Review Roundup: Chloé Zhao’s Eternals

Most critics agree that Marvel’s latest tries some new things for the MCU, but does so without much success.
Eternals - Chloe Zhao

When Thanos was revealed as the big bad at the end of 2012’s The Avengers, I think I might’ve cheered out loud in the movie theater. I’ve always loved Marvel’s cosmic side — my favorite superhero is the Silver Surfer, after all — and with Thanos’ reveal and subsequent focus on the Infinity Stones, I was thrilled that the MCU was so cosmically minded, too. Jump ahead to 2021 and the start of Marvel’s “Phase Four” era, and now we get a movie featuring some of Marvel’s most cosmic characters: the immortal Eternals and their Celestial masters. And one written and directed by the owner of a “Best Director” Academy Award, no less.

Eternals, however, is turning out to be one of Marvel’s biggest disappointments, critically speaking anyway — even more so than 2013’s Thor: The Dark World. (As of right now, it’s the first Marvel film to have a “rotten” rating.) Pretty much everyone seems to agree that Eternals represents an attempt at something new for the MCU in terms of scope, storytelling, and aesthetic — which is laudatory in and of itself. But as you can see by the reviews below, a lot of critics also seem to agree that this “something new” was more or less a failure.

Kirsten Acuna, “Marvel’s latest project suffers from too many superheroes who are never fully fleshed out”

There’s no nice way to say this: The first half of the movie is a mess.

It’s stuffed with too many characters, locations, and back-and-forth moments between past and present. After multiple time hops, I simply stopped counting.

Even by the film’s end when you think you’re finished with the location jumping, it does it at least twice more. It’s overwhelming.

A.A. Dowd, “Even with Chloé Zhao behind the camera and agreeably weird source material, the MCU won’t bend its own formula”

A decade ago, the idea of a big-screen treatment of these particular superheroes would be inconceivable. While the Eternals may be among the most literally godlike characters in the whole Marvel catalog, their book also qualifies as decidedly obscure source material; no one would call them household names. Yet Eternals never truly taps into its nutty, ’70s-prog-rock potential, from a visual or a narrative perspective. It’s probably good for business that Marvel can cram one of its weirder, more out-there properties into a one-size-fits-all formula for success. But when even the story of ancient, planet-sized gods and their undying servants comes out looking like just another Marvel movie, one might be forced to conclude that the studio is starting to leave the eccentric pleasures of its comic-book universe on the page.

David Ehrlich, “[A] huge but overly familiar superhero epic”

On paper, that should be enough to make Eternals a radical departure from the rest of the MCU, as well as a sharp escalation from the previous two installments of the mega-franchise’s current phase (the no-stakes prequel Black Widow and the relatively self-contained origin story Shang-Chi). In practice, it still amounts to several hours of watching good actors save the world from bad CGI, as philosophical differences erupt into a weightless battle royale while civilization itself hangs in the balance. By making such an unadventurous movie about how crisis breeds creativity, Marvel effectively illustrates why even the most independent-minded of filmmakers are powerless to evolve an apex predator franchise that doesn’t have any Darwinian impetus to adapt.

Molly Freeman, “A mostly unique MCU movie”

Ultimately, Eternals is worth seeing for all fans of the MCU, from casual to diehard. Zhao is able to provide enough of a different Marvel movie experience for Eternals to feel fresh (at least compared to past phases). Phase 4 is proving to be one of Marvel’s most experimental, with Black Widow, Shang-Chi and the Ten Rings and now Eternals bringing something new and never-before-seen to the MCU, which is exciting both in terms of each individual viewing experience and for the franchise as a whole. The 26th film in the franchise may set up an exciting future for the MCU (though it should be noted the post-credits scenes were not show during this reviewer’s press screening), but Eternals is a thrilling, epic superhero adventure all its own, with a captivating emotional heart brought to life beautifully by Zhao’s direction. It’s a Marvel movie unlike anything the MCU has seen thus far.

Christy Lemire, “Strains to fulfill the gargantuan requirements of a massive action spectacle”

It is, in short, a bit of a mess. It is also — and I cannot stress this enough — 2 hours and 37 minutes long. And yet because the talented, eclectic cast is so enormous and so much world-building must occur, Eternals ultimately feels rushed and unsatisfying. The mythology here is both dense and frequently silly, with the movie grinding to a halt around the one-hour mark for an extensive information dump. By the end, you may still be unclear as to what’s going on, but you also may not care.

