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Friday, March 1, 2024

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Review: ETERNALS – great visuals, epic storytelling… but more than a few frustrating issues

Title: Eternals 
Director: Chloé Zhao
Starring: Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Kumail Nanjiani, Lia McHugh, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Ridloff, Barry Keoghan, Don Lee, Harish Patel, Kit Harington, Salma Hayek, and Angelina Jolie
Movie length: 2 hours 36 minutes

What it is: The next chapter in the ongoing Marvel Cinematic Universe, the movie is based on characters originally created by Jack Kirby about a group of immortal aliens who emerge from hiding when an old foe suddenly reemerges.

What Dan Thought: I enjoyed it, the movie showcases the cast throughout the centuries and delves into character development, which is needed since a majority of the movie-going public will have no idea who these characters are.

Chloé Zhao coming off her Oscar winning directorial gig for Nomadland did a great job with both co-writing and directing the ensemble cast that features a wide variety of actors/actresses. The visuals in the movie were top-notch (but hey, it’s a Marvel movie, they can afford top-notch VFX – courtesy of industry-standard bearers Industrial Light & Magic – and it shows).

The cast itself were terrific and the chemistry between them really came through, particularly the chemistry between Chan/Madden and Chan/Harrington as well as Jolie and Lee. Veteran Indian actor Harish Patel delivered some of the funnier moments in the movie as Kingo’s (Nanjiani) manager. Of course Nanjiani also had a lot of comedic lines, as one would expect from him based on his past acting credits.

The action and fighting scenes were great (not on the same level as SHANG-CHI & THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS) but great in their own right. Angelina Jolie especially as Thena (no ‘A’ – the Eternals are the ones that inspired the great myths and legends throughout the centuries, after all) who trained with swords, spears, and staffs as well and underwent some ballet training for her role in the movie.

Dan’s Grade: A

What Leonard Thought: I am afraid my review can’t as enthusiastic as Dan’s. While I thoroughly enjoyed ETERNALS, and praised so much of it – from its incredible cinematography, outstanding and intimate performances, and bold choices of tone and ambition – there were elements that felt a little flat and underwhelming. Not what you want from a film setting up an epic universe of gods and monsters.

First up, for a film that hinges on the (many, MANY) characters being introduced, and the relationships that bind them, I found the core one – that of Ikaris (Richard Madden) and Sersi (Gemma Chan) flat and uninspiring, I didn’t buy it at all. Great actors, for sure, but as a couple, the chemistry just wasn’t there – not a love that’s supposedly endured centuries, that’s for sure.

Now, I did enjoy the film for intentionally being something new in the MCU and employing Chloé Zhao to come at this strongly established material with a whole different tone and style.

Zhao brought so much to the table, as did this stellar cast, its diversity and inclusion was wonderful and felt very natural – I just don’t think it actually went far enough. These are beings that have been here centuries and they then seemed stuck (and maybe, just a little bit shackled) in 2021 mindsets, like they’d been here on our little pebble for five minutes. Missed an opportunity there.

And yup, for all of my praise for it bringing something new to the MCU table, the one element it needed to retain was that swell at the crescendo, the affirming feeling, those goosebumps to get you on the edge of your seat and grinning as you leave. Like BLACK WIDOW, you end wondering what exactly was the point of the film and leave feeling: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Okay, let’s get off the Debbie Downer track! Yes, I enjoyed ETERNALS and yes, I will be checking the film out again (my first screening was in IMAX, I want to see how the film works in Real3D next) but it’s far from the perfect movie, it has some key issues at its core from a narrative standpoint and it struggles to find its place in the larger MCU, instead attempting to stomp in and dominate it. Nice try, Marvel.

Leonard’s Grade: C

What Nika Yaya thought:

My autocorrect is frustrated with me, I am writing names it does not recognize. It’s not that I haven’t written these actors names in previous reviews, but this time I am inserting them next to a Marvel movie and my autocorrect is struggling to understand the implication.

Watching Eternals led me to struggle too.

I remember being young enough to marvel at the idea of super beings that protect mankind simply because humans were, in their mind, worthy. The appearance of those gods were made to look like the best version of the people they protected; tall, slender, healthy, flawless. So for someone short, brown, and ever so slightly coming to terms with my physical limitations, the reflection was not me, but still, I knew, morally I could mimic them.

