REVIEW: Eternals Tries To Fit Eternity Into 2.5 Hours With Mixed Results

Eternals, Marvel Studios’ latest entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), is the 26th film to enter those auspicious ranks. It’s also the franchise’s biggest story to date.

Following the stories of 10 characters known as “Eternals,” a group of cosmic beings sent to Earth by the Celestials (first teased as the head known as “Knowhere” in Guardians of the Galaxy, but shown in all their glory for the first time here) to fight creatures known as the Deviants, who are bent on destruction.

While the overall plot is quite complex, the story as presented is broken down to its simplest form. Eternals begins as our team of otherworldly beings arrives on Earth in 5000 B.C.E. on their mission to rid the planet of the Deviants. After a quick sequence to introduce the characters and their powers as they fight the Deviants in front of a prehistoric tribe, the action quickly moves to present day, where we discover the Eternals have been divided for some time as they believe their mission to destroy the Deviants was successful centuries ago (spoiler alert: it wasn’t), and they’re just waiting for the all clear to head back home to Olympia.

After a Deviant attack on Eternals Sersi (Gemma Chan), Sprite (Lia McHugh), and their all-too-human friend Dane (Kit Harrington) in London, they’re reunited with Ikaris (Richard Madden), and quickly realize their task is not complete. The three Eternals must then search for their compatriots in order to fight the Deviants.

Over the course of the film the action takes us back and forth from historical moments to the present day, showing us the past that lead the Eternals to their current separation, and the present that forces them back together. The film climaxes with a giant battle to save the planet from destruction.

Eternals is a visual spectacle that has to fit a 7000-year story into a 2.5-hour window, and its success at that task is mixed. The first half hour feels like the story stumbles out of the gate and, because of the scope, even when it finds its footing it struggles to engage and tell a cohesive story. The best way to describe how I felt walking out of that screening was that I’d just watched 2 years of a series in a 2.5 hour period (this description courtesy of another member of the press who attended the same screening). There are many films that make you feel like the story would have been served better in a longer format, and Eternals is probably the best example I’ve ever seen. There is a lot of story here, and it’s extremely overwhelming in such a short period of time (and yes, I just referred to 2.5 hours as short).

Along with the 10 Eternals themselves, there are 4 other characters introduced in the course of the story who are integral to the plot. That’s 14 characters we’ve never heard of before, along with the bigger picture of the wider story featuring the Celestials, Deviants, and their impact not only on the Earth, but all of creation. If that sounds like a nearly impossible task before you’ve seen the film, you’re unlikely to change your mind afterward.

The biggest complaint I have is that because of the scope of the piece, and the fact that it’s so jam packed, it’s almost impossible to connect to any of the characters because you never really get to know them. Moments like the much-talked-about introduction of the MCU’s first openly gay character (Phastos, as played by Brian Tyree Henry) feel hollow because there’s just not enough time spent in establishing his character alone, let alone his family. There are moments that are never explained, never earned, that are just begging for a few more minutes to establish why you should really care about the characters and the relationships between them – like why Makkari (Lauren Ridolf) and Druig (Barry Keoghan) are so very happy to see each other again when we hardly saw them together in the flashbacks.

There are also gems like the relationship between Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) and his human “valet” Karun (Harish Patel), and the devotion of friends Gilgamesh (credited here as Don Lee, but also known by his Korean name Ma Dong-seok) and Thena (Angelina Jolie). But they’re counterbalanced by things like the much-publicized romance between Sersei and Ikaris, which never feels very compelling beyond the overwhelming pretty every time the duo are on screen together.

One pleasant surprise is that while many of the plotlines of the film felt entirely predictable from the trailers, the opposite is also true. There are betrayals and deaths, which I expected given what was teased before, but they’re not the betrayals and deaths I was prepared for. The problem is that even when those moments come, it’s difficult to feel much emotion because there just wasn’t enough time in the film to adequately develop the connections that the audience should be upset to watch torn apart.

In the end, what stuck with me most after leaving the theatre was the post-credit scene. I’m not talking about the mid-credit scene, the surprise of which was revealed in a Variety story after the premiere. While I was spoiled on that surprise just hours before I saw the film myself, it actually helped as the actor in question isn’t someone whose face is familiar enough to me that I would have recognized them. No, the real surprise for me was the very end of the post-credit scene. A true WTF moment that I can’t wait to see paid off in future. In fact, that was probably the most excited I was in the entire movie.

All of that probably makes it sound like I didn’t enjoy the film, but that’s not true. I did. I liked it, I just didn’t love it. Granted, this was the MCU film I was most invested in of what’s been announced for Phase 4, but I had tried to temper my expectations. Still, I left that first screening feeling like I desperately needed to see it a second time just to make sense of the full story, and really decide how I felt about it on a whole. But I don’t have that luxury right now and, in the end, most of the general public will give it only the one chance. I haven’t updated my mental rankings since we ranked all the MCU films just before Infinity War was released, but if I had to place this one right now, it’s bottom middle at best.

To be perfectly honest, this really should have been a Disney+ series.