Eternals, An Epic Hodgepodge Focused On The Academy’s New Standards

Eternals, An Epic Hodgepodge Focused On The Academy’s New Standards
(L-R): Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), Gilgamesh (Don Lee), Thena (Angelina Jolie), Ikaris (Richard Madden), Ajak (Salma Hayek), Sersi (Gemma Chan), Sprite (Lia McHugh), Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) and Druig (Barry Keoghan) in Marvel Studios' ETERNALS. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

The Academy Award winning director Chloé Zhao (for Nomadland) returns to the silver screen with a Marvel blockbuster. The profound insight she conveyed in her socially oriented independent films, gets annihilated by a messy action-hero franchise. Moreover, the movie tries to tick all the boxes of the new Hollywood conduct — defined by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences regarding new representation and inclusion standards for Oscars.

But before dissecting the 156 minute flick, let us take a step back to the originator: the comic that inspired it.

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The Eternals was created by Jack Kirby and first published in 1976, offering a unique opportunity to portray unexplored historical periods and varied characters. Here these super-beings are described as an offshoot of the evolutionary process that created sentient life on our planet. The Eternals are a race of immortal aliens from the distant planet Olympia, who came to Earth thousands of years ago to protect humanity from a race of alien predators called Deviants, and were alerted of this threat thanks to the intervention of the Celestials, a race of cosmic architects.

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(L-R): Karun (Harish Patel), Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), Sprite (Lia McHugh), Sersi (Gemma Chan), Ikaris (Richard Madden), Thena (Angelina Jolie), Gilgamesh (Don Lee) in Marvel Studios’ ETERNALS. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

The film Eternals marks the 25th film of the Cinematic Marvel Universe, introducing ten new super heroes, who all have in common the ability to project cosmic energy from their eyes or hands in the form of heat, light or concussive force. They then have individual characteristics, that can be described as follows:

  • Ajak (Salma Hayek) is the matriarch of the Eternals. She has all the powers of the average Eternals, but the one thing she can do that the others can’t is communicate with their creators, the Celestials. 
  • Sersi (Gemma Chan) is an Eternal who is in love with mankind who lives in London and works at the Natural History Museum. Her power is that she can manipulate matter, transforming the molecules of any object into something else.
  • Ikaris (Richard Madden) is a powerful Eternal, serious and focused on his mission, endowed with great strength and is the second strongest on Earth, after Ajak.
  • Thena (Angelina Jolie) is an Eternal who is a warrior and fighter but suffers from memory loss. 
  • Druig (Barry Keoghan) is a very intense Eternal who has the power to control minds.
  • Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) is an outgoing Eternal, with style and character. What distinguishes him from the others in the comic strips is his skill with a sword; in the film he is given a Bollywood twist.
  • Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), is an Eternal who is a brilliant inventor and tech savvy. He is the engineer of the group, who a creates devices technology and weapons, through his mind and energy powers.
  • Gilgamesh (Don Lee aka Ma Dong-Seok) is an Eternal who has great strength and an equally great heart in taking care of those he loves.
  • Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), is an Eternal who is the fastest in the universe. For the film the character has been changed to a female who communicates with sign language. 
  • Sprite (Lia McHugh), is an Eternal who despite being thousands of years old, still maintains the appearance of a 12-year-old.
Marvel Studios’ ETERNALS. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. © 2021 Marvel Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Amongst the humans who cross the path of these super natural beings, there is Sersi’s boyfriend Dane Whitman (Kit Harington), who works with her at the Natural History Museum in London; and Kingo’s butler, Karun (Harish Patel), compared to “Batman’s Alfred,” who provides great comic relief.

By and large, the exceptionally talented cast does not suffice to lift a discombobulated narrative, that navigates back and forth through time and space without a steady direction. The screenplay written by Zhao, in collaboration with Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo and Kaz Firpo, seems to jumble the timeline as a ploy to enliven a dull story.

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The entire focus is on the character constructions of these super heroes who need at all costs to fit in the politically correct slots of an inclusive 21st century ideal, where different religions, gender issues, and disabilities all co-exist happily ever after. Other than this, the characters simply do not maintain coherence to their identity: one minute they are fallible, the next they are invincible on the very same trait that made them fall at the beginning. 

(L-R): Richard Madden and director Chloé Zhao on the set of Marvel Studios’ ETERNALS. Photo by Sophie Mutevelia. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

Chloé Zhao’s soulful finesse transpires only in the details, but is crushed by the magnitude of the Marvel machine. One can perceive only an inkling of the filmmaker’s empathetic touch in unveiling real human moments, when she uses unconventional humour in the science fiction. It is palpable that to tell this story, Zhao attempted to blend the epic with the intimate side, but in doing so she succeeds only visually. The choice of filming in real locations, using spherical wide-angle lenses and depth of field, does provide grandeur to explore the relationship between the characters and the world they live in. Yet the existential questions addressed to humanity are crushed by a confusing mishmash of multiculturally sensitive and inoffensive clichés.

Final Grade: C

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