With a framework spanning the cosmos, a source material that would rival any Hugo Award-winning novel, and an ambitious visionary helming the project, Eternals should have been a critical homerun for Marvel Studios. Yet, one look at its Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes scores will show how the film has been anything but. The film has been described as a mixed bag that’s neither artsy enough to please director Chloe Zhao’s fans nor is it native to the MCU magic fans have been accustomed to for a decade.
There’s a lot to like with the film; its scope is so propulsively cosmic that it ticks all the boxes for every deep-cut comic nerd; the Dragon Ball action sequences are exhilarating to watch; certain characters make for nice additions in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Despite the good things it has, the film is held back from reaching the MCU’s apex by some creative decisions. Here are some fixes we think would make Eternals a better film.
A GOOD CENTRAL PROTAGONIST
Eternals is hamstrung by its lack of a good central protagonist. The film’s de facto protagonist, Sersi, just isn’t likable enough for MCU audiences to latch onto. Gemma Chan’s stoic ho-hum performance certainly doesn’t help Sersi’s arc and her millennia-long romance with Ikaris, played by an equally wooden Richard Madden, is as cold as a long winter. What you get is an ensemble whose parts are greater than its sum, made worthwhile by the smaller supporting characters.
Not the least of those greater parts is Lia McHugh’s criminally underused Sprite, an Eternal whose arc is the most interesting one in the entire film. As an immortal being trapped in a child’s body, Sprite is a character whose pathos runs deep within the confines of the film’s framework. Central to the film’s emotional core are the lives of these immortals and their struggles fitting into a world that’s meant to die before them. The notion of a child standing in the face of eternity is fascinating to explore. The movie only mildly alludes to her painful journey living thousands of years as a child with no semblance of maturity and it ends up feeling like a missed opportunity.
Making Sprite the protagonist makes for inherently complex storytelling. Not the least of which, the MCU ends up having its first child protagonist pre- Ms. Marvel. Hugh’s role in the job is mostly thankless but she ends up drawing eyes towards Sprite and a brief exploration of her journey.
JUST SET IT IN THE PAST
Other than using the Snap as the starting point of the plot, Eternals really has no business being set in the present. By far the most beautiful moments in the movie take place in the past as we not only see these gods find their humanity in ushering new civilizations but we also see them lose faith in their purpose as they watch worlds fall. So much of their journey takes place in the past that’s almost baffling to see them posit the crux of the film in the present day. In the present day, their arcs feel so distant and detached from where they came from and it hurts the way audiences engage with them. Having the film set in the past puts the characters’ arcs into focus and makes it more tangible.
It’s not hard to imagine a version of this script where the same story takes place completely in the past. You can take the exact same premise – the world-ending threat of the Celestial egg hatching – set it centuries back and have the same exact outcome. The only loss would be the film’s heavy expositional idea of billions of people suddenly reappearing triggering the Celestial awakening but even from a micro perspective, it’s a tangential connection at most. The catalyst for the awakening could be rewritten into something more relevant to the past, be it a historic calamity or some MCU mumbo jumbo.
GIVE KRO SOMETHING TO DO
Like Black Widow before it, Eternals is another Phase 4 project to do an awful job in handling its antagonists. Even the spin they give Ikaris doesn’t hit as well as they spend little time justifying his villainous turn by not exploring his pathos. The de facto villains of the piece, Kro and the Deviants, get the shorter end of the stick.
The Deviants are first treated as mindless cannon fodders, made more artificial by shoddy CGI that would make Steppenwolf and Parademons look like breakthroughs in VFX. They pose as superficial threats to the ensemble with Kro being the sole exception. When Kro transforms himself into a thinking being, the mindlessness that originally defined them is undone brilliantly. It’s a pivotal moment that establishes there might be more to these cannon fodders than meets the eye.
But there isn’t, even though there should be. The film eventually reveals that the Deviants were just as manipulated and used by the Celestials, putting them on the same path as the main Eternals. But Kro’s evolution into a thinking being doesn’t hold weight when all he does right until the end is just trade punches with the main characters, who are keen on fighting the Celestial that ruined the Eternals and Deviants.
Not giving Kro a shred of narrative dignity is what ultimately ruins the character. If they had allowed the character space to interact with the protagonists in a meaningful way, the film would’ve had an interesting approach to villains. Perhaps they could team up to fight Ikaris. Perhaps the Eternals would’ve been able to find a way to evolve them from being predators. The whole ethos of the team is ensuring the survivability of a race of beings. To be able to rehabilitate these creatures would be to fulfill their original destiny in much more meaningful ways.
Eternals hits Disney Plus on Jan. 12, 2022.