Character is King, Beware of Waiting
In addition to the deep golds, burning oranges, luscious greens and rich blues departing us from the Marvel status quo, Chloé Zhao’s Eternals (2021) doesn’t merely differ in a visual sense of the word. A Blade Runner inspired opening crawl sets the stage for a story that stems across the cosmos and time itself. Eternals is more than another instalment to the Studio’s episodic cannon, it’s Disney’s answer to the epics of yesteryear . The heroes of this epic are a group of handcrafted androids, known as the Eternals. They were built by god-like entities known as Celestials, who assigned them the mission of ridding a group of other worldly beings known as Deviants from the Universe. Their story will take them from ancient Babylon to contemporary London, showcasing Marvel’s most grandiose attempt at storytelling to date. If films such as Iron Man (2008), Thor (2011), Captain Marvel (2019) and Black Widow (2021) are considered pieces of a larger narrative Jigsaw, Eternals is an attempt to fit all of the sidepieces of said jigsaw together. This doesn’t simply take place within the MCU, it frames the entire project.
The canvas may be the size of a double decker bus, but is the finished piece worth the fabric it’s painted upon? The answer is both a yes and a no. It’s difficult not to admire the effort poured into this film, not to mention the attention to detail Zhao has applied when it comes to bringing these characters to life. It’s no easy task taking a story of this size, filling it with 10 protagonists, then getting it all to the other side without it the whole thing tangling itself in knots. Getting audiences to care when there’s so much weighing it down can’t be done on a whim. Eternals takes its time, working tirelessly to flesh out an platoon of characters, examining relationships cultivated over countless millennia, and getting audiences to give a damn when such deep routed allegiances begin to deteriorate during the back half of the story. Character is King here, and Zhao will stop at nothing to ensure they are remembered by those bearing witness to her fable.
I care for these characters. I like spending time with them. Sersi and Sprite’s friendship feels warm and real in a way that feels real. Ikaris and Sersi’s relationship comes across as complicated and messy and sad in that’s relatable. Druig’s increasing frustration at the rules hindering him from acting by his moral compass hits home. Gilgamesh’s loyalty toward the wellbeing of Thena’s identity is profound and beautiful in a manner few films are capable of achieving. For a band of robots built by mystical beings the size of continents, these guys feel real in a way that sticks with you after the end credits role. In this respect, Eternals makes excellent use of its 156 minutes, populating the story with protagonists that are as rich and arresting as the gardens of Babylon themselves.
None of this is to say the runtime particularly makes for a better story. When it comes to the pacing, there’s not too much good I can write home about. The movie drags its backside from point A to B at a snoozing snail’s pace. The action – as spellbinding as such sequences are from time to time – is spread so far apart, you could park half a dozen Celestial hands between each of them. Action certainly isn’t the USP for Eternals, and the decision to venture away from the MCU norms suggests it was all part of the plan to keep the action on a lighter footing for this entry. Problem is, there’s only so much steam two and a half hours of dialogue-saturate character drama can retain in its tank. There’s very little to punctuate the talk laden moments, making is thirsty for something more. It’s all very pretty to look at, and the people amidst all the gorgeous vistas are certainly interesting enough to keep us engaged to a point, but it’s just not enough. Each and every one of the 9360 seconds assigned to this picture is felt. Word of advice for those who haven’t watched it yet, don’t look at your watch at any point during the viewing, as you’ll be unpleasantly surprised at just how little time has passed since you last glanced at it.
I love character pieces, I don’t expect every film to saturate itself with flashy action, and I am always grateful when the status quo is abandoned in favour of trying something new. Nonetheless, this film has a serious pacing problem. For a piece of work that’s so beautiful and engaging, the fact it often descends into bouts of dullness suggests there’s a problem here. It’s the gaps between the plot progression that’s the problem. Something doesn’t feel quite right here. Something is missing. It’s not so much that it needs an editor to trim the runtime down, we just need more meat on this mammoth sized skeleton. If only more plot progression and drama fill the ocean sized gaps in this script, then perhaps this wouldn’t drag it’s backside against the ground.
