Review: “ETERNALS” (2021)

And so comes Marvel Studios’ “ETERNALS,” in which we discover the answer to one of the great pressing questions of our age: Can the (thus far) invincible winning combination of the most precision-engineered crowd-pleaser assembly line ever created (courtesy the late Mr. Disney), one the greatest caches of intellectual property of the late 20th Century (courtesy the later Misters Lee, Kirby, Simon, et al), a studio head (the very much alive Kevin Feige) capable of balancing the creative ambitions of emergent dynamic filmmaking talent with the demands of an evolving global mass-market audience and – yes – also just a ton of money to spend… but that’s also being dispensed from a machine that is both made of and expects to devour more of that same money still continue its unprecedented hat-trick victory streak: consistently winning with audiences, winning with critics and raking in fortunes at the box-office… even when the formula is applied to something like “The Eternals?”

A late-70s slice of esoteric “Ancient Aliens” head-scratchery, “The Eternals” generally among one of O.G. Marvel creator Jack Kirby’s least popular, hardest to follow, shortest-lived creations, something unlikely any but the most devoted fans would bother ro have remembered existed in 2021 if not for half a century of subsequent Marvel writers pillaging it’s more-interesting-conceptually-than-in-actuality remains and turning its motley crew of characters and big idea mythology into the retroactive backstory of… well, everything else that Marvel has now made somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 other billion dollar grossing interconnected movies and TV shows out of – so now The Eternals kind of have to get theirs, too. Plus, a few years ago when Marvel asked Chloe Zhao if she wanted to direct “BLACK WIDOW” and she said “No thanks – But I’ve got some GREAT ideas for ‘THE ETERNALS’ if you were gonna do a movie of that!” And, hey, what kind of disastrously-mismanaged studio operation has a red-hot Awards-darling young woman filmmaker walk into their office pitching a big budget Jack Kirby space-gods adaptation and doesn’t follow through on it 100%, right?

The answer, by the way (with apologies for getting sidetracked there…) turns out to be “NO!” by the way – at least as of this writing the surprise twists seems to be that “ETERNALS” has proved more divisive among critics than among general audiences. And while I think it’s always fair to say there’s more than a little true that a certain percentage of the mainstream press has been waiting for a “vulnerable spot” to vent their frustrations with the off-putting omnipresence of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the film discourse; I also think it’s much more fair to consider (especially given the way review aggregates like Rotten Tomatoes tend to “flatten out” opinions into a crass yay or nay binary) that a divided response among professionals speaks more positively of certain works than a series of unqualified raves do.

That modern blockbusters often get “passing grades” in the percentages while still being derided as overly safe and formulaic in the consensus says alot about just how safe and formulaic so many of even the most well made ones really are. And while my take on “ETERNALS” errs more to the positive side than a few of my respected colleagues (8/10, ambition outweighs flaws, challenging and deserves to be seen – if anyone was looking for the spot to “peace out” to avoid any mild or unintended spoilers) the fact is films that take creative risks, make big swings, do things that are different and DON’T necessarily try to be all things to all people are by definition not going to “work” from every subjective point of view just as often as they aren’t going to “work” in the objective sense either – Sometimes a big risk doesn’t actually pay off all the way.

In any case: Based on the short-lived series of late-70s Marvel comics where Jack Kirby burned-off the ideas he didn’t get the use after DC didn’t let him finish the “NEW GODS” books a few years prior (and also, conservatively speaking, somewhere in the neighborhood of 30-40 years worth of reboots and retcons of the same thereafter) “ETERNALS” is more-or-less another blockbuster-scale repaint of the Ancient-Aliens/“Chariots-of-The-Gods” scenario; this time with a heavier unspoken lean to The Book of Enoch and Blake’s take on Alighieri’s take on the The Old Testatment plus some Gnostic pantheism to flavor the franchise-obligated Marvel superhero gloss: The “Eternals” of the title (at least so far as we or they are first aware) are a team of very handsome aliens gifted with immortal, indestructible bodies shaped like a humanoid adults (except for one who looks like a permanent teenager for some reason?) but apparently the emotional development of adolescents and dispatched to prehistoric Earth at The Dawn of Human Civilization in order to protect Early Man from a race of alien monsters called “The Deviants” using their superhuman strength and special individual powers under the vague guidance of “The Celestials;” gigantic (as in “bigger than the sky” gigantic) the cosmic Gods (capital-“G” this time – the real deal, unlike the whole “THOR” situation) who manage life, the universe and everything in Marvel Outer Space.

