More than anything, the key to the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has been charisma. Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man had it. Chris Evans' Captain America eventually found it. Chris Hemsworth's Thor had the biceps and self-awareness to simulate it. Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow started out with plenty, then somehow lost it. Tom Hiddleston's Loki has so much of it that no one, including possibly Hiddleston, quite knows what to do. (Hence, more Lokis.) And supporting players ranging from Samuel L. Jackson to Florence Pugh to Don Cheadle to Awkwafina filled in the gaps with tremendous, broadly appealing screen presences of their own.
Yes, Marvel's superhero movies delivered spectacle, and intergalactic stakes, and did-you-spot-that Easter eggs and lore for comic book fans. But first and foremost, they were built on the strength of lively, deeply appealing characters.
When the characters worked, the movies worked—even if everything else was kind of a mess.
So the fact that Eternals, the third major MCU installment to hit theaters this year, is kind of a mess, isn't necessarily a deal breaker. No, the real problem with Eternals is that it's a boring movie about boring people. It's overlong, overdependent on barely comprehensible lore, underwhelming as a spectacle, and stuffed with uninteresting, unappealing characters who have all the charisma of a pair of marked-down pleated khakis. Eternals is a cosmic disaster.
It's bad from minute one. The movie starts with a brutal text dump of cosmic lore garbage about Celestials and Deviants and the "six singularities" (which are never referenced again) and a big robot-looking space god something-or-other named Arishem who, whatever, because none of this really matters.
This material derives from Jack Kirby's foundational work on the cosmic side of Marvel's comic book universe. To the extent that it worked on the page, it worked because it was delivered in the context of Kirby's jaw-dropping artwork, which took the trippy weirdness of circa-1970s Marvel comics and reimagined it at interstellar scale. It didn't matter if Kirby's lore made sense or not—please, fellow dorks, do not try to explain the First Firmament or the Aspirants to me—it was so awe-inspiringly weird and grandiose that you just accepted it on the strength of its imaginative ridiculousness. Eternals, in contrast, gives it to us as a solemn introductory text, set on a black screen, like homework before a big exam.
Eventually, we do get to see a Celestial or two on screen, and sure, they look kind of neat. But the movie treats them too gingerly, as mystical totems to be revered in hushed tones rather than as the gaga sci-fi wonders of Kirby's comic book panels.
Still, these planet-sized interstellar overlords are the film's most powerful ideas and images—which is itself kind of a problem. By the end of the film, the only character I wanted to know more about was Arishem, the cosmically unknowable god-thing with the booming voice and too many eyes.
That's because every single other person on the screen is an absolute bore. Yes, the movie has the requisite quippy banter and superheroes-are-normal-people shtick bits, including an entire scene built around jokes about beer fermented in spit, which is even less funny than it sounds. But the gags all play like mandatory box-checking exercises forced into the script in order to meet the now-expected comic demands of the Marvel movie formula.
Speaking of box checking, the characters themselves are even worse: None of them have recognizable personalities beyond "serious" or "comic." (A misbegotten subplot in which Angelina Jolie's warrior-Eternal Thena occasionally goes psychotic goes almost nowhere.) Instead, the team comes together as if it was assembled by following a corporate diversity consultant's checklist. Eternals, which has marketed itself on the diversity of its cast and filmmakers, substitutes empty identity signifiers for relatability.
Some of this is a matter of mistaken casting choices: Scottish actor Richard Madden is particularly dull as the Superman-like Ikaris. But it's more of a problem with the script, which gives these performers little to do except engage in weak banter until the bad guys show up and, inevitably, they have to start shooting computer-generated laser lights from their palms.
And when the light show does begin, nothing improves. Marvel movies often have a bland and same-y look, especially to their effects and action sequences. But far too often, Eternals just looks like green screen garbage. Long sequences are muddy and poorly lit; the computer-generated bad dudes look like they were rendered on a PlayStation 2.
One of the many ironies of Eternals is that it sometimes poses as a lesson about the goodness of humanity, and that goodness is premised on the human capacity to create things of awe-inspiring beauty. Director Chloé Zhao has certainly shown that she's capable of creating such images: Her previous film, the Oscar-winning Nomadland, captured the desolate beauty of the modern American West with breathtaking grandeur. But there's nothing remotely awesome here. Instead, Eternals limply gestures at her earlier work with a handful of depressingly ugly sequences set at a lonely farmhouse in the Dakotas.
Of course, it's one thing to put up with cruddy-looking visuals if the action scenes are cleverly designed, and if the characters and story have real emotional stakes—or at least some winning protagonists and inspired humor.
Indeed, it's worth comparing Eternals to Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, the previous MCU feature. The big monster showdown at the end of Shang-Chi was similarly weightless and occasionally muddy. But the story was full of wonderfully weird beats, including an entire subplot about Ben Kingsley's relationship with a psychic winged butt. (Unlike the spit-beer bit, this is even funnier than it sounds.) The energetic action scenes—some of the best in the MCU—balanced grace, cleverness, and knowing cinematic reference. And the main characters had connection, purpose, and personality. They had charisma, and thus so did the movie itself. Shang-Chi was a diverse film, and also a good one. Eternals only manages half the equation.