This mindset didn’t change as big screen superhero’s evolved from the wholesome Superman of Christopher Reeve, to the dark and broody Dark Knight. Batman reflected a more attainable superhero, even through his ever physical changing warps of characters. Batman was short and then he was tall, he was young and then he was old (er), he was serious and then he was sarcastic.

But one thing remained the same, our most revered superhero’s and the people they deemed worthy of saving, all remained white.

It’s not to say that Black, Indigenous, and people of color did not inhabit the superhero universe, both Marvel and DC created characters existed in mostly a true version of life, but only the United States acceptable version made it to Celluloid, and thus the films showed a version of who they thought was worthy of saving, and it did not include us.

So to watch Thena (an immaculate cast Angelina Jolie) tell Sersi (Gemma Chan) what would become the films summation “When you love something, you protect it” you already know that means all of us, every human, every race, every ability, because it is reflected in the super beings themselves.

From the stark reminder that physical restriction does not exclude super capability in Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), to the ingenious way in which Chloe Zhao incorporates mental illness awareness with Thena, reminding us that in both super beings their “limits” are what in essence make them that much more incredible.

© 2021 Marvel Studios All Rights Reserved

Zhao weaves the tale of the Eternals, super beings made to guard Earth’s humans from Deviants, an equally violent force from space, in a way that reflects all the pains of human evolution. Not only are the depictions of Earth’s strongest civilizations based in their true historical context, she also notes the horror of colonization, a horror one of the Eternals, Druig (Barry Keoghan) finds impossible to ignore, despite being instructed not to interfere.

And as the current act of world’s end plays out amongst the storyline, Zhao drops in flashbacks, set against historical stepping stones in time, to reinforce the conflict the Eternals feel over saving a civilization in constant battle with itself.

Yet throughout the film, despite its hint towards original atrocities committed on man’s behalf, the Eternals themselves never fall into the tropes afforded marginalized characters in films so that people outside of that group feel comfortable. They never fit into easy boxes, only reinforcing the idea that they are Celestial super beings, not the social constructs of the audience watching.

This is Oscar winning director Chloe Zhao’s own personal superpower, the capability to create characters that are a reflection of the story, not a reflection of the societal physical and mental expectations that have been a counter argument to inclusivity on screen for far too long.

Gilgamesh (Ma Dong-seok) is a strong, protective being.

Ajak (Salma Hayek) is a caring, protective leader.

Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) is an astute, albeit slightly narcissistic, caring being.

Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) is a brilliant, protective, Queer representing, being.

And so on and so on, with all 10 Eternals reflecting a well written storyline that took into account who they are, what they represent, and just told their story.

Chloe Zhao not only purposely includes true representation, she does so in a way that reflects why diversity is necessary in the process of films, not just in front of the camera. And while some were overheard saying the film progressed slowly, I argue that the film progresses no slower than the previous Marvel films that were initiations into new character storylines. It baked just as it needed to for a film that brought to life ten new superheroes’s in the constant battle to save humankind, all of human kind, not just the fair representations we have been told are worth saving.

Eternals reflects the awareness we are experiencing now, as a whole of society, as inclusivity continues its path through dominant spectrums. I am not ashamed to admit the tears of excitement I felt in watching Zhao’s interpretation of Gods play out on screen. For now we had a reflection that those worth saving, AND those that saved us, looked a little more like us, so maybe, just maybe, we could be superhero’s too.

Reflections of your Melanin Gifted Film Critic.

Nika Yaya’s Grade: A-

Here’s our own Darren Shulman’s along with Tracey Peyton’s thoughts on the movie: https://anchor.fm/darren-shulman/episodes/Eternals-review-e19oabr

Eternals is now playing in theaters.

Do you plan to watch it? Have you already? Let us know in the comments or chat with us on Twitter!

Dan Berry
Dan Berry
Dan Berry is a man of mystery, an enigma that flits from convention to convention like a spectre, like a spirit. His interests range far and wide: he cannot be determined, he cannot be defined, he cannot be contained. He's like the wind. He also is a Sagittarius and enjoys a nice Italian.

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