Love Wins, Forever
Remember back when the Russo Brother’s announced that Avengers: End Game (2019) was set to introduce an LGBTQIA+ character into MCU? The most anticipated film of all time promised us a character who might not be another cis, straight dude. Hurrah for representation! At least that was the sentiment during the run up to its release. The finished product revealed a blink and you’ll miss it character; an extra who casually mentions one of his dates happened to be another guy. The inclusion was so brief and inconsequential, barely anyone who saw the film clocked its inclusion. This so called “diversity” approach has become a running cliché in Hollywood as of recent. It’s a misguided and lazy attempt to try and appear progressive, all while trying not to wind up the usual bigots who throw internet tantrums the moment they are reminded LGBTQIA+ people exist. See Alien Covenant (2017) for another top rate example on how not to go about including a gay character in a movie.
Fortunately, Eternals offers Marvel another chance to give introducing a non-straight character another bash. This time around, they manage to do a pretty great job. Phastos’ debut as the first ever openly gay superhero taking centre stage on the big screen doesn’t slide into the usual trappings of keeping his sexual identity sheepishly under wraps. His sexuality is not just some subtle side-reference he mumbles about in a single sequence, but is unblushingly exposited to audiences when we are invited to catch up on his present day living situation. To add to this, the other common cliche of framing the LGBTQIA+ character as a figure of pain and tragedy isn’t applied here either. Phastos is depicted as having a happy and fulfilling life with his partner and child. He’s not some tragic character drowning in pain or prejudice. Neither is he depicted as a joke at any stage during this movie. It sounds as though I’m being patronising, but I mean it when I say this is one of the healthiest and most positive depictions of an LGBTQIA+ character I’ve seen mainstream Hollywood do up until this point. He’s not a punchline, he’s not a sob story, and he’s not a source of shame for the writers bringing him to life. There’s perhaps an argument to make that by integrating him into a traditional nuclear family setting, the writers are trying to make him as heteronormative as possible to sugarcoat him for audiences. I think there may be a shred of truth to this claim, but considering how poor LGBTQIA+ representations have been in Hollywood thus far, Phastos’ depiction here is certainly a step in the right direction.
Introducing an unashamed, gay superhero is a welcoming transition away from End Game’s less impressive attempt three-years prior. I’m just hoping Marvel continue in this fashion going forward, particularly when it comes to the representation of other members of the LGBTQIA+ spectrum. To think we may get an openly trans superhero in the near future is a thought that excites me greatly. “Slow down Amber” you may be thinking, “Hollywood might not be quite there yet”. But just let me dream a little, please? Considering just over four years ago most the MCU line-up consisted primarily of straight white dudes, things are moving at a decent pace. Who knows where we may be in another four years time. The world is changing, let’s just hope cinema is quick enough to keep up.
Eternals does a fairly decent job when it comes to selling Marvel’s pledge to further diversify their library of heroes. Lauren Ridloff’s casting as Makkari is another such example, making her the first deaf actor and superhero to grace an MCU project. Though it’s a shame she isn’t given a larger part to play here, her inclusion hints toward a promising and more varied future. Makkari’s character is not killed off or written out of the film by the end of Eternals. Considering these characters are set to return for future MCU features means we are probably going to see much more of her, including her presence in a potential fifth Avengers movie. Such casting decisions not only reach out and touch the hearts of those who’ve seldom seen people like themselves represented on screen, they serve as proof that the world isn’t going to explode the moment a part doesn’t go to another able-bodied, straight, cis, white dude. That may sound blindingly obvious, but remember, there’s a lot of people out there who seem to think casting the part to a minority is somehow presents a problem. It’s time to dream bigger when it comes to telling stories. No more catering to the minds of the hateful and the dense. The more backgrounds and experiences we introduce both in front and behind the scenes, the more voices we get to witness. This is how storytelling evolves, not by doing the same thing over and over, but by opening up the door to new worlds and ideas. Marvel Studios has not had a great record when it comes to singing from this hymn sheet. At least not until more recently. In addition to Black Panther (2018), Black Widow and Shang-Chi (2021), Eternals is a solid example of the studio’s pledge to make amends for past errors.
