‘Eternals’ Is Jaded and Bland – and Doesn’t Deserve a Medal for Being ‘Inclusive’

The most striking achievement for an American ‘indie’ filmmaker is not an Academy Award but a superhero directorial credit. It’s the ultimate stamp of recognition: A king summoning a subject – a monolithic corporation welcoming a small filmmaker. Several trailblazing directors have accepted such offers. But Marvel Studios’ latest release, Eternals, complicates that perception. Because here, filmmaker Chloé Zhao – a long-time fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) – approached the studio. Two-and-a-half years later, she won the Academy Award for Nomadland. There you have it: a perfect combination, an acclaimed director, and a mainstream taste.

Even the story and settings aid the promised inclusive vision. The movie opens to Mesopotamia in 5,000 BC, where 10 Eternals – Ajak (Salma Hayek), Druig (Barry Keoghan), Gilgamesh (Don Lee), Ikaris (Richard Madden), Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), Sersi (Gemma Chan), Sprite (Lia McHugh), and Thena (Angelina Jolie) – land on Earth to rescue humans from Deviants. Eternals depicts their journeys across civilisations and periods – Babylon, 575 BC; Gupta Empire, 400 AD; Tenochtitlan, 1521 – where they do some more rescuing.

Such a lunge intends to grasp human evolution (or regression) in a tight fist – a gargantuan ambition – but Zhao takes it further. The Eternals comprise a diverse under-represented bunch: Phastos is a Black gay man, Makkari mute (the first for a superhero in MCU), and a woman, Ajak, leads them. This inclusivity extends behind the scenes, too: Nanjiani is a Pakistani-American, Lee South Korean-American, and Zhao Chinese-American. For a story that spans millennia and continents (including London, South Dakota, Mumbai, and Amazon rainforest in the present-day), these choices, at first, don’t seem like perfunctory progressive stunts.

But intent is one story, execution the other – and many times, a world separates the two. That world is, well, Eternals itself. Characters don’t communicate as much as unfurl information – a backstory here, a motivation there, and sterile lines almost everywhere. What’s even more bizarre? Characters addressing each other by first names – and they know each other for thousands of years (for Eternals are immortal): “Druig, I know you’re upset”, “I don’t want to fight, Sersi”, “I’m in love with you, Sersi”, “Revenge won’t bring peace for you, Thena”. This is sloppy writing, Zhao (who co-wrote the screenplay with Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo, and Kaz Firpo). The plot is sluggish for more than an hour – the invincible Eternals flit from one civilisation to another, maiming and torching their enemies – making us wonder what is at stake?

Even though the film spends substantial time in different civilisations – much of it shot in natural light, garnering aesthetic and political points – it provides scarce insights into the lives of people and the mechanics of their world, reducing the whole thing into a vacuous Google Earth tour. This is also not the first time that Zhao has entered a ‘foreign’ land solely to milk it dry for its cinematographic splendour: Nomadland is a more dignified example of such callousness.

Some bits are plain embarrassing, such as Kingo, a modern Bollywood star, shooting a dance sequence. Let’s for a moment forget the infuriating trope that reduces India to cinema to Bollywood to garish costumes to melodramatic songs. Let’s just concentrate on Nanjiani’s expressions and steps. The dude looks so disinterested and frozen (the most he does is arch his right eyebrow), encapsulating the embodiment of an IT professional serving his notice period. Let me state this for the record: Our back-up dancers are better, our forgettable ‘masala’ fares more polished. Eternals is so bad that it made me miss the unmissable: a Dharma Productions movie.

We soon find out that the Eternals need to reassemble for a crucial mission (when was the last time such a plot point…), where a man named Karun (Harish Patel), “Kingo’s valet”, accompanies the star for the rest of the journey. Much like Kingo’s profession, Karun is a trope, too. Carrying a handycam, he follows one character after the other – Kingo wants to make a documentary on the Eternals – as the other members berate and belittle him. When he’s not a punching bag, he’s used for comic relief. He gets one half-a-decent dialogue, his final line, that grants him some shred of dignity.

Inclusivity much, Zhao?

It’s important to clarify that, as an Indian, I’m not offended by Karun’s characterisation. But for a director and a film that wears their progressive politics like war medals, this hypocrisy deserves nothing but scorn. Besides, Eternals is so jaded and bland that nothing in it moves you. Okay, I lied: two scenes, kind of, moved me – one where Sersi and Ikaris peek into Phastos’ kitchen to glimpse the father-son relationship and the other where Sprite expresses her long-suppressed desire to be normal, to be mortal, to be… human. Even the climactic set-piece (featuring a schmaltzy flashback straining to be ‘poignant’) is inert.

Like most superhero films, Eternals dangles a carrot in the last few scenes nudging you to return for the next instalment. That is the sole end game of a film like this: to make you buy another ticket. Martin Scorsese caused a huge furore in 2019 when he likened the Marvel movies to “theme parks”. Now that is a loaded statement demanding considerable nuance and analysis, but I’ll say one thing: Theme parks are at least fun – and they don’t grovel for a return ticket.