First things first: Yes, what you’ve heard is true, the gay Eternal in Eternals does Hiroshima. But to be honest, I nearly didn't notice; I left the theater puzzling over how this, a Marvel movie, could contain multiple references to DC characters Batman and Superman. She doesn’t even go here!
Eternals (no “the” in the title, please) is part of Marvel’s next wave of superheroes now that all of your friends from the last phase are phasing out. I love those movies; I wanted to love this one; I lost count of the number of times I gasped “oh no” in the theater, up to and including the title card suggesting that the Eternals in Eternals will return for a sequel. I’ll believe that when I see it.
The premise is this: Since the dawn of human civilization, human history has been guided and protected by a clique of god-like aliens sent to Earth to guard against attacks by monsters called Deviants, who manifest as giant screaming iridescent animals. We are informed of this arrangement by an opening text crawl. It’s seldom an encouraging sign when a movie begins by explaining what the hell anyone was thinking when they made it; while opening crawls do occasionally appear in great films (Blade Runner!) this only happens approximately once per decade. The rest of the time they serve as apologies for what you are about to watch.
In its first actual scene, the film introduces the Eternals and their vibes, but there are so many of them that their true names slip from the mind like lubricated slugs. There’s Punch Man, Cyclops But With Flying, Go-Fast-Girl, Kumail Nanjiani’s Arms, Tricksy Pixie, Lip Lady, Jack’s Girlfriend From 30 Rock, and so on. I kept inventing mnemonic devices to remember who’s who — okay, Sersi’s superpower is that she can transmute inanimate matter, and her name sounds like “Circe” who turned a bunch of men into pigs, so she’s the #TFTuesday lady, gotcha. Now try doing that with a dozen more weirdos while trying to make sense of the plot.
Speaking of the plot: After vanquishing what appeared to be the last of the Deviants many centuries ago, the Eternals have been just sort of, you know, hanging out or whatever, waiting for their shift to end so they can go back to wherever they came from. But what’s this? New Deviants have been popping out of the planet, oh no; we’ve got to get the team back together for one last special effects sequence.
On its own, this fun premise would be enough to sustain a film. But oh boy, the story gets tangled from there. The Eternals’ purpose is more morally complex than it initially seems, and there are lies dating back millions of years to unravel. Alas, the more that’s untangled, the less sense the movie makes.
As a film, it seems as though Eternals is aware that it could be about something, because it keeps gesturing in the direction of being meaningful. Interesting ideas are presented and then never examined, like guests bringing dishes to a potluck where nobody wants to eat.
The Eternals, we learn, are incapable of evolution and are threatened by a new phenomenon that involves adaptation. Is this movie about stability versus chaos? No, because that idea just sits on a table, untouched. Later, we see that humans have great potential for good, but instead waste their abilities on harming each other; does that failure make them unworthy of salvation or can they redeem themselves? Another idea that sits on the table. Our main hero is introduced via a lecture about the importance of apex predators; later we learn that the Deviants are more than just killing machines. Is it moral to exterminate them? This idea also sits untouched.
A bit of particularly weird gesturing happens toward the end, as global warming is referenced as being aligned with the emergence of monsters; but it’s unclear if climate change caused the monsters or the other way around. This is accompanied by an Alaskan fight scene in the presence of oil wells; oil platforms appear in the background of the movie’s climactic Indian Ocean battle. Are we trying to say something about climate change and fossil fuels and humanity’s tendency to destroy itself? Nope, just another plate for the potluck. There are also subplots involving the morality of mind control and the spirit of Star Trek’s prime directive that are barely glanced at, let alone settled.
Also irritating is the romance between characters who must be in love because the movie keeps insisting that they are. Eternals has some of the most tepid chemistry I’ve ever seen — what do these lovers share, aside from screen time? The declarations of love between people who don’t even seem to have filmed their scenes on the same day are so implausible they elicit laughs. It’s like when adults say that two toddlers are dating because they spent some time standing next to each other.
I suppose I should comment on the gay Hiroshima-doer. He’s played entertainingly by Brian Tyree Henry, one of the few bright points in the movie. His oscillations between sassy comedy and dire pronouncements are well-balanced, and more suited to a Guardians of the Galaxy movie than this slog. It is nice to see a gay character in a Marvel movie. All of the scenes involving his same-sex partner could be easily edited out for international exhibition. It’s the bare minimum.
Other elements to enjoy: At one point, a straight white man realizes that he was wrong about something and reacts by destroying himself in the most comedically flamboyant way possible. It's the funniest example of fragility I've ever seen. Looking forward to the memes.
I am also looking forward to memes of Kit Harrington as a giraffe, a topic that comes up multiple times. It's a giraffe on the mantle. Please send me fanart of this fursona.
Also great: Harish Patel as a trusty valet named Karun, working for Kumail Nanjiani’s character. He’s a comic treasure with a wonderful avuncular warmth who gets a heartfelt speech around the end that is better than what this movie deserves. He expresses his gratitude to the heroes — who have been truly awful to him — and as he walks sadly away, as friends must at the 3/4 point in any Disney film, I wished the camera would follow him instead of subjecting me to any more of this tedious group.
But his presence made me keenly aware of another of the movie’s failings: He’s one of the only human characters in the entire film. The Marvel movies typically derive much of their appeal from the intersection of heroes and humanity, but this movie is limited almost solely to the woes of the super-powered. It makes the Earth seem oddly sterile and uninhabited; the humans are nameless, barely-sentient background pets. The Eternals claim to have come to love humans during their centuries among us, but the declaration seems as unlikely as any “some of my best friends are.”
The one exception to the film’s utterly bloodless chemistry is a cameo by a post-credits pop star who, for all of 15 seconds, has a completely charming interaction with a CG creature. I believed that performance more than anything in the two and a half hours (!!!!) I’d just sat through. I wish I’d watched that movie instead.
You can watch Eternals starting November 5.