This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
DoctorDoom’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
The Rider is one of the best films of the last few years, and ever since I saw it I knew that Chloé Zhao would be the next big thing. I eagerly anticipated her next project, and while I'm sure everyone involved would call Nomadland a success given that it won her Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director, I personally couldn't stand it. A dreadfully boring and depressingly hollow awards season misfire, plopping a known quantity like Frances McDormand (who also won an Oscar for playing the same role she's played at least a dozen times before) into Zhao's grounded, naturally lit, "snapshot of the new American west" style was a complete betrayal of why The Rider worked so well. Nobody in that movie was a trained actor; she just found everyday people living their lives and filmed a semi-fictionalized version of their story. It's not a documentary, but it was an excellent movie because it was so unmovie-like. Nomadland can't help but feel like poverty tourism by comparison, parading an actor actor around regular nobodies, and between that and an empty screenplay full of platitudes and sunrises, Zhao's signature style was subsequently drained of all its authenticity.
However, plenty of filmmakers hit a sophomore slump (I am aware of Songs My Brothers Taught Me and intend to see it but I'm not counting it in this context because The Rider is what put her on the map) only to come out swinging with their next film, so I was hopeful for Eternals both because a Jack Kirby space opera was so far outside her typical wheelhouse and because it was a prime opportunity for a visionary director to inject some sorely needed fresh blood into the MCU. Even the mixed reviews (a first for an MCU feature) only increased my curiosity. This is all to say that it is with a heavy heart that I must report that Eternals isn't very good. At best, it's a misshapen epic, one that feels distinct from the rest of the franchise but never takes enough advantage of those differences to become better than the rest of the franchise.
The big issue is the characters. Despite a runtime approaching three hours, I still feel like I know very little about any of them as individuals, nor are their relationships established enough to be meaningful. I see on paper how Zhao wanted the broken romance between Sersi and Ikaris to be the film's backbone, but we don't spend almost any time with them as a couple, which makes it difficult to care about why their relationship dissolves. I understand in principle that this is supposed to be a family of immortals and that it's a big deal when they fall apart (and then subsequently come back together) but the movie never really sells them as a family because of how fragmented the narrative is. Most of the movie is the main group picking up each Eternal in a different location one at a time, making the structure both needlessly repetitive and wasting a lot of time on our core cast not actually interacting with each other as a unit. Eternals introduces ten main characters but the only two I was even halfway invested in were Thena and Gilgamesh, the latter's death being the only scene that got the intended emotional reaction out of me.
The rest of the film is a collection of exposition flashbacks and world-building concepts that cannot operate as texture because the actual meat and bones of theme and character are so lacking. Therefore the exposition and world-building become the main course, and with all due love and respect to my giant technicolour space bois the Celestials, they're not quite enough to salvage the experience. Arishem may be an awe-inspiring creation to see on the big screen, and I'm glad this bodes well for Galactus whenever they decide to bring him in, but when I'm more excited to see CGI character cameos than any of your main cast, you know something has gone astray.
There are other positives. It's great to see a cast this diverse in a movie this big, there are some gorgeous visuals, and Jack Kirby's original ideas are compelling enough that even the film's lackluster execution can't completely ruin them. It's also pretty cool to see Angelina Jolie hit things with energy swords, even if it makes me wonder why they bothered to bring her in at all. I get that Zhao wanted the Sersi-Ikaris stuff to be at the centre, but with no disrespect to their respective actors, it's super weird to see a star of Jolie's caliber play second string to them. You have one of the maybe five genuine movie stars still left in your lineup playing the most (theoretically) interesting character in your ensemble and she isn't the core of the narrative? I'm sure they'll make it up to her by having her 1v1 Kang the Conqueror or something
But as a whole experience, Eternals is frustratingly half-baked. Don't even get me started on the non-starter sequel setup for Black Knight or how the Deviants in this are so unimportant to the storyline that Kro, the ostensible villain of the piece, has to walk into the final battle midway through and is promptly ignored by almost everyone present. It's also remarkably off-brand for a Marvel feature, with critic comparisons to the DCEU films not being off the mark. It arguably suffers from one of Man of Steel's biggest problems, where an edit that placed all the scenes in chronological order would have made for a far smoother viewing experience. If the stilted drama and impersonal construction weren't hard enough to find an emotional point of reference in, the least they could do is not constantly jump around the timeline.
I really wanted to love this. Zhao is a talented filmmaker, and I'm glad Marvel was willing to let her take a big swing in their universe. But the thing about big swings is that sometimes you miss. I can only hope that next time she's at bat, she shows everyone what I know she's capable of.