cinematic canon, but it could’ve been more than just another cog in the machinery. It could’ve been so good, but instead, we have a movie with a nearly three-hour long run time that manages to say nothing. Marvel produced, filmed, and edited a first draft, and now this is what we have. Let’s hope for better in the inevitable sequel.