Though it should be commendable and refreshing anytime new players are introduced to the MCU, the storytelling issues within Eternals (and the greater MCU formula itself) are oftentimes not enough to delay the inevitable. The truth is, Phase 4 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has brought with it an undeniable sense of franchise fatigue.
Premise: The saga of the Eternals, a race of immortal beings who lived on Earth and shaped its history and civilizations.
In a slightly similar fashion to 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Eternals introduces a new band of teamed up super-powered beings with their own history and conflict that runs tangential to the MCU’s established Avenger focused storyline. Though it should be commendable and refreshing anytime new players are introduced to the MCU, the storytelling issues within Eternals (and the greater MCU formula itself) are oftentimes not enough to delay the inevitable. The truth is, Phase 4 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has brought with it an undeniable sense of franchise fatigue.
Filmmaker Chloé Zhao does bring a certain level of distinct visual design to Eternals. As the film jumps around a span of thousands of years, we are treated to an eclectic display of set design and action. The trade-off, however, is the slightly discombobulated storytelling. The film introduces us to the Eternals and then leaps backwards and forwards in time to simultaneously demonstrate each character’s unique power (and place within the group) as well as the rift that tore them apart. This gives the film a non-linear structure for the first act leading into a reunion/recruitment plot line in the second act and finishing with your standard third act comic book spectacle.
The result isn’t a hard to follow narrative, per se. It’s relatively easy to track where and when we are in the greater narrative throughout it. However, the frustration quickly sets in when you begin to wonder why the story is being told in this manner at all. More often than not, it simply feels like a needlessly non-linear plot device. There is nothing to indicate that the film wouldn’t have been just fine with a linear plot line to introduce us to the titular Eternals. The non-linear structure seems to simply be a choice to set the film apart from others in the MCU. Unfortunately, it does not do that in any meaningful way.
Where the Guardians movies have an energetic misfit comedy feel to them, Eternals wrestles with the occasional dry wit amidst a planet destroying crisis. The imbalance in tone is distracting, at best. However, when the film makes ill-fated attempts to reference the events of the MCU’s Infinity Saga, or shoehorn in some lighthearted comedy, it struggles under its awkwardness. For instance, when the team is at a table after reuniting, there’s a brief discussion of who among them would take up the Avenger roles of Iron Man and Captain America following the events of Endgame. It’s meant as a light-hearted bit of comic relief but doesn’t land as such. It feel like lip service being paid to the great MCU machine, as if Disney gave a note to “include more synergy” in this big existential sci-fi MCU entry.
When it comes to the action in Eternals, and the villains within the film, this new MCU entry falters slightly. Of course, we’re 26 entries into a blockbuster franchise, so the risk of getting stuck in the conventions of the genre or the studio’s formula is a given. To that end, while Zhao’s vision does allow for some impressive and artistic set pieces, it suffers from the age old comic book movie henchmen problem. The Eternals fight powerful and monstrous “Deviants” throughout the film. But aside from some imposing design and choreography to their movements, there’s really nothing that separates the Deviants from the likes of the Chitauri in The Avengers, or those snarling dog-like beasts that Thanos had in his arsenal in Infinity War and Endgame.
Despite these faults, Eternals‘ biggest strength actually resides in the third act spectacle moments themselves. The Eternals’ big fight to save the planet has a surprising amount of character to it. So much so, it almost eschews the planet destruction crisis in favor of character drama among the Eternals. The crux of the climactic battle is fixed on the bond that is formed among the group and the different paths each one is on. This infuses the film’s last act with more existential nuance than you may expect from the standard “laser beam and holographic weapons” fight sequence fare. While it isn’t enough to save the film, it is a welcomed bit of texture to the cacophony of spectacle.
Even though the film does well at emphasizing the characters and the rifts, loss, and betrayals that form among the group, it unfortunately leads to perplexing choices. An Eternal’s absence during the finale is handled in such a throwaway fashion before the final battle begins that it will leave you scratching your head wondering if it’s due to some behind the scenes scheduling issue. It’s never a good thing to leave a big budget blockbuster movie and have your immediate reaction be to use Google to figure out if there was some behind the scenes reason for a narrative choice to exclude an actor from the finale with no set up or payoff. Yet, here we are. Whatever the reason, be it narrative or otherwise, it simply doesn’t fit well enough into the movie and ends up distracting too much from the climax of the film which, given that it’s a super hero team up movie, should probably have all of the protagonists together.
Although Eternals is by no means the worst MCU movie, it is Marvel Studios’ third of four theatrical releases in 2021 thanks to the shuffling of release dates caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, later this month will see the premiere of Hawkeye, the MCU’s fifth Disney+ series released in 2021. Even for hardcore fans of the MCU, there’s no denying a sense of fatigue when it comes to Marvel Studios’ output.
The hope is always that Marvel Studios will continue to release top tier blockbuster entertainment. However, the reality is simply that the franchise fatigue seems to have set in with the MCU’s Phase 4. Eternals has plenty of merits and plenty of good entertainment within it. But like Ikaris’ namesake from Greek Mythology, any attempt for Eternals to break free of the Marvel conventions and be unique risks flying too close to the sun.
Eternals premieres only in theaters on November 5th.
About the Writer: Matt Hurt is the creator of ObsessiveViewer.com. He also created, hosts, and produces The Obsessive Viewer, Anthology, and Tower Junkies podcasts. He is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association and lives in Indianapolis with his cat Pizza Roll.