An ambitious departure from the previous paint-by-numbers MCU films, but while it will attempt to distract you with impressive visuals (other than the Deviants), it’s a soulless film with a convoluted plot full of neo-liberal woke-pandering. Chloe Zhao’s The ETERNALS is the result of a writer/director concerning themselves far more with satisfying the rubric of check-boxes associated with toxic woke culture than telling a thoughtful or entertaining story. This is MARVEL Studios’ movie to demonstrate, through superficial virtue signaling, that they are onboard the Woke Express. Perhaps the idea of this movie sounded innovative in the echo-chamber meetings, but the execution leaves much to be desired. Diegetically, the prolific world building, MCU connectivity, and character development this movie needed to do, even the more than 2.5hr runtime isn’t sufficient, and ultimately feels like a DCEU-style rush job. Between the chaotic plotting, bad CG (those Deviants look like something right off the SyFy Channel), cosplay uniforms, dialogue lacking in any subtext, and the gross neglect for any nuance to the storytelling whatsoever, this movie is the product of an assortment of post-modern critical theories and not the imagination of a filmmaker. Clearly Zhao has an eye for cinematic composition, but her skills as a storyteller are not nearly as fine-tuned–certainly not for such a gargantuan superhero spectacle.
The Eternals, a race of immortal beings with superhuman powers who have secretly lived on Earth for thousands of years, reunite to battle the evil Deviants.
Dramatize don’t tell. This is the No.1 principle I teach in my film studies and screenwriting classes. And this important convention is broken at the very beginning of The Eternals. Very few movies have demonstrated that scrolling text in a prologue can pay off dramatically (i.e. Star Wars). It works in Star Wars because that is how the world was first introduced to the mammoth intellectual property, therefore, it becomes part of its branding (and is missed when it doesn’t happen). Moreover, there was no frame of reference prior to A New Hope; and since we were being plunged into the middle of the action, it was necessary to preface the story that was about to unfold. Audiences aren’t being introduced to the MCU–they’ve been in the MCU ostensibly since Paramount’s Iron Man. Therefore, this demonstrates a lazy approach to providing exposition that could have otherwise been integrated more thoughtfully into the main action story. Furthermore, this lack of dramatic exposition is problematic, not only at the beginning, but throughout the movie.
If there was a social media campaign or outcry about it in the last few years, you will find that box checked off in this movie. As I watched this movie (in IMAX, btw), I couldn’t help but envision a rubric, not unlike the kind many professors use for grading papers. Personally, I don’t use a rubric in my classes because satisfying requirements in that fashion does not tell me how you can apply what you learn in class to your topic; but rather, that you know the bare minimum you need to do in order to get the point(s). Think of it as a typical test. A typical test only demonstrates to the professor how much you can remember NOT how much you know or your level of wisdom (the application of knowledge). It’s as if Zhao held meetings with MARVEL Studios executives and staff to outline every woke box that needed to be checked in this progressive movie. I won’t go into all the examples because that would take up a paragraph in and of itself, but if there has been a push for representation, then you will find it here. And all those characters in one place means that most are not developed sufficiently and feel more like one-dimensional tokens than characters crafted by a writer who cares. That’s the problem here. Increased representation across the spectrum of humanity in cinema is very important, but not when it comes at the expense of the integrity of the characters themselves.
One of the hottest topics of discussion to come out of this movie is the inclusion of a PG-13 sex scene, which is long overdue in a cinematic universe such as this one, which is filled with HOT male and female characters in form-fitting uniforms. More than demonstrating to audiences that the MCU movies have grown up with their initial audience of teens and 20-somethings, this scene is important because it shows that these immortal beings have some humanity in them. Superheroes and supervillains are often not thought of as human, and even though we learn that these immortal beings aren’t exactly human, they do take on many characteristics of humans, and this scene is a refreshing reminder that superheroes have erotic passions just like the rest of us. There is a vulnerability about them.
Because of all the piping that is being laid in this movie (enough for at least two or three movies), the story feels incredibly rushed. It reminded of how the DCEU tried to complete with MARVEL, years after MARVEL had been in the MCU. The result was hurried world building. It took MARVEL years to build the MCU, but the DCEU tried to accomplish the same in a year or two. We have five stories here (1) its creation myth and early Mesopotamia (2) the time in Babylonian Empire (3) the time in the Aztec Empire (4) the Greco-Roman Empire, and (5) the present-day story. Each of these is incredibly important to the main action plot of The Eternals, and yet these otherwise rich settings are reduced to flashback fodder. There are easily three thoughtful movies that could have come out of the five aforementioned stories. The result is a single plot that cannot possibly accomplish everything that it needs to in order to effectively tell the story and do it justice. I’m still not entirely sure why the Deviants were attacking the Eternals; oh it was sort of explained, but like with much of the rest of the film, it wasn’t thoughtfully developed either.
If you are familiar with Middle Eastern or Greek mythology, you will enjoy the integration of some of the mythological stories with which you are likely familiar. From the Epic of Gilgamesh to Ikaros to Athena, you will learn that it’s the Eternals that inspired these stories. While we may never know precisely what inspired these stories in real life, they were likely inspired by real individuals, much like legends and lore are to this day. So, knowing that these powerful, immortal beings have been secretly living on earth makes since, and can be appreciated both through a historic lens and through the backstory of the main action plot of the movie.
There are two end-credit scenes, each setting up a new characters. I won’t spoil it (but don’t look at the IMDb either). One scene in at the beginning of the credits and the other is a post-credit scene.
Ryan teaches American and World Cinema at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.
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