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Josh Reviews The Eternals

The latest MCU film, The Eternals, brings Jack Kirby’s cosmic creations to the big screen for the first time.  The film introduces audiences to the Eternals, a group of immortals who have been living on Earth for around seven thousand years.  They were planted on Earth by gigantic space gods known as the Celestials, in order to defend burgeoning humanity from the threat of the monstrous Deviants, who hunt down and destroy intelligent life across the universe.  While the Eternals thought they’d wiped out the last of the Deviants on Earth millennia ago, as the film begins they discover that the Deviants have returned, at the same time as a new menace emerges that threatens the entire planet.

The Eternals is a fun film, filled with all sorts of wild stuff from the comics that delighted me to see on screen.  At almost two hours and forty minutes, the film is longer than it needs to be.  (I wish the section in the middle of the film in which Ikaris, Sersi and Sprite set out to gather the rest of the scattered Eternals was shorter.  I understand why it’s not; all the individual scenes are great and it’s nice to allow each character in this large ensemble to get time in the spotlight, but taken as a whole it means we basically see characters receive the same information several times over.)

I like that the film’s tone is a little different from what has become the standard adventure/jokey tone of the MCU.  There are some funny moments in The Eternals, but as a whole this is a more somber, elegiac film that the average MCU movie.  I like that director Chloé Zhao and her team have brought a sense of epic scope and beauty to the film, as well as a focus on an exploration of the characters, as well as the broader cosmic universe of the MCU.  The film is beautiful, with a memorable “on location” feel in beautiful settings across the globe, a credit to the work of Ms. Zhao and her crew.

I love that Marvel’s Phase Four is focusing on introducing new characters and new concepts into the MCU.  Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings brought all sorts of new characters and ideas into the MCU, and The Eternals is an even bigger swing for the fences, as the movie involves the origin story of all life on planet Earth and introduces a variety of ancient cosmic characters.

The Eternals represents what is by far the most obscure characters to headline an MCU film by far (topping what I’d say is the previous champion, and also the last MCU film released: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings).  It’s astounding to me that a big-budget film version of The Eternals is actually a thing that now really exists in the world!  The characters were created by comic book god Jack Kirby in the seventies.  And while various characters and ideas from King Kirby’s original eighteen issue run on The Eternals have popped up here and there in the Marvel comics universe over the years (personally I know them most from the appearances of Sersi and Gilgamesh in the pages of The Avengers over the years, and also from the retroactive connections drawn between the Eternals and the Titans, from whence spawned Thanos and the many wonderful stories mostly written by Jim Starlin), these are not exactly well-known names even among comic book fans.

I’ve recently been reading many of the key runs of Eternals comics from the past few decades (Marvel has helpfully published some great collections in recent months), and it’s fascinating to me to see how these characters have been adapted for the screen.  Ms. Zhao and her team have made a LOT of changes.  These characters are probably the most changed from their comic book counterparts than any other major MCU characters.  On the one hand I was a little bummed not to see more faithful depictions of the original Eternals comic book characters… on the other hand, I can’t really find fault with any of the major changes made.  The Eternals is a smart adaptation and it does a strong job of integrating these extremely far-out characters into the MCU as we know it.

Probably the film’s most impressive achievement is that it’s able to develop and give a strong, distinct identity to each of the nine major Eternal characters seen on screen, in addition to two important humans (Kit Harington as Dane Whitman, and Harish Patel as Kingo’s valet Karun, who practically steals the movie out from under all the big-time movie stars surrounding him on screen).  The last time I saw this large, and yet this well-developed an ensemble in a fantasy/adventure film might just be Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring.  As is always the case for Marvel, the casting of each and every character is absolutely spot-on, and I was impressed by how much time the film allowed us to spend with each character.  (This is why the movie is well over two and a half hours long…)

Somewhat to my surprise, the most important Eternal in the film turned out to be Sersi, played by Gemma Chan.  Ms. Chan has already appeared in the MCU, playing the Kree soldier Minn-Erva in Captain Marvel, although that role didn’t give her much to do.  She’s spectacular here as Sersi, a gentle and free-thinking soul whose love for humanity has guided the Eternals for millennia and, here in this film, basically changes all of human destiny.  I love the way Ms. Chan allows us to see Sersi’s simplicity and humbleness, but also her steel core of nobility.  This is a very different character, both in look and attitude, from the party-girl Sersi of the comics.  I’d have loved to have seen that Sersi on-screen, but I also deeply love this very different Sersi.  (As I noted above and will say again, I can’t really object to any of the changes the filmmakers made to these characters for this adaptation.)

Richard Madden (Game of Thrones) is phenomenal as Ikaris, the chisel-jawed Superman-type Eternal.  Ikaris is the classical hero of the bunch, and Mr. Madden plays that to a tee.  I also loved the idea that the film develops that there has been a millennia-long love affair between Ikaris and Sersi that went wrong about 2,000 years ago.  I really enjoyed how that story played out in the film; the revelation of why Ikaris left Sersi in the past lands very powerfully.  The film makes some big choices with Ikaris in the second half, veering him dramatically away from anything we’ve seen of this character in the comics, but I loved the choices they made; it gave some strong dramatic oomph to the finale, which was very important.

