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‘Eternals’ a valiant, imperfect MCU effort

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We’re long past the point where we can talk about individual films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe without also exploring the way they fit into the vast MCU machine, both narratively and commercially. These movies have ceased to exist as autonomous offerings; rather, they are parts of a larger whole even as they try to operate as singular works.

In those terms, I’m not sure how successful “Eternals” is.

However, if we’re talking about the execution of an individual film, one whose ambitions span a dozen new characters and thousands of years, all while simultaneously telling a story of relationships AND a story of potential world-shattering cataclysm, well … I thought it was a pretty damned good effort on the part of Chloe Zhao and company.

“Eternals” is the newest of the slew of MCU movies from the back half of 2021; we’ve already had “Black Widow” and “Shang-Chi,” while “Spider-Man: No Way Home” is coming next month. It’s also one of the deepest cuts we’ve seen yet from the MCU, with many viewing it as a sort of reckoning. These are not characters with a great deal of pop cultural cachet, deemed relatively minor Jack Kirby creations even by those devoted to the late artist’s oeuvre, so would this be the film where Kevin Feige and the rest of the Marvel powers that be finally got too far out over their skis?

Yes and no, as it turns out.

In the year 5000 BC, a group of superpowered beings known as Eternals arrive on Earth, sent by Arishem, one of the cosmic beings known as Celestials to protect the planet. Specifically, to protect the planet from the monstrous and invasive creatures known as Deviants – no Eternal is to otherwise interfere in human affairs, positively or negatively.

Led by the healer Ajak (Salma Hayek), each member of the group is possessed of great power. Sersi (Gemma Chan) can manipulate matter. Ikaris (Richard Madden) can fly and project energy beams from his eyes. Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) also wields energy as a weapon. Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) is possessed of unsurpassed mechanical genius. Sprite (Lia McHugh) is a shapeshifter and Druig (Barry Keoghan) can control minds, while Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) has super speed and Gilgamesh (Don Lee) has super strength. Last but not least, we have Thena (Angelina Jolie), who is far and away the greatest warrior of them all.

These Eternals spend centuries fighting the vicious Deviants and protecting humanity, all while doing their best to avoid becoming otherwise embroiled with humanity. But when the day comes that they have seemingly eliminated all Deviants, the group decides to go their separate ways while they wait for word to arrive that they can return to their home planet of Olympia.

In the present day, Sersi and Sprite live together in London, where Sersi works as a historian and is involved in a relationship with a fellow scholar named Dane Whitman (Kit Harrington). The three of them are attacked out of nowhere by another Deviant – different than any they have ever faced before. Ikaris arrives to help them fight it off; it’s the first time Sersi and Sprite have seen him in centuries.

The return of the Deviants means that the Eternals must reunite and try to determine what has happened, but it quickly becomes clear that there are other forces – darker forces – at work. The decisions they make – and the motivations behind those decisions – could well be the difference between salvation and destruction for the entire human race.

Now, there’s a lot more that happens in “Eternals.” Like, A LOT more. It’s a complicated and at times convoluted narrative, moving backward and forward in time – Zhao isn’t the least bit afraid of leaning on flashbacks for backstory purposes – which means that things aren’t exactly linear. The twists and turns and assorted reveals – of which there are many – are best left unrevealed here.

So what can we talk about? Well, we can discuss the glorious weirdness of the Eternals and the utter chutzpah it takes to turn them into a movie. We’re talking about a race of space gods that Jack Kirby created almost as a lark, devoted to dual tenets of protecting humanity while also remaining hands off. We can also talk about the sheer scale of this effort; almost every MCU film of the past decade has been starting from a place of audience understanding, but in “Eternals,” we’re introduced to something like a dozen brand-new characters and a whole different sphere of this already-vast universe. It is an incredibly ambitious undertaking in multiple respects.

Is it an altogether successful one? Depends on who you ask.

Chloe Zhao is both an incredibly strange and absolutely perfect choice to helm an MCU movie in general and “Eternals” in particular. She’s the reigning Best Director, a filmmaker with an eye for capturing the bleak beauty of the natural world and an ability to evoke meaningful interpersonal connections, neither quality the first thing you think of when you think “superhero movie.” But those gifts – her insistence on using real-world locations whenever possible, a focus on the dynamics inherent to these millennia-long relationships – are what make this one a little different, though not even an Oscar winner can fully overpower the cinematic Marvel Method.

As often happens when this kind of movie features a cast of this size, some characters get more play than others. Chan is the closest thing we have to a lead; for the most part, she proves up to the task. Madden is solid, albeit a bit stiff – it works. Nanjiani serves as the comic relief; his quippiness is amusing, though it feels slightly out of sync with the rest of the movie. McHugh mines a surprisingly complex performance from a potentially one-note role.

Jolie is at her best during some rather excellent fight scenes, while also establishing a charming rapport with Lee. Keoghan and Ridloff have low-key exceptional chemistry, though there’s not room to do much with it. Hayak and especially Henry are in a similar boat, gifted, nuanced performers who are absent from the proceedings for rather long stretches. Oh, and Bill Skarsgard is the voice of one of the main baddies.

“Eternals” isn’t a complete success, with issues large and small. That said, considering what it has been asked to accomplish, it’s an impressive effort. This is a BIG swing, and while it might not be a home run, we’re looking at some solid contact. For an undertaking like this, that’s a win.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Wednesday, 10 November 2021 14:03

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