In any case, The Deviants look like various monsters familiar from mythology, some of The Eternals have names like “Thena,” “Ikaris” and “Gilgamesh,” so… you get the idea there; it’s apparently going to take several thousand years of human history to kill all these things during which time The Eternals are supposed to take a Star Trek Prime Directive “don’t interfere and if you do at least try to be coy about it” approach to nudging mankind along – presumably standing off to the side of history whispering “have you considered… ‘wheel?,’ tossing special swords out of lakes and/or into Stones, etc (that second one may or may not actually “come up” for real, since this is The Marvel Universe and it might need to be an actual plot point in someone else’s movie later – seriously.) Fast forward 7000 years to the present with The Deviant problem apparently long ago cleared up and The Eternals have mostly gone their separate ways while waiting around on the down-low on for The Celestials to swing back around to Earth and pick them up… until suddenly a new, more dangerous breed of Deviant appears seemingly out of nowhere possibly related to that whole “Evil Glove that killed and then un-killed half the universe” thing The Avengers were sorting out for several movies but which (it turns out) did in fact fall under The Eternals “do not interfere” hands-off policy.

Either way, it’s time to get the band back together – save that it turns out The Eternals found their mission/orders exactly as morally confused as everyone who watched that part the trailer (amazing how that works out…) and argued about it enough that most of them haven’t seen one another in centuries: Gemma Chan’s matter-rearranging alchemist Sersi is dating Kit Harrington’s handsome human history professor in London (if your wondering why half your theater gets excited when his character says his name, just remember it’s a Marvel movie and get comfy for the credits), her ex-lover Ikaris (Richard Madden) has been drifting around like a dour mopey Superman, Kumail Nanjiani’s Kingo has remade himself as a Bollywood movie star in India, battlefield couple Gilgamesh (Korean action star Don Lee) and Sersi (Angelina Jolie) are off the grid because she’s developed a mental condition involving apocalyptic visions and others are… elsewhere, to put it mildly. As the search turns up more bad news, revelations about the true nature of their origins, their powers, The Celestials and how the cosmic machinery of The Marvel Universe really operates (and why, and how they’re supposed to fit into it) The Eternals have to face tough questions about the nature of their own existence and tougher choices about what they can (or even should?) do to protect themselves, each other and the world around them.

And that’s basically our angle here: Immortal weirdos hashing out philosophy amidst an existential crisis during a slow-burn apocalypse – “WINGS OF DESIRE” meets “UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD” (for those who never thought they’d come out of a Marvel movie thinking about one Wim Wenders feature, let alone two…) where the biggest surprise of all might actually be that – for all the downplaying of “ETERNALS” as an actioner in favor of its cinematic mood-piece value (which certainly exists!) – it turns out Chloe Zhao can put together some seriously crunchy, satisfying knockaround battle scenes; particularly in terms of how the sound design and location shooting add weight and texture to the “OOMPH!” when big guns like Don Lee (and later Brian Tyree-Henry as deceptively gentle weaponsmith “Phastos”) are pounding the hell out of the generally nifty looking Deviants.

