Review: ‘Eternals’ Would Have Been Better as a Disney+ Series
Eternals is the best-looking MCU movie yet, with a gorgeous visual style by Academy Award-winning director Chloé Zhao. It’s also the first MCU movie that feels like it really should have been a streaming series.
Eternals is based on the Marvel comic created by the legendary writer and artist Jack Kirby in 1976. Inspired by the then-popular book Chariots of the Gods and 2001: A Space Odyssey (which this movie also references), Kirby invented an elaborate mythology of ancient alien beings creating mankind and all of man’s great works.
The movie wisely streamlines some of the mythology and makes a lot of changes to it, which may come as a surprise to fans of the comic, though likely not any real disappointment. The Eternals don’t have the massive, devoted fan base of Spider-Man, for instance. That’s why this movie is such a curiosity, both in its successes and its failures.
Above all, the movie is enjoyable. The direction and cinematography are outstanding, the cast is extraordinary, and the score by Ramin Djawadi with its organ-based themes ranks among the best of the recent MCU soundtracks. The story is pretty good, especially at the beginning, which does a good job of getting right to the point.
The focus of the movie is Gemma Chan as Sersi, which is a good place to start. Chan is very natural and yet reserved in the role, a subtle performance that fits the concept of an immortal being trying to blend into human society very well. Not unlike Wonder Woman, she works in London at a museum and is dating a human man, Dane Whitman (more on him later).
Sersi, her young friend Sprite, and Dane are all attacked by a Deviant, an alien creature who we find out the Eternals were sent to Earth to stop. Things start to go sideways once Sersi realizes the Deviants are back and she needs to inform the other Eternals, now spread out across the globe. Rather than move forward, the movie leans into sustained flashbacks.
The flashbacks are fine in and of themselves, giving background to the characters and context for their present. But there are so many characters that none of them have a chance to really breathe. Each gets a scene or two to essay their perspective on their eternal mission, but many of them are literally left waiting around for the story to come back to them.
Kirby created a metric ton of characters for The Eternals comic, and some major ones were left out. It would have been beneficial to leave some more out, considering the movie feels scattered between them. A tighter focus would have deepened the main characters and emphasized the stakes, especially between Sersi and Ikaris.
The movie becomes a series of scenes of Sersi finding another Eternal and explaining the same thing over and over again, interspersed with flashbacks that give context for their present-day circumstances. That type of structure is better suited to long-form media, and it’s about halfway through the movie that it becomes obvious this is an ideal streaming series.
The huge array of characters, the byzantine mythology, the ambitious structure all would have made for a thrilling, sumptuous, and rewarding six or eight-part Disney+ series. The movie, even at 2 and 1/2 hours, feels both rushed and incomplete. The script, by Zhao, Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo, and Kaz Firpo, also wobbles in many of its scenes.
Characters routinely ask each other questions they simply don’t answer, because the plot isn’t ready for them to yet. This is most glaring with Ikaris, who is ultimately revealed to be a traitor. This reveal comes late in act two, and the story and its stakes would have benefitted from it happening sooner.
Ikaris can fly, but the character never gets off the ground because his motivation and the drama inherent never manifest until the very end. As a result, the love story between him and Sersi is short-circuited, and any sense of a triangle with Dane is thwarted because that character only appears at the beginning and the end of the movie.
That said, many of the actors do their best with their brief moments. Don Lee is outstanding as Gilgamesh, Kumail Nanjiani flexes his comedy muscles as hard as he can to get some laughs in, and Lauren Ridlof, who plays Makkari, the first deaf character in the MCU, enchants with her few and fleeting scenes.
The truth about the Eternals’ mission is ultimately revealed, and they have to contend with the fact the Earth will be destroyed by The Emergence. Turns out the Celestials seed worlds with embryos of the titanic cosmic beings, which then hatch out of planets like eggs. The Eternals were there to make sure humanity thrived, as their energy fed the birth of the Celestial.
The story is straightforward enough, but frustrated by the structure and pacing. But the action is fun, the climax enjoyable, and the movie overall a welcome reprieve from the current MCU style. The movie lacks the CGI wallpaper fauxness of the biggest MCU movies, and the natural lighting and practical effects benefit the tone.
The tone is very similar to Dune, actually. Both movies feature giant cosmic canvases with huge casts and dense lore. Both do an adequate job of presenting all of it, but in this case, the movie suffers from trying to stuff it all in. Even though that’s the case, it ends on a very TV-style cliffhanger, lacking only a ‘To Be Continued’ card.
The movie sees Arishem, the lead Celestial, return to put his wayward children in their place. He captures Sersi and the other Eternals on Earth, and promises to return to judge humanity. Ideally, the story of the Eternals plays out across other movies and series, and the franchise avoids trying to put too much into one single entry.
One thing is for sure – the movie has major consequences for the MCU. The two post-credits scenes deliver intriguing teases for not just the Eternals, but other MCU franchises as well, and the consequences of this movie are likely to play out in other movies or shows that deal with the cosmic realm, particularly The Marvels and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.
- The earthquakes in the Atlantic Ocean referenced in Avengers: Endgame have nothing to do with Namor or Atlantis; they’re actually symptoms of The Emergence, in a great foreshadowing of this movie.
- Harry Styles appears in the first post-credits scene as Eros/Starfox, the brother of Thanos. Fans may wonder whether Thanos was an Eternal; he was, but his appearance is in part due to him having Deviant genes. Since the MCU has revised the elaborate Eternal/Deviant/Human lore of the comics, it remains to be seen if that’s the case.
- Starfox is heralded by Pip the Troll, voiced by Patton Oswalt, a huge MCU fan and voice of MODOK in the Hulu series, plus the face of Agent Koenig in Agents of SHIELD.
- The second post-credits scene pays off Dane Whitman. In the comics, he’s the Black Knight and wielder of the Ebony Blade, which he unboxes in the scene. The Black Knight was a long-time member of the Avengers in the 80s and 90s and a romantic partner of Sersi.
- At the end of the scene, the voice saying “Are you sure you want to do that?” is none other than Mahershala Ali, who is playing Blade in the MCU. This cameo sets up very intriguing possibilities.
- Fans may wonder what the Black Knight and Blade have to do with each other, but they were both part of a relatively obscure group called MI:13, which was a British intelligence division focused on the supernatural. This branch was also connected loosely to Captain Britain; a version of that character now exists in the MCU thanks to Captain Carter from the What If..? animated series (and certainly live-action, sooner or later).
- The Domo, the Eternals’ ship, first appears as a black rectangle in the sky, a great visual reference to The Monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Darby Harn is a contributor for Screenrant, CBR.com, Star Wars News Net, and Movie News Net. He is the author of the sci-fi superhero novel EVER THE HERO. His short fiction appears in Strange Horizons, Interzone, Shimmer, and other venues.