I’ve often said that there are no bad movies in the MCU, with even the lesser-appreciated installments like Iron Man 2 and Thor: The Dark World are more entertaining than the other poorly received films being tossed at us by the rest of Hollywood. Despite this, only one installment has ever been nominated for Best Picture at The Academy Awards – Black Panther. Arguably, this was less due to its quality and more due to it being the first mainstream superhero film led by people of color. Whether it deserved an award for that or if the awards mean as much as they used to are entirely different conversations, but the point remains that no superhero film has ever won Best Picture.
Enter director Chloe Zhao. Her drama Nomadland won Best Picture in 2021, after creating a lot of buzz on the Film Festival circuit, and she is a huge fan of Marvel the Eternals comics. So much so, that it was her who pitched the movie to Marvel Head Kevin Fiege, which was quickly given the green light. Oscar-nominated directors have directed MCU movies before (like Sir Kenneth Branagh with Thor and Joe Johnston with Captain America: The First Avenger) and Zhao wouldn’t win her award until after production on Eternals had wrapped, but she is still the first Oscar-Winning director in the MCU. So can her talent finally bring Best Picture to a superhero film? Can Eternals be the one to break that glass ceiling? Probably not… but why?
The plot centers on a group of supernatural beings, known as Eternals, who were sent to Earth to destroy supernatural monsters, known as Deviants. Their mission has long since ended, with each Eternal having gone their separate ways, but they must reunite when the Deviants return. The film has several issues, with one of the biggest being the pacing. In the span of 2 hours and 40 minutes, we are introduced to 9 brand new characters through both their past and present lives. Eternals is littered with flashbacks, which are either short and unnecessary (like with Phastos and the Atomic Bomb) or long and unnecessary (like with Sersie and Ikaris’ romance). These flashbacks provide a large amount of exposition which is already naturally deposited throughout the rest of the runtime, meaning that it becomes really tiring really quickly. Eternals even goes so far as having an opening text crawl which is, again, full of information we are about to learn anyway.
This opening crawl is part of a larger problem – the tone. Eternals feels like Oscar bait: a movie with complex themes and characters which practically screams self-importance, designed primarily to win Academy Awards. This aspect was only amplified by the marketing campaign which focused primarily on this film’s importance within the MCU. There’s certainly a conversation to be had about campaigns centered on hype and how it can ruin a film but, even without that, Eternals feels like it wants you to take it seriously. It’s not like other superhero movies. It is, as it happens, entirely correct to make such a statement… because other superhero movies are fun. Oddly enough, Eternals feels more like something that the ever-uncertain DC Company would put out. More specifically, it feels like a Justice League movie. There has often been an overlap in superpowers between the two companies, as after all, there are only so many powers to go around, but it’s really distracting here. Granted, it isn’t helped by DC releasing two Justice League films in the span of three years, but it certainly doesn’t help to casually refer to your Superman stand-in (Ikaris) as Superman.
This isn’t to say that Eternals isn’t noteworthy. The cast is predominantly made up of POC, and it also features a deaf character and a gay character, which is worth praising even if the characters themselves are not. The deaf character is in some kind of relationship with the resident narcissist-playing-God and the gay character is barely is given the passionate-kiss-for-if-I-die which is usually reserved for heterosexual romances, and which comes off as pandering. It doesn’t matter that there’s a gay character here if he’s barely utilised and if the plot is still primarily focussed on a straight relationship. It means even less when the straight couple gets a (passionless) sex scene before becoming a love triangle in a move so out of left field that it nearly knocked me out.
In all of this madness, there are a few saving graces. One is the relationship between Kingo and his valet, which is a delight to witness. Every time they are on screen they fill it with warmth and humour, to the extent that I was audibly annoyed when it became clear that they weren’t going to be present for the final battle. Then there’s the score, composed by Ramin Djawadi, which is grand and ethereal. It achieves the vibe that the rest of the film was going for, whilst providing the main theme for the characters which may be better than the one given to The Avengers. Much of the cinematography is equally grand. The semi-villain of Eternals is their creator Arashim, who is a Celestial (the closest thing in the MCU to God) and who is roughly the size of a solar system. His vast size and immeasurable weight are felt whenever he appears, which is no easy task. Some have claimed that Eternals looks better than every other MCU film, which I think is incorrect and downplays the cinematography in the rest of the MCU. Not each installment is brilliant the entire way through (looking at you Avengers Assemble) but each one has moments of gold.
Finally, we come to the inevitable moment in every MCU film – how it sets up future MCU projects. First is the introduction of Dane Whittman, who becomes the hero Black Knight in the comics, and is eventually greeted by the off-screen voice of the MCU’s Blade, long before his own film enters production. Not to sound straight, but in his brief screentime, Dane becomes one of the most charming, charismatic, likable characters in the MCU although it’s currently unclear what his future is. Then there is the introduction of Thanos’ brother Eros and his best friend Pip the Troll, portrayed by Harry Styles and Patton Oswalt respectively. There are plenty of things to discuss here: the introduction of trolls, the less than brilliant CG of said troll, why Eros looks like a human man, and where either of these characters will show up again. But the main point here is that Harry Styles (the best member of former boyband One Direction) is in the MCU. Sure, this might say more about me than anything else, but frankly, his presence is one of the best things about Eternals.