Shirley Li, “The most poetic Marvel film yet”

In a new Marvel blockbuster centered on these titans, audiences might expect an all-action showdown. But Eternals’ Oscar-winning director, Chloé Zhao, treats her characters — whose powers transcend the usual superhero’s — like they’re mere flesh and blood. In shot after shot, she mines a quiet and poignant humanity from the group. Their tale, in her hands, doesn’t examine Marvel’s typical themes, such as the burden of being powerful; instead, it’s about the nature of everlasting bonds. Through a story focused on reuniting a disparate team at odds over how to approach a crisis, Zhao explores a resonant question: When you clash with those you love, do you confront the conflict or overlook it?

Germain Lussier, “Could have been better if it wasn’t a Marvel movie”

Watching all that unfold, there’s a strong sense those ideas are what Zhao wanted to explore with this film. What does it mean to have existed on Earth and witnessed the entirety of history? How would all of these diverse points of view digest that? It’s a fascinating conceit and one that, if Eternals didn’t have to become a Marvel movie, really might have been interesting — but they have to take time to address why they didn’t fight Thanos and they have to mention the Avengers. So as Eternals goes from a generational exploration of time and space to a zip, pow, wham Marvel movie, all of those ideas and possibilities get pushed into the background. Once we learn why the Deviants are back, the Eternals are forced into action, and though there are a few solid twists and turns in the final act, the movie more or less devolves into superheroes in suits shooting stuff in order to save the world.

Moira Macdonald, “Lingers long after you leave the theater”

Chloé Zhao’s Eternals has its flaws; in a nutshell, it’s too long (very few movies, superhero or otherwise, can justify breaking the 2.5-hour mark), it’s got some pretty slow spots midfilm and it’s desperately in need of a bit more wit. Maybe it’s hard to have much of a sense of fun when you’ve been around for thousands of years, as this movie’s main characters have. But what it does have is a palpable, artful mood; this is a movie full of superheroes who spend time thinking and feeling, and of special effects that aren’t just zippy but often delicately elegant. If that’s not a phrase you’ve heard applied to a comic-book movie before … well, like I said, this one’s a little different.

Ken Morefield, “For an MCU movie, it’s better than average”

All that is to say that Eternals is the most I have liked a Marvel film in a long time, and I suspect if I return to it in two weeks’ or two months’ time I’ll find it as flat and tiresome as all the rest. It’s not that it has nothing to offer. It’s just that it gives up everything it has on a superficial first viewing. It helped that I don’t know these characters, so the movie offers up at least some discovery. But when we get to the inevitable post-credits tease for the next movie, introducing new characters, I got the sinking feeling that I knew everything there was to know about these established characters.

Rodrigo Perez, “Ambitious, but a convoluted cosmic misfire”

While Zhao is a terrific filmmaker in her personal arthouse films (Nomadland, The Rider), not much of what makes those films so poetic and captivating is present here, aside from a similarly unhurried pace which does wonders in her own meditative films and is a kiss of death here. That’s maybe not entirely true. It’s pretty to look at too and has her trademark, low-lit, natural-light look is intact. And Eternals is admittedly ambitious and trying to do something different in the MCU. But neither of those aims are inherently good things, especially when the basics of a story never fully remotely come together (there’s a love story at its center which feels “new” for Marvel too, but it’s never affecting).

Michael Phillips, “It adds up to Marvel fatigue”

[Zhao] cowrote this script, with several other writers sharing credit as well. I honestly think the Zhao + Marvel equation was worth a shot. But there’s only so much room in the MCU for sidewinding introspection and meditative sunsets; no matter the director, there’s always the moment, followed by hundreds more, when the digital rivers of blue or orange light has to fly out somebody’s eyes, or fingers, and those are the money shots that feel like loose change in late 2021.

Matt Singer, “One of Marvel’s worst movies and biggest disappointments”

Eternals finds the studio trying some new things, including a serious contemplation of where superheroes come from — both within the lore of the MCU and in our collective unconscious. That’s an idea worthy of serious exploration. In Eternals, it never quite comes to the foreground amidst a lot of listless exposition and the same sort of CGI-driven action sequences that conclude every Marvel blockbuster. When the smoke clears, Eternals is a movie about stories and, in a way, about the characters in one of those stories rebelling against the confines of their predetermined roles in the narrative. When they’re trapped in a movie as crummy as this one, it’s hard not to sympathize with their position.

Eternals arrives in the theaters on November 5. Watch the trailer below.