Congratulations, Kevin Feige, you’ve managed to commercialize and limit an Oscar-winning director’s vision. Chloe Zhao’s Marvel movie should’ve been monumental and memorable. In the end, her emotional, natural direction style and superproducer Feige’s vision of a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie (MCU) aren’t a successful marriage.
That isn’t to say “Eternals” is a bad movie — it’s a dependable superhero movie falling far too short of its lofty expectations. The fact this film doesn’t entirely work speaks to a larger issue of the MCU: directors aren’t able to make the superhero movie they want.
“Eternals” feels unlike any Marvel entry released thus far but is at odds with itself — it can’t decide if it wants to be a Zhao movie or a Feige movie — and it ultimately ends up being a generic and glitzy experience instead of a transcendent one.
Created by cosmic beings known as the Celestials, the Eternals are a group of ancient alien superheroes brought to Earth to bring prosperity and advance civilization. They battle creatures known as Deviants and are about 7,000 years old. The events of “Avengers: Endgame” trigger the beginning of the “emergence,” causing the Eternals to take on the Deviants once again.
Zhao’s (“The Rider,” “Nomadland”) strength lies in telling human stories, and she still manages to do a decent job. She’s able to take their larger-than-life personalities and ground them. These superheroes aren’t your typical Avengers — they’re arrogant, erratic and share intimate moments with one another.
Additionally, Zhao’s visual style is wonderful and her talents are beautifully on display. The colors, costumes and overall aesthetic of the movie are vibrant and unique — it’s a shame the writing and shoddy characterization don’t work as much as the visuals.
The bloated screenplay largely negates Zhao’s effort. “Eternals” covers too much ground in its 157-minute runtime, resulting in uneven pacing. The flashback sequences about the team’s origins are mostly an afterthought and slow down the film, whereas plot points in the current timeline are rushed through.
Introducing a new set of heroes involves a lot of exposition and world building. While some of the mythology and lore is interesting, a lot of it feels unoriginal and reminiscent of something found in a DC movie. It also doesn’t help that Feige (“Avengers,” “Avengers: Infinity War”) wants to see big CGI battles.
Yet again in an MCU film, “Eternals” features an over-extended climactic sequence with below-average special effects. The CGI in this movie is some of the weakest in the MCU — more evidence that Zhao should’ve done what Zhao does best: valuing character over spectacle.
The lack of time devoted to the characterization leads to a mixed bag of performances.
Kumail Nanjiani’s (“The Big Sick,” “Stuber”) Kingo is funny in a movie that severely needs more humor. Even though they don’t get much screen time, it’s great to see stars Salma Hayek (“From Dusk till Dawn,” “Frida”) and Angelina Jolie (“Salt,” “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”) in a superhero flick, engaging in well-choreographed action sequences.
Ikaris, played by Richard Madden (“Game of Thrones,” “Bodyguard”), is stoic and stiff, but he and Gemma Chan (“Crazy Rich Asians,” “Captain Marvel”) have terrific chemistry. The best Eternal performance belongs to Druig, played by a menacingly aloof Barry Keoghan (“Dunkirk,” “The Green Knight”). He deserved a better character arc and more screen time, which would’ve immensely helped the movie.
In an ensemble cast, it’s hard to get well-rounded performances due to minimal screen time. Most of the Eternals fail to make themselves distinguishable, including weak protagonists Sersi and Ikaris. The love triangle between the two and Dane Whitman (Kit Harrington) is lazy, forced and predictable — leave this trend in 2004, Hollywood.
“Eternals” is not a one-and-done type of movie, there will be sequels. The question is, how much control will that director get? It’s hard to see Zhao back in the director’s chair for a potential sequel given the lack of creative control.
Feige has issues with directors trying to break out of the Marvel mold — see: Edgar Wright and Scott Derrickson — and is looking for someone to break the box office. He wants auteurs to make their version of an MCU movie, though won’t give them autonomy. In these cases, the entry is always going to be muddled and disappointing, just like “Eternals.”
If the MCU wants to stay eternal, it has to evolve. Otherwise, they will soon become deviants of cinema.
“Eternals,” rated PG-13, plays in theaters Nov. 5.