Arts, Culture & Entertainment

Between apocalypse and love - the themes of ‘Eternals’ and its reception

The latest installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) sticks an impactful, humanist landing amidst tumultuous setup and expectations.

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Many films that incorporate spectacular impending human extinction face an inherent problem of juggling immense apocalyptic spectacle with the need to connect back to human morals and nature in order to stay relatable to the audience.

Disaster films that blow up spectacularly, such as “2012″ and “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” often fall into common pitfalls of predictable survival of our heroes and illogical deus ex machinas, leaving characters as the garnish to studios flexing their CGI muscles.

Satisfying disaster films address what makes us human and demonstrate character growth amidst the chaos and violence, whether it is the “Guardians of the Galaxy” series or Tony Stark over the course of the MCU.

The latest MCU entry, “Eternals,” swings both ways, almost too ambitiously. The exceedingly expository supernatural Marvel lore is merged with Chloe Zhao’s innate desire to explore the complicated familial and interpersonal relationships of our ten heroes.

The confluence gives an exceedingly shaky start in the first half of the film. While the setup is clumsy with questionable comedic timing, the relationships do build up to a satisfying conclusion that seeks to speak to our very human desire for love — how it destroys but also saves.

Spoilers for “Eternals” from here onwards.

Tumultuous Origins

The “Eternals’” lowest Tomatometer Score in the MCU initially filled me with much trepidation and worry, as it probably did for every movie-goer. This fear of a disaster of an MCU entry was unfortunately almost realized, as a Star Wars-esque title crawl full of exposition and hero-lore, groaned upwards.

The lore segments of “Eternals” were probably the most exhausting in the film. They constitute a minor portion of the film in relation to the family drama, but it required long-winded explanations from Ajak (Salma Hayek), Sersi (Gemma Chan), and the faceless Celestial that presides over all, Arishem (voiced by David Kaye).

In the initial action set pieces, the film shuttles back and forth between moments in history where the Eternals had to defend humans from the Deviants, Marvel’s latest one-off faceless CGI creatures. The flashbacks barely contribute much to the film and mainly serve as expositional pieces or as mere Deviant slam down opportunities for the Eternals.

To Director Zhao’s credit, her signature humanist non-linear storytelling was certainly fresh compared to MCU’s typical chronological take. The use of flashbacks, alternating between moments in history and the present buys screen time for global stars Don Lee and Salma Hayek to show their chops before their respective characters get unceremoniously killed by an abnormal Deviant (voiced by Bill Skarsgård) to underscore the emotional stakes of the family, as well as to give the remaining members some breathing room.

The execution of the apparent humanist story about love struggled to blossom early on as well. The central pair of Sersi and Superman-inspired Ikaris (Richard Madden) dominated the setup and unfortunately dragged the plot down as they are put together without chemistry or reason. When the other Eternals begin to join the crew, it became apparent that the secondary relationships between Thena (Angelina Jolie) and Gilgamesh (Don Lee), as well as Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) and Druig (Barry Keoghan) had more chemistry and stole the show from the main pair. The audience almost had no reason to believe that they were the star, fated couple, leading to an extended, awkward kiss that made my friends whine “can they stop?” My premiere night audience collectively groaned at Marvel’s first sex scene — simply no one felt that their relationship was believable and it felt mostly forced by the plot and by marketing materials.

Triumph from the Apocalypse

However, overall technical excellence and a satisfying final act are what elevates it beyond other Marvel snoozes (namely “Thor: The Dark World” and “Avengers: Age of Ultron”) that were truly soulless and aesthetically uninspiring, making “Eternals” land smack between cinematic crisis and genuine audience love.

As much as “Eternals” has a wide cast upon inception, at no point in the film did I lose track of each hero. They felt like unique playable characters of a fighting game, with their own unique personalities, color palettes, powers and sound effects.

Moreover, naturalist cinematography keeps the film grounded and aesthetically satisfying throughout the film. Chloe Zhao insisted on filming mostly on-set with natural lighting, carrying over rigs from Oscar-winning “Nomadland” and it shows, filling the audience with a grand sense of space from Mesopotamia, to the remaining Eternals basking in the sunset.

No matter how messy and awkward the initial setup was, the final act paid off many of the micro-relationships established. Thena’s attachment to Gilgamesh helps her triumph over her mental struggle and avenges him. Makkari’s wail when she thought Druig was killed, in spite of her deafness, underscores her heartbreak when the film hinted at their attraction earlier. Sprite’s (Lia McHugh) seeming petulant betrayal for love makes sense when she lights up at the sight of Ikaris instead of her usual snide, trickster self. Sersi and Ikaris’s out-of-place sex scene works only in retrospect as it makes Ikaris’ betrayal all the more heartbreaking and the final showdown between them all the tenser. The relationships build up to an exhilarating finish, as opposing Eternals pull no punches on each other, pitting opposing ideals regarding duty, love, and sacrifice, asking ultimately how far would one go to sacrifice duty for love.

What ifs and what now?

Beyond the mixed reception of the fictional plot, the on-screen diversity, across nationalities, ethnicities, including the MCU’s first deaf and openly gay hero, must be commended. While Marvel has produced “Black Panther” and “Shang-Chi,” films centered on marginalized cultures, I would argue “Eternals” is more important in portraying diversity without making each unique trait a central plot point. But faced with polarizing critical reviews, controversial censorship of homosexual representation (Including my home country, Singapore issuing an M18 rating), and the potential elitist response from Chloe Zhao fans, one wonders about its effective influence on the larger society. Its flawed execution and mixed reception would certainly be used as ammunition for the “Go Woke, Go Broke” narrative. With its ambitious storylines, deep lore and web of character relationships, I dream of a “What if…?” where “Eternals” would better thrive as a Disney+ series.

“Eternals” seems set to be one of the boldest, most unique stories in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and yet it would be one of the most off-brand (arguably dullest) from Zhao as she brushes with formulaic Marvel humor and commercialization. While I appreciate the open-ended questions Zhao asks about love and sacrifice, as well as its commendable casting diversity, “Eternals” faces very clear faults. I worry that polarizing fan and critical responses would deter Marvel from pursuing such fresh directions in film-making again in the future.

“Eternals” is available in theaters starting November 5, 2021.