But yes, make no mistake – they didn’t lie: This is a movie fundamentally about characters who are themselves more heightened metaphors for aspects of the human condition than they are fully human themselves confronting big existential questions about the nature of life, morality, choice, good and evil, causality, philosophy and also huge complex science-fiction “What If’s” well beyond the scope of anything even the other Marvel Movies have ever committed to before (this is where we find out what “IN THE BEGINNING” means for the origins of, well, everything in terms of all these other films and… it’s a WEIRD ONE! Can’t wait to see what all the other characters say when someone explains it to them!) and in that context it’s also the first Marvel film in forever that you could call definitively “more of a talker;” where until the big finale the most important and dramatic moments are mostly conveyed by having the main characters talk these things out with one another. Not necessarily in a “series of dinner parties” (though there’s a couple of those) but one CAN in fact see why it was so important that so much of this get shot on location with physical places and real lighting and atmosphere – so many of the most important and dramatic scenes involve the buildup and exchange of emotionally charged dialogue between characters, you want it to be infused with the energy of a real place and time. Audiences expecting epic battles and larger-than-life spectacle WILL, certainly, be rewarded with one of the MOST gigantic in terms of both scale and sheer CONCEPT finales I think any Marvel movie has ever attempted but this IS very much a movie that’s aiming to have scenes where characters break one another’s hearts by turning away, or do the opposite by reappearing, be more devastating and consequential than whatever literal or figurative cosmic-scale spectacle “ETERNALS” busts out for it’s grand finish.

Whether or not it succeeds every time is… another story – “ETERNALS” is a (conceptually) huge movie with a huge cast taking a huge swing at huge ideas every time it gets up to bat and it gets a clear hit… most of the time, I believe. I wouldn’t say it misses any of the pitches, I don’t necessarily think all of them get over the wall, either; but more than enough of them do, and it’s the important ones. The cast, top to bottom, is fantastic. I wish a few had more screentime – by plot necessity the majority of our main-storyline screentime runs with Sersi, Sprite, Ikaris and Kingo with the others splitting time between later scenes and a greater presence in flashbacks; but when everyone is working off one another’s energy is a wonderfully balanced group and despite the mix of familiar and less so faces even megastars like Jolie eventually slip into being simply their characters. The subtle visualizations for their different traits and abilities are uniquely visualized, which can’t be easy given how often we’ve seen superhuman magical this and that powers onscreen at this point. There’s a matter-of-factness pervading it all that’s very refreshing particularly in regard to how “ordinary” the film regards the anything-but-ordinary (especially for the too safe, too often, for too long Marvel cycle) diversity of characters and personalities that comprise The Eternals themselves.

That having been said, when it comes to other areas – in particular the nuts and bolts of its “Humanity: Worth it or no, thoughts?” arc of overall philosophical bent, it does feel like there’s a few weights left off the bar to get the lift looking more impressive. Not necessarily in a “damning” way by any means – it probably behooves one to remember that there’s a substantial audience that watches Disney and Marvel movies, especially on the younger side, who’ll be encountering most of the bigger metaphysical and existential concepts being raised as plot points by “ETERNALS” for the very first time and be utterly blown away by them, and it’s hard to argue against that as a positive in itself. On the other hand, it’s not “wrong” exactly to wish that there was a bitmore actual meat to the deeper questions here; not only because it would help to justify what one imagines some will find the most insurmountable “ask” the film makes of it’s audience (holding back on a full explanation for why The Eternals all act… “like they do” until the mid-film “Here’s what’s really going on” mega-spoiler info-dump revelations) but because it would make the film’s philosophical and pseudo-scientific implications at least partly likely to be as much discussed as the post-credits appearances of some extremely complicated/obscure characters and sundry totems from the comics will inevitably be.

Yet, even still: While perhaps not in exactly the shape or form some had imagined, “ETERNALS” really is the big, bold, bizarre, “hard to believe a major studio signed off on this” blockbuster that people said Marvel didn’t have in them. Whether the world rewards them for it or not is yet to be seen, but I’m recommending that you find out for yourself. Check it out.

8/10

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