It was bound to happen at some time. I am just surprised that the true angry fan and critical backlash against the Marvel Cinematic Universe didn't happen five or ten years ago. The movies themselves were just too popular, and now it's so much a part of our culture, but they couldn't go on forever without someone throwing some genuine shade just because they can. While Captain Marvel practically begged audiences to start reacting negatively, it was Eternals that finally stuck the spanner in the works.
It's a strange movie for this to happen on. Directed by Chloé Zhao, most known for the independent film Nomadland, Eternals eschews the normal superhero trappings and, like Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, it opted to go in more of a science fiction and fantasy direction rather than fighting typical bad guys. In fact, in Eternals, it is hard to really make out who the bad guy is supposed to be, which I assume is some of the reason why this wasn't so immediately popular with critics. I can understand how it can upset some audiences; there is a lot of box-ticking going on here, making sure there is representation to the point of tokenism. I'm sure Marvel and Disney thought this was enough to pat themselves on the back, but outright bigots that need to be taught a lesson are not watching these movies. For the majority of the audience it just feels like another office diversity meeting and rings just as hollow.
But I can't even say it's those aspects. Some MCU films have sparked protests over everything from whitewashing to Chris Pratt existing, and after this many films (and now incorporating both of the previous Spider-Man franchises) some of the older ones aren't going to age as well. Even with that said, just looking at them as movies, The Incredible Hulk and Avengers: Age of Ultron were both low points in the series, and much worse movies than Eternals, and the series survived. Obviously, while Eternals was a stumble which allowed older critics to finally agree with Martin Scorsese and others without everyone screaming at them about being out of touch, it obviously was nowhere near the worst of the MCU films. For all the hue and cry, like other mediocre to bad Marvel films before it, there was no effect on the success of the movie that came after.
The Eternals are a group of beings sent to Earth by the Celestial Arishem in order to protect the planet from Deviants, a race of monsters that developed at some period after the Celestials came into being. Their group consists of their leader, Ajak (Salma Hayek), her second-in-command Ikaris (Richard Madden), as well as Sersi (Gemma Chan), Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), Sprite (Lia McHugh), Thena (Angelina Jolie), Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), Druig (Barry Keoghan), Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) and Gilgamesh (Ma Dong-seok). Arriving on Earth in 5000 B.C.E. their exploits against the Deviants results in them entering into human legend as gods and heroes.
With the last of the Deviants defeated as the Spaniards bring an end to the Aztec Empire, the group goes its own ways, with Gilgamesh caring for an ailing Thena and the rest going off to live life on their own. When Sersi and Sprite, and Sersi's boyfriend Dane Whitman (Kit Harrington), are attacked by a Deviant in London in the post-Snap MCU present, they are concerned both because it can now heal itself and because they were all supposed to be gone. It turns out this Deviant can absorb the powers of the Eternals and, after killing Ajak, starts to become self-aware. It also becomes aware that Arishem's reason for having the Eternals look after humanity are not as altruistic as they appear.
One of the main problems with Eternals is that it is long. With so many characters and so many plot points it feels like it could be forgiven, but in truth there is less going on here than in Shang-Chi and some of the Avengers films. It is mainly background on the characters, catching up with them in the present day and then gathering everyone together to fight what is supposed to be a big bad guy - in this case, a Deviant that has become aware of its true purpose and origins and wants revenge against its creator. Problem is, said Deviant shows up for two major battles at the beginning, and one at the end. When he shows up at the end, the surviving Eternals are already dealing the true opponent of their goals, and the Deviant is largely an afterthought to deal with just so everyone doesn't ask where it disappeared to.
Instead, there is in-fighting to overcome as well as various personal dramas involving caring about humanity or about trying to block out the past. That's all good, but there are too many characters, and that loss of focus undercuts what we are supposed to feel for them. The ones we spend the most time with are Sersi, who can transmute objects, Ikaris, who can fly and shoot laser beams from his eyes and Kingo, who can do about the same from his fingers as well as generate an energy grenade, which looks way too much like a miniature Spirit Ball from Dragon Ball Z. The others all have specific powers as well, often linked with the Gods or heroes they are linked with. On the other hand, Makkari is deaf, but it pretty much never becomes a plot point, nor is there any reason for Phastos, the one who designs things for the group, to be gay. His family is briefly mentioned and he has a motivation to make sure they live, but any family could have done for that. If that is the point then it is lost by the way that aspect of his character is introduced, almost as matter-of-factly as any other bit of information in the movie.
Still, with all these flaws, the movie does not sink as low as some of the other MCU films. The final fight, and resolution, is great - it just didn't need to take so roundabout a way of getting there - and most of the creature effects are good as well. Gemma Chan has been great in just about everything I've seen her in, and this is no exception, and though I'm not an Angelina Jolie fan she does bring some real character to Thena. Richard Madden is not an actor I'm familiar with, so kudos for going for someone without a huge name as one of the leads, especially since he plays one of the more nuanced characters of the bunch. Chloé Zhao does have pacing issues throughout the movies but is good when it comes to the action scenes, not making them so cluttered that they are hard to follow.
I did say most of the effects are good, and I always have to point this out in Marvel films because, for their budgets, they seem to often appear as if they had an intern's assistant's roommate finish everything in a week on an old Amiga. There are some parts during the Deviant fights where details in the creatures seem to be missing or where they don't mesh with the live footage, but the worst is in the first post-credits scene where a dwarf creature shows up. It looks like no one even tried, with the animation looking half finished and not even any effort done to integrate it into the scene. It has to be the worst CGI I have seen since the Scorpion King in The Mummy 2. They could have hired a little person and put prosthetics on him rather than wasting the money on the animation. Normally this wouldn't matter as these sequences are used to tease other MCU movies, but this one sets up the direct sequel to Eternals, if and when it ever makes an appearance.
So, in the end, Eternals is over long, has a frustrating amount of political correctness in its casting and completely fails on presenting a solid villain, though it does present the group with a solid goal, which in itself is an interesting enough story without adding on everything else. On the other hand it is still better than most of what DC has put out (even if it feels in some ways like a DC film rather than a Marvel one) and is nowhere near the worst of the MCU films. It just wasn't as good as the movies that bookended it, allowing it to become a temporary scapegoat for critics and audiences suffering from superhero fatigue.
Time: 156 minutes
Starring: Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Salma Hayek, Angelina Jolie, Kumail Nanjiani, Lia McHugh, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Ridloff, Barry Keoghan
Director: Chloé Zhao