Skip to main content
You are the owner of this article.
You have permission to edit this article.

'The Eternals': Marvel film is ambitious and flawed but not as bad as the hype suggests

The Eternals

Kumail Nanjiani, Lia McHugh, Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Angelina Jolie and Don Lee in a scene from "The Eternals." Marvel/Disney.

*The following contains heavy spoilers for "The Eternals," now in theaters. But if you're reading this, you probably read so many arguments about this movie before it came out that it probably felt like you already saw it. Still, you've been warned.*

As critically maligned as The Eternals has been, there is no universe in which it is worse than Thor: The Dark World.

Much of the scuttlebutt surrounding Marvel's latest superhero epic has been focused on the "rotten" rating the film has received on the critical aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes. As of this writing, it is sitting on a 48% score from critics, indicating an overall negative critical reception.

That is the first "rotten" rating in the history of the Marvel Cinematic Universe after 13 years and nearly 30 projects. That number is worse than the score for MCU entries fans routinely point to as the worst efforts from Marvel Studios, such as the aforementioned dreadful 2013 Thor sequel — which is basically a sleep aid set to film — and the muddled mess that is 2010's Iron Man 2. 

Is The Eternals a great film? No. Is it the bottom of the barrel for the MCU? Not by a long shot. This story of a race of immortal super beings who have lived on Earth for thousands of years to protect humans also has a 80% percent audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which indicates some divide among fans. That's not entirely surprising. It is simply a decent film with plenty of faults, and a plethora of lofty goals and goals that never quite gel together in an overly satisfyingly way.

Possible reasons for the reception

From the massive cast to the centuries-sprawling storyline to its themes to the Bollywood dance number, no one can accuse The Eternals of not being ambitious. But it's only the latest example of Marvel and Disney attempting to branch out while including all the dizzyingly-edited CGI action and MCU hallmarks that audiences expect.

Disney+ plus shows such as WandaVisionFalcon and the Winter Soldier and Loki delved into the mental scars that years of super heroics left the the title characters with — to varying degrees of success — and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings presented a tale of generational trauma anchored by possibly the most layered MCU antagonist yet. Black Widow was at its most interesting when it focused on family drama. The Eternals, however, is probably Marvel's biggest shot yet for new heights.

There are 10 new figures to make people care about at the same time in the film, and they're the most obscure Marvel comic characters to get the big-screen treatment since James Gunn made the Guardians of the Galaxy into household names. It has a nearly three-hour running time, much of which is dedicated to arguments about what is right and wrong when trillions of lives are on the line. There is some much-needed representation within the film's cast and characters, which was always going to upset certain contingents of "fans." And while there are moments that occasionally stray from the Marvel formula, other aspects feel way too routine in this unteempth title in the MCU franchise.

With all of that in mind, it feels almost inevitable that The Eternals was going to divide people. But you can tell Marvel took some undeniably big swings to do something different. That is arguably most evident in the choice to hire Chloé Zhao to direct. It might also be one of the primary reasons, for better or worse, for the current critical consensus on the film.

When she was brought on board by Marvel, Zhao was known for well-regarded indie fare such as The Rider. By the time Eternals was released — it was originally slated for 2020 but was pushed back due to the COVID-19 pandemic — Zhao's Nomadland, only her third feature, was released to the kind of rave reviews most filmmakers only dream of. It nabbed Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director earlier this year, making Zhao the first woman of color to secure the directing honor. Suddenly, The Eternals wasn't just another Marvel flick. It was a Marvel flick helmed by a trailblazing, newly-minted Oscar winner. More than likely, reviews were colored by the expectation that came with having Zhao behind the camera. Some critics slammed the film for deviating too far from the typical MCU tropes, while others argued it wasn't different enough, especially with Zhao as director. It's a true "damned if you do, damned if you don't" scenario. But in reality, Zhao's sensibilities can be felt in some ways but not in others. 

Zhao has been lauded for her visual style, taking advantage of shadows and landscapes to breathtaking effect. Some of those flourishes are present in The Eternals, and are some of its best elementsTake a scene set in ancient Babylon where a young woman is doing the hair of the Eternal Sersi (Gemma Chan, who also played a different character in "Captain Marvel"). They are framed by a doorway, with the sun providing gorgeous backlighting.

Some of the best parts of the film come in early flashback sequences, when Zhao just sets the camera in front of her cast and the extras, such as when The Eternals are wordlessly interacting with the Babylonians, especially in scenes where they are celebrating. There aren't a million unnecessary quips being spat from the characters' mouths in these scenes, as with many MCU properties and later on in this very film.

There often isn't a lot of overt special effects trickery in these scenes either. We're just treated to some pretty scenes of powerless folks connecting with gods. It feels like a drop of water in an Olympic-sized pool within the film's 2 hour and 37 minute runtime, but those moments help convey why so many of these immortal beings later choose to risk everything for Earth and its people. 

Early in the film, there is also a great scene where we see Eternal take down a Deviant, which are creatures The Eternals were told to protect humans from. Each Eternal's power is demonstrated without dialogue, all in clear day light. Those visual touches demonstrate Zhao's strengths. Unfortunately, those glimpses of style are often few and far between.

