For much of Marvel’s Eternals‘ 2 hour 37 minute runtime, I found my consciousness floating out of my body, through the lobby doors of the theater, and into an alternate reality version of my home. There, I saw myself gripped by weekly installments of my new favorite TV series, itself based on Marvel’s Eternals.
This dream series felt like a more Lost-ified version of the old TV show Heroes, where mythological icons contended with a mix of global stakes and emotional bonds, then had to unite with both purpose and superpowers over a complicated span of thousands of years. Each episode focused on one or two of the lead characters—and juxtaposed those stars’ current-day relationships with beautifully rendered, historically accurate callbacks to their adventures in other epochs.
I was so disengaged and disappointed by the new Marvel film adaptation—premiering exclusively in theaters on Friday, November 5—that my mind wandered into a different kind of “what if” than Marvel Studios likely intended. To its credit, Eternals regularly snapped me out of that daydream. I would still recommend it as an intriguing addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
But I don’t recommend rushing to theaters for Eternals. The journeys of ten heroes toward a megaton climax don’t get reduced to fewer than three hours without some brutal trimming. As a result, this is easily the most heartbreaking feature-length Marvel film yet. This breath of fresh Marvel air has been choked by theatrical ambitions.
A fairy tale cover for the real story
The rest of this review includes explanations of Eternals’ events to make critical points. While I avoid major spoilers, if you want to go into the film completely blind, you have been warned.
Eternals, as based on the classic comic series by Jack Kirby, posits that the mythical gods of Olympus were a fairy tale cover for the real version: a legion of otherworldly guardians who travel from planet to planet protecting native populations by wiping out invading monsters called Deviants. Eternals opens with a lengthy, jargon-filled text crawl to explain this concept, and it clarifies that mastermind supergod Arishem pulls the strings.
This opening text crawl also suggests that Earth’s current Eternals have some apprehension about their job. Though the Eternals apparently killed every Deviant in existence thousands of years ago, they’re instructed by Arishem to stay put. Don’t meddle with human affairs, it insists, unless you’re told otherwise.
Thus, within Eternals‘ first 15 minutes, we see Eternals both in the depths of the BCE and fully assimilated in the modern world. This is the movie’s storytelling hook, and it frequently rewinds to juicy moments over a span of roughly 12,000 years to demonstrate how various Eternals’ relationships evolved over time.
A Venn diagram between the X-Men and Captain Planet
The past decade’s biggest superhero ensemble films have often focused on a single “anchor” hero, and that creative decision can make or break a movie’s emotional impact. As an example, Joss Whedon’s version of Justice League focused on an awkward, stitched-together relationship between Batman and Wonder Woman, which paled compared to original filmmaker Zach Snyder’s longer vision.
Eternals reluctantly chooses Sersi (Gemma Chan, Crazy Rich Asians) as its anchor, and she handles the honors with aplomb. But her role as the film’s heart takes time, patience, and nuance to unfold—all while facing interruptions in the form of the rest of the cast.
As a slew of panels on a figurative comic book page, the combined Eternals are pretty cool, though depending on your experience or fatigue with the genre, you may find them derivative. Ikaris (Richard Madden, Game of Thrones) is basically Superman; Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani, Silicon Valley) is a mildly tweaked version of Cyclops; Makkari (Lauren Ridloff, The Walking Dead) is the Flash. The rest of the cast mostly lands in a Venn diagram between the X-Men and Captain Planet. (In the comics pantheon, who’s ripping off whom? On the Internet, there’s definitely a comment section or two for that.)
Eternals at least seems aware of its place in the “been there, lasered that” hero-film ecosystem. When it’s not cheekily alluding to events in Marvel films, it goes so far as to reference DC Comics (with one joke comparing a film’s character to Batman’s Alfred). Thankfully, Eternals is more than these jokes, and its biggest success is its convincingly broken hero hierarchy. Conflicting values, infighting, and emotional connections fracture every step that this film takes. Characters are presented subtly and convincingly enough that you won’t leave this film without a few substantial moments of “did not see that coming” and “wow, Marvel went there.”