Eternals Chloe Zhao

Eternals is great for diversity in the MCU, but not much else

The many talents in Chloe Zhao’s soggy Marvel space opera play quippy heroes in capes pointing their laser fingers at CGI beasts.

Eternals marks many firsts in terms of representation within the world of Marvel movies. It’s the first Marvel movie to be directed by an Oscar winner, first Marvel movie to be directed by a woman of Asian descent, first Marvel movie to depict an openly gay superhero, first Marvel movie to depict a deaf or hard-of-hearing character, and I’m sure I’m missing a few.

Diversity and representation has been at the core of the marketing for this particular installment, so much so that many critics who posted negative reviews before mine were hit with death threats and accusations of misogyny, bigotry, homophobia and racism for daring to suggest that a film with diverse representation could also be a bad film. Diversity and representation is unarguably a good thing when it comes to cultural products with such a potentially giant footprint as this one. I will never stop arguing that films and the stories they tell should be more diverse. However, that argument stops at inclusion and diversity being the chief quality of a thing.

Good movies should be diverse and inclusive; diverse and inclusive movies are not automatically good. In other words, Eternals isn’t a bad movie because Phastos is gay; it’s a bad movie because it’s a shapeless, formless exercise in superhero mythmaking that comes after nearly 25 other examples of exactly the same thing.

It”s true that, on paper, Zhao is offering something a little different from the norm. It’s also true that Eternals has (at this juncture, at least) a pretty tenuous connection with the rest of the MCU. But diversity shouldn’t be added value, it should be inherent to a work, which in this case is a soggy interplanetary space opera featuring quippy heroes in costume capes pointing their laser fingers at CGI beasts. It’s great that they can be depicted by such a wide range of talents – but those talents should really be given something interesting to do besides exist and generate CGI doodads with their hands.

Eternals Chloe Zhao Marvel MCU
Kumail Nanjiani, Lauren Ridloff, Barry Keoghan, Lia McHugh, Salma Hayek, Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Ma Dong-seok, Angelina Jolie, Brian Tyree Henry

The Eternals are a race of immortal space gods who have been assigned to watch over Earth — but not intervene in human affairs — for thousands of years. Having assumed human identities, Sersi (Gemma Chan), Ikaris (Richard Madden), Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), Sprite (Lia McHugh), Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), Thena (Angelina Jolie), Druig (Barry Keoghan), Gilgamesh (Ma Dong-seok aka Don Lee) and Ajak (Salma Hayek) are brought out of their peaceful lives by the re-emergence of their evil counterparts, dragon-esque creatures known as the Deviants. 

Exposition is the name of the game here as the film painstakingly establishes all 10 (!) main characters at once, then catches us up with their modern-day lives 7,000 years later. Like Mortal Kombat before it, more than two-thirds of Eternals is dedicated to a thorough let’s-get-the-team-back-together setup. Unlike Mortal Kombat, Eternals is a whopping 157 minutes long, which makes it a hell of a slog despite best intentions. I must commend Zhao for attempting to bring some more adult ideas into the generally simplistic genre, but defining the usual grief-and-trauma for TEN FUCKING CHARACTERS is simply too much for one movie to bear.

Admittedly, things were off to a rough start. There are just as many Avengers in those movies, but they almost all had their own films to do the legwork before they all found each other, whereas Eternals has a real overpopulation problem. It doesn’t help that the Eternals are generally difficult to weave into either our real world or whatever world the MCU has established prior to this. They’re ill-defined as god-like beings and somewhat far removed from the sort of grandiose mythology that Jack Kirby originally placed them in when he invented them in the mid-’70s. The supernatural, mythological Marvel movies have never been my favorite, but they at least benefited from a colourful and grandiloquent quality that Zhao has muted in this particular incarnation. It’s a short walk between mature and boring when you’re dealing with immortal figures having emotions, and Eternals falls firmly on the dull side of that equation.

It’s quite possible that some people out there will be moved to tears by finally seeing someone like themselves in a superhero movie. It’s very cool, for example, that a deaf child might see themselves represented in one of these movies for the first time. But if there was a deaf child in a Paw Patrol movie, would we need to elevate that movie as a masterpiece because of its inclusion? Should we really be rewarding Marvel for finally doing what should have been the very base of their approach 20-odd movies ago? Eternals’ flaws are many; it may not be the worst movie in the MCU but it may well be one of the most underwhelming, a seemingly endless barrage of quips and exposition and CGI chaos in which, incidentally, marginalized groups are represented. It’s a step in the right direction, I guess, inasmuch as steps in the right direction don’t have to be fun or compelling. ■

Eternals opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Nov. 5.

Eternals, directed by Chloe Zhao

For the latest in film and TV, please visit our Film & TV section.