Salma Hayek plays Ajak.  Like in the comics, Ajak is the main conduit for communication between the Eternals on Earth and the Celestials out in the universe.  Unlike in the comics, here Ajak is also the “Prime Celestial”, meaning she’s in charge of this group of Eternals on Earth.  (This change surprised me, but it makes perfect sense that the one Eternal the Celestials talk to would also be the Eternal in charge.)  I like that they made Ajak a woman, and Salma Hayek is great, developing Ajak as the caring mother-figure for this disparate group of characters.

When the cast for this film was announced, I was surprised to see Angelina Jolie among the group!  She plays Thena, the fierce warrior-woman of the Eternals.  Thena is one of the strongest-willed characters in the comics; here, though, the film takes her in a different direction, as we learn that Thena is afflicted with some sort of dementia-like disease that turns her into a very passive character (except for when she launches into unprovoked attacks on her fellow Eternals, that is).  (The disease from which Thena suffers in the film is called Mahd Wy’ry.  I had a hard time understanding what characters in the film were saying when they said that name.  I thought it was made up from the film, but apparently it is from the comics, from a period of The Avengers that I’d never read in which Sersi came down with the affliction.)  Ms. Jolie has such a strong movie-star persona, I wasn’t sure how well she’d mesh into the MCU.  But I found myself quite taken with her performance, and with the sweet love story the film developed between Thena and Gilgamesh, played by Don Lee.  I wasn’t familiar with Mr. Lee’s work prior to seeing this film, but I loved him here!!  He was awesome and bad-ass in all the fight scenes, and I really loved his sweet and tender scenes with Thena.

Brian Tyree Henry (Atlanta, Joker, Godzilla vs. Kong) is fantastic as Phastos, the Eternal inventor and pacifist.  Phastos has often been on the sidelines of Eternals stories in the comics, but he might have been my favorite Eternal character in the film.  I loved Mr. Henry’s work in the role, he brought such a tenderness to his performance.  I love what a great job the film does for giving Phastos a reason to want to step away from the violence involved in most Eternals’ existence.  (The scene after the bombing of Hiroshima was very powerful.)  I loved seeing Phastos in a gay relationship in the present day.  I love that Phastos is a dad.  And I loved how the film visualized all of Phastos’ super-cool tech and weaponry!

I was so excited when it was announced that Kumail Nanjiani (Silicon Valley, The Big Sick) would be in this film, and he’s perfect as Kingo, the Eternal who’s found joy working in the present day as an actor.  (The Bollywood dance sequence in which we first meet Kingo is a hoot.)  Mr. Nanjiani brings some expected good humor to the proceedings, but he’s also dynamite in the more dramatic moments, such as when he apologizes to Sprite for not being able to stay with her in the past, or when he decides not to take a side in the schism between the Eternals in the film’s climax.

We’re deep into my review and there are still so many great actors and characters I haven’t yet mentioned!!

Let’s talk next about Lia McHugh, who plays Sprite, the Eternal who is trapped as an Eternal child.  Frankly, I never had much patience for Sprite in the comics; I often felt the writers didn’t quite know what to do with this character, who was often played as an annoying jokester or trickster.  I loved that the film took pains to make Sprite likable and good-natured, and that it also dug into the tragedy of her being trapped forever as a pre-pubescent child.  (I wondered how they’d handle this character, who isn’t supposed to ever age, in potential sequels.  I was pleased to discover the filmmakers had a good solution to that!)  Young actors can be hit-or-miss in films, but I thought Ms. McHugh was terrific, very expressive and naturalistic.

Another Eternal who I never cared that much for in the comics was Druig, who always seemed to be up to no good.  (I always wondered why the other Eternals didn’t just put a stop to him!)  But I loved how the film handled the character, and I thought Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk) was terrific in the role.  They show us Druig’s dark side (he has a habit of mind-controlling human beings) but they also take pains to show us WHY he does that.  (We witness Druig’s anguish at spending millennia watching human beings be horrible and brutal to one another.)  Mr. Keoghan brings such a fun sense of spunk to the role that I never fell into disliking Druig.

I was immediately taken by the work of Lauren Ridloff as the super-speedster Makkari.  I loved that they made Makkari a young woman, and I loved that they made the character deaf.  Ms. Ridloff is wonderfully compelling and magnetic in the role.  I wish she had more to do in the film!  I think she’s the most short-changed of the Eternals in the film.  But she’s great with what she’s got.  I love the way she sells the relationship that Makkari has with Druig (a surprising twist on everything we’ve seen of Makkari in the comics).  Also, I loved the way the film realized Makkari’s super-speed effects in the climax.  Those shots looked awesome, and different from how we’d seen super-speed realized before this on film.

