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What’s Holding Eternals (2021) Back?

What’s Holding Eternals (2021) Back?

Possible spoilers for Marvel’s Eternals (2021) ahead.

Eternals (2021), one of the most anticipated Marvel movies in recent years, hit theaters this past weekend. If you’ve been paying attention to recent news, you’d know that it hasn’t exactly had the warmest welcome from big name film critics. Currently sitting at an abysmal 48% on Rotten Tomatoes — a website that calculates an average out of 100 based off of reviews from select critics — Eternals is one of Marvel’s lowest ranked films. That being said, I didn’t exactly go into this film with high hopes. I’m so happy to say that I was pleasantly surprised. 

Eternals isn’t Marvel’s best film, but I’m even hesitant to say that because it’s just so unlike anything Marvel has put out to date. It isn’t about big action sequences or super-powered beings learning to exist in the normal world or ordinary people realizing their full potential. No, Eternals takes the classic formula and flips it on its head in what is essentially, a story about love, family, and understanding one’s purpose in the world. Marvel’s newest installment is a family drama, and it serves as a breath of fresh air from the mostly humdrum fourth phase. 

Created in the 1970s by the legend himself Jack Kirby, the Eternals are an extraterrestrial race of humanoids tasked with defending Earth from their “evil” counterparts the Deviants. Marvel’s 2021 film picks up with the sudden return of the Deviants, whom the Eternals believed to be dead for centuries. The Eternals are tasked with defeating the Deviants once and for all so as to ensure a bright future for humanity. 

While the film isn’t perfect, I don’t agree with all of the criticism it’s gotten. Visually, Eternals is stunning. Picturesque flora-filled landscapes from as far back as the 4th century BC fill the screen with countless breathtaking shots. Iconic historical sites are brought to life with intricate accuracy as our heroes live through human history. Director Chloe Zhao paints gorgeous pictures on a scale who’s grandiosity rivals that of Avengers: Endgame (2019).

The Eternals have a comic, and now film, history that’s quite literally the length of humanity’s. There’s a lot to be said and only so much time in a 2 and a half hour film, and from there is where much of my criticism comes. Zhao was tasked with introducing 10 new characters- all of whom have their own powers, temperaments, and lives — as well as incorporating a plot fit for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This is no easy feat, and adding to a decade long franchise with fans who live and breathe these characters is even harder. I personally think Zhao did pretty well with what she was given. Even more remarkably, she was able to put her own spin on it. 

Zhao’s Eternals provides audiences with an intimate perspective on Marvel’s usual superhero epics. The characters and performances are arguably the most interesting and best part of the film. Gemma Chan is a brilliant lead, she’s kind and compelling and audiences can’t help but root. Barry Keoghan, Lauren Ridloff, and Kumail Nanjiani were all standouts, but every Eternal is great and holds their own in scenes.

Yet, in a film so focused on family and character development, I found myself wanting more. I want more time with the characters, more time to see them interact with each other, just more of them. I cannot wait for them to return to the MCU and engage in a plot that matches their complexity.

And that’s the main complaint I have: the Eternals have been built up in audiences’ eyes as ultra-powered beings. They were created by a celestial with the soul-purpose of protecting humanity. They’re meant to be the next big thing in the superhero world, they’re meant to change our perception of what a superhero can be, but the stakes of this film just don’t match that. I never once doubted that they’d succeed in the end. But the conflict the entire film hinges on isn’t enough to warrant a feature length film. The stakes aren’t there to keep you engaged or entertained. By the time the film ends, you’re left thinking, “Oh, that was it?”

Zhao took a risk with this film and succeeded in making it unlike any other Marvel film to date, but I think she should’ve taken more risks to make it a new and interesting film in its own right. That Marvel skeleton is still there and it weighs down what could’ve been a very different and out-of-this-world experience. Eternals works well in the MCU canon, but that’s part of what’s holding it back from being a great film. It’s not a bad film — the current 81% Rotten Tomatoes Audience Score proves that much. But it could’ve been so much better if it weren’t a Marvel film. 

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