The film still suffers from a lot of the same issues different Marvel projects do, with action scenes diced up into multiple different edits for just a couple seconds of action. A couple fight scenes are also poorly lit, so it's hard to tell what exactly is happening as the camera is wiping around. But again, those are common issues for the MCU library, so while it does detract from The Eternal's quality, don't let anyone tell you that this particular movie is the only one with those problems. Some of the critical reaction may be due to some expecting that Zhao's style would be evident through the film. Zhao's eye for gorgeous nature-set imagery has rightly made her popular among film buffs (you could make a drinking game out of every time a review for Nomadland called Zhao's work "Malickian" or otherwise compared her to legendary director Terrence Malick), and the fact The Eternals featured a lot of standard Marvel visuals was likely an issue for some reviewers.

Directors such as James Gunn, Ryan Coogler and Taika Coogler have been able to work within Marvel's boundaries while maintaining while their own sensibilities. It doesn't always work out, though. Other great filmmakers like Edgar Wright and Patty Jenkins had to depart from the first Ant-Man" and the second "Thor," respectively. The MCU has produced some truly fantastic films in the past, but those confines do not suit every director. It feels unfair to put all of the blame entirely on Zhao, but those aforementioned nice touches don't paper over the occasionally clunky presentation.

(Sidenote: It feels important to note that some contingents on the internet have been review bombing the film online due to one of the primary characters, Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) being the MCU's first openly gay male hero, who is married to another man and has a child. However, not only is that representation vital since in the franchise that has had an iron grip on the zeitgeist for over a decade, but it's ridiculous (but not surprising) that there was controversy in the first place. Due to that, along with the diversity of the cast and the fact that a woman of color is at the helm, some level of backlash from neckbeards who claim to be "fans" was probably inevitable.)

Impact of the film's big twists

Another element that likely impacted the film's reception — especially among general audiences — were some comet-sized curveballs The Eternals swings at audiences. The first one is the revelation that The Eternals were not sent by their space god, Arishem, to protect humans from the destructive Deviants but to make sure the human population becomes large enough that that the energy from the population can be used to give rise to a cosmic being called a Celestial from the center of the planet, destroying the Earth and everyone in it Also, The Eternals are actually robots created by Arishem. 

The second twist is that the flying, super strong, eyebeam-shooting Eternal Ikaris (Richard Madden) has actually been aware of The Eternals' true purpose for thousands of years and wants the Celestial to be born so it can somehow create new life across the universe. Some online have been split on these story swerves, but they open interesting avenues. 

While that first twist serves my argument from my piece on the first episode of Loki that pretty much every single authority in the MCU is extremely flawed at best or corrupt to the core at worst, it lends itself to questions you don't see a ton of in superhero fare. There is a fair amount of debate among the movie's characters about what the right choice is when billions of lives could die so trillions could live. It's to the credit of the screenplay by Zhao, Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo and Kaz Firpo that those discussions don't entirely bog down the proceedings. Although the aforementioned Phastos doesn't enter the present-day scenes until late into the picture, his connection with his husband and son add some urgency to the situation and help show some of the personal stakes involved beyond the planet's destruction.

There is a strong argument to be made that the biggest problem with the overall story, beyond its oversized roster of main players and whopping running time, is the punishing amount of exposition it requires (the film opens with paragraph upon paragraph of text explaining the background of the story instead of showing you anything) and how convoluted the plot is. Seriously, try explaining the plot of this to someone who hasn't seen it, with its talk of robot people and some space deity named Tiamat, without snickering at least a little.

Shoutout to the cast for getting through those mountains of explanations. And it's worth noting that although not every Eternal got a ton of room to breath — Gilgamesh (Don Lee) is disappointingly killed off and Kringo (Kumail Nanjiani) actually just leaves the action before the big third act battle — there are attempts to give The Eternals something to do. That includes Ikaris' conflict, Phastos' motivation with his family, the waned belief in The Eternals' mission by leader Ajak (Salma Hayek) the romance between Druig (Barry Keoghan) and deaf character Mikkari (Lauren Ridloff, who is deaf) and the struggles of Thena (Angelina Jolie) to deal with her memory issues, as relatively thin as some of those elements are.

Plus, the idea that Ikaris — or "Immortal cosmic evil Scottish Superman," as I like to call him — would be the big bad was actually surprising. Madden plays his conflict decently. Ikaris genuinely believes in what he's doing, but his feelings for Sersi ultimately stop him from committing further atrocities. As cliché as that may sound, the performances from Madden and Chan help Ikaris' turn at the end at least seem somewhat plausible.

While The Eternals is arguably the busiest non-Avengers MCU film yet, it balances some of its ambitions to make it to the finish fine. The film is far from perfect, but it's not the dumpster fire it has been made out to be. What did you think? Did you agree with me? Did you not? What did you think of the film? Let me know on Twitter @KellyRocheleau!

Staff writer Kelly Rocheleau can be reached at (315) 282-2243 or Follow him on Twitter @KellyRocheleau.


Be the first to know

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Education and City Reporter

Hello, my name is Kelly Rocheleau, and I cover the education and city beats for The Citizen and I've been writing for the paper since December 2016.

Related to this story

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


News Alerts

Breaking News