‘Eternals’ has to do a lot of heavy lifting for a single film

Nov 5, 2021, 6:28 AM | Updated: Nov 12, 2021, 9:22 am

When Marvel began creating its Marvel Cinematic Universe, it used five films to introduce its main roster of superheroes before putting them together in their first ensemble piece. Audiences were well-acquainted with Iron Man, Incredible Hulk, Black Widow, Thor, and Captain America long before they got a chance to see them work as a team in “The Avengers.”

So now, imagine the daunting task Marvel sets for itself in “Eternals.” It has to introduce 10 new superheroes in one fell swoop, not to mention an entirely new cosmology involving Celestials, Deviants, and Eternals. That’s a lot of heavy lifting for a single film, even a 157-minute film.

And its ambitions don’t end there. It also wants to invest these Eternals with emotional complexities that are as varied as their strengths and personalities. And, oh, by the way, the film also covers 7,000 years of human history in the process. The fact that “Eternals” isn’t quite up to all this should come as no surprise. To its credit, it covers lots and lots of ground but it has to skim along on the surface much of the time just to get it all in.

At the most basic cosmological level, the Celestials created the Eternals to do battle with the evil Deviants. The Eternals are an immortal alien race who have lived among lowly humans on Planet Earth for thousands of years in order to protect mankind from the Deviants.

The roster of Eternals includes Sersi (Gemma Chan), whose power involves manipulating inanimate matter, Ikaris (Richard Madden), who can fly and shoot energy beams out of his eyes, and Kingo (Kumali Nanjiani), who can do with his hands what Ikaris does with his eyes. Thena (Angelina Jolie) is a warrior who can create stylish weapons out of thin air, Gilgamesh (Don Lee) is the physically strongest of them all, and Ajak (Salma Hayek) is a kind of healer who also acts as the Eternals’ spiritual leader. The powers of the remaining Eternals include super-fast speed, mind-control, illusion-making, and technological ingenuity.

In addition to showing off their fighting prowess again and again, the Eternals also have time for centuries-long romances and deep abiding friendships among themselves, as well as long-standing hurts and resentments. Sersi and Ikaris were once lovers and Sersi has never gotten over it, Thena and Gilgamesh seem like an old married couple, and the youngish speedster seems very into the mind-control guy and vice versa.

If you’re keeping score, that’s six of the 10 Eternals in some kind of messy romantic relationship and a seventh is flat-out jealous she’s NOT in a relationship with one of them. It’s rare for the emotional lives of this many superheroes to be so on display but I imagine it’s designed to deepen and enrich the characterizations. It’s one of the reasons Oscar-winning indie auteur Chloe Zhao (“Nomadland”) was brought on board to direct. Her specialty is the personal, and these immortals get personal.

“Eternals” intentionally sports the most diverse cast, with different races, nationalities, ages, genders, and sexual orientation. Zhao wanted the cast to reflect our world but not have audiences focusing too much on “what they represent.” Mission accomplished.

And the film does not shy away from big themes. The Eternals have varying takes on the humans they observe, interact with, and protect. Some of them have empathy for the struggles humans must endure, while others are less than enchanted with the human race and wonder if their mission on earth is a waste of their energies. Is humanity worth saving, given how quickly we resort to war and violence, for instance? As is evident by questions like that, certain Eternals strain under the yoke of the Celestials who brook no disagreement with them. Shades of Lucifer breaking away from his fellow angels, perhaps.

As should be clear by now, “Eternals” is a hugely ambitious film that doesn’t come close enough to attaining many of those ambitions. Instead it’s a relatively entertaining movie that provides a roster of superheroes who, I hope, go on to star in better future films.

Check out more of Tom Tangney’s movie reviews here.

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‘Eternals’ has to do a lot of heavy lifting for a single film