Kit Harrington (Game of Thrones) plays Dane Whitman, the human boyfriend of Sersi at the start of the film.  Mr. Harrington was all over the film’s promotional materials, but he has a surprisingly tiny role in the actual film.  Mr. Harrington is great fun in his scenes, and he has lovely chemistry with Gemma Chan’s Sersi.  But I’m not sure this character needed to be in this film.  Because I know who Dane Whitman is in the comics, this seemed like an obvious tease for seeing more of this character in future movies, something that Marvel is usually better at doing in a more organic way in its films, at least since the rougher early days of Phase One.  Still, I loved seeing the brief scene between former Stark brothers (on Game of Thrones) Kit Harrington and Richard Madden!  That was fun!  (And, of course, I liked seeing the post-credits scene, in which we see Dane take out the mysterious sword that’s apparently been in his family’s possession for quite some time…)

Finally, as I’d mentioned earlier, there’s Harish Patel as Kingo’s valet Karun.  I loved this character!

Other thoughts:

* I loved the depiction of the Celestials, which Jack Kirby referred to as the “space gods” in his original Eternals comics.  We’ve seen the Celestials teased before in the MCU (specifically in the Guardians of the Galaxy films), but it was cool to really see them here in this film.

* The film’s opening narration suggested that the film was presenting a very different version of the origin of the Eternals and their enemies the Deviants than what Jack Kirby had given us in the comics.  I was a little bummed seeing those dramatic changes right in the first few seconds of the movie… but I was pleased that, when all was said and done, the film’s version of these races wound up being closer to the source material than that opening narration had suggested.

* I wondered if the super-weird — but also central to the classic Eternals comics — idea of the Eternals uniting to form a uni-mind would make it into the movie.  I was delighted that it did!!  (Though I must admit I was a little bummed not to actually get to see the huge golden brain-thing that Jack Kirby drew when the Eternals merged into the uni-mind.  We did get a little suggestion of that in Phastos’ graphic demo of the uni-mind, but that was it.  Oh well.  I suspect the filmmakers made the right choice in avoiding that somewhat silly image from the comics.  Still, I’d have loved to have actually gotten to see the uni-mind on-screen!!  Maybe in the sequel…)

* I was sure that they’d kill off Thena in the film, because she was played by super-star Angelina Jolie, who’d I’d have guessed might be hard to nail down for sequels.  But they surprised me by not going in that direction!

* I wish they’d better developed the main Deviant villain creature in the film.  This is my only real complaint with the film’s story.  I wasn’t clear on what the Deviant wanted by the end.  Did it care about the imminent destruction of the Earth (which would kill it, and its fellow Deviants)?  Did it hate the Eternals more than it hated the Celestials?  I think there could have been some interesting stuff to explore here, but the film glosses over that and mostly continues to treat the Deviant as a monster, even after it’s acquired intelligence and the ability to speak.

* I really loved the look of the Eternals’ costumes and technology in the film.  There was a hint of classic Kirby weirdness, and also a very sleek modern look at the same time.  I really loved their cool triangular-shaped ship.

* While I continue to beg, film after film, for these Marvel movies to have more memorable musical themes for their characters, I quite enjoyed the score for this film by Ramin Djawadi.  It had a suitably epic and majestic sense to it.

* I adored the film’s mid-credits sequence, in which we got to see not one but two new awesome characters from the comic books brought to life: Eros and Pip the Troll!!!   I’ve been waiting so long to see some of the other great characters from Jim Starlin’s classic Thanos stories brought into the MCU.  The very end of Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 teased the introduction of Adam Warlock, and I am overjoyed that Thanos’ brother Eros and Pip appeared in the flesh here!  I love the casting.  Harry Styles is a wild choice for Eros, but he looked and sounded pretty terrific in his scene here.  And Patton Oswalt as Pip the Troll??  Perfect!!!  (The only thing I didn’t love was the very CGI look of Pip.  I could stand to see that tweaked a bit when next we see him…)  The Eternals and the Titans have been connected in the Marvel comics.  It’s complicated, but basically the Titans — from which both Thanos and his brother Eros hail — are offshoots of the Eternals.  So it’s very cool to see those characters connected now in the MCU.

* The film’s end-credits sequence was also fun, teasing both Dane’s transformation into the Black Knight (a classic Avengers character from the comics), as well as giving us Mahershala Ali’s first appearance, at least vocally, as Blade in the MCU.  I smiled to see Dane’s sword and to hear Mr. Ali’s voice, but both these teases were just a bit too much of a tease to suit me.  Also, connecting Blade and the Black Knight is a bit far out.  (I don’t recall those characters ever being connected in the comics, although after seeing the film I’ve read some intriguing ideas online about what connection there might be in the MCU.)

* The film ended on a bit more of a cliffhanger than I’d expected, with several of the Eternals in serious jeopardy!  That was a fun surprise!  Do we have to wait for an Eternals sequel for us to see what happens next?  I also loved how the classic idea from the comics, that the Celestials will return to judge the human race, was introduced there at the end.  Very clever.

The Eternals isn’t quite the same sort of roller-coaster fun ride I’ve come to expect from the MCU.  But I love that they’re trying to create different types of films with different types of characters.  I really enjoyed seeing these new, weird characters and concepts brought to life.  I enjoyed The Eternals, and I’m already excited to think about what might be next for these characters in the MCU…!

Photo credit: (L-R): Ikaris (Richard Madden) and Sersi (Gemma Chan) in Marvel Studios’ ETERNALS. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

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