Last September, I saw something that chilled my soul. It was an interview with a gentleman who found himself trapped in the South Tower of the World Trade Centre on September 11th 2001. Despite being stuck several floors above the point of impact, this man was one of the very few to make it out alive before the vast structure came tumbling to the earth. I cannot even begin to imagine how terrifying such an ordeal must have been for this man. Which is why I was all the more horrified to see the photograph a news outlet used whilst interviewing him. In the phot, the elderly man was perched on a chair, sat next to a vast, eight foot banner of the South Tower in flames, mere seconds after the second plane had collided against the concrete. They’d taken what was undoubtedly the darkest, most horrific moments from this man’s past, and amplified the most graphic of images from that day to help sell the story. Regardless of whether or not this man consented to having that image placed next to him whilst he retold his story is neither here nor there. It was here that I realised the media will do just about anything to dramatize a tale and sell a story. Doesn’t matter how it makes the victims or loved ones of those victims feel, if it looks shocking and captures attention, anything’s fair game.
It’s not just newspapers with a tendency to pull these kinds of stunts. We see similar tactics in film and television too. Real life tragedies, terrorist attacks, natural disasters and other agonising historical events are re-imagined as flashy fables filled with explosive climaxes and tearful set pieces. The filmmakers may try to make them as sympathetic and respectful as can be. Regardless of their best efforts, they are still using real people’s pain to sell a product. There’s an argument to be made that audience demand is to blame for the sensationalization of pain; that it taps into a morbid curiosity that scratches a cathartic itch pestering us from within. There’s also an argument that suggests it’s trivialising the horrors of a lived catastrophe.
When the United States detonated two nuclear weapons over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August 1945, over 129,000 and 226,000 people were killed. Many of those were citizens. Families, children, the elderly, all wiped off the face of the earth in an instant. The detonation over Hiroshima killed around 66,000 on impact, injuring a further 69,000. The devastation decimated entire communities, infrastructures and livelihoods. The nightmare that the injured parties endured are beyond comprehension. Which is why Eternal’s decision to make the horrors of Hiroshima’s destruction in 1945 a shocking choice.
Hiroshima’s inclusion in the film certainly serves a purpose. It’s intended to further sow the seeds of the Eternal’s ultimate defection from the side of the Celestials. Forcing our heroes to reflect upon their passivity works to make the final moments of the film, in which they turn on their creators, all the more believable. It feeds into the wider character transitions. Be as that may, the decision to include this in the finished product feels cruel and thoughtless in a way that doesn’t quite justify its presence within a fantastical film.
This is especially the case considering how recent an event this was. 1945 may not exactly be yesterday, but it’s still recent enough for its impact to have an affect on people alive in today’s world. Families of the victims and even survivors of the event itself are still alive in the present era. To turn their turmoil into a passing slap of spectacle used to help motivate a couple of celestial robots doesn’t quite feel like a good way to respect the experiences of those people. The film steers clear of other similar events in which civilians were butchered (September 11th) to name one, so why take aim at this particular event? Is it considered less important because it was seven decades ago?
Perhaps what puzzles me most about this, is that the creators had a fictional event at their disposal that could have served the exact same moment as the Hiroshima moment just as effectively. The five year blip, in which Thanos axed 50% of every population in the cosmos, is the ultimate method of challenging the Eternal’s conflicting circumstances. Considering entire civilisations were devastated beyond belief for half a decade, surely this would be the moment that ultimately horrified them into changing their ways. Not just the genocide themselves, but the depths in which various sectors of humanity descended as a result would have made them question their passivity just as much as any other historical event in which humans commit atrocities.
Opting to drop the blip, which I’d argue is the MCU’s most fascinating and under developed eras, in favour of repacking a real life horror story as a slice of entertainment is as disrespectful as it is pointless. It didn’t need to be in here. If you want to utilise a terror inflicted on civilians, either make it fantastical, or perhaps avoid using an event in which survivors effected by said event are still walking the earth.
As a character piece, Eternals hits all the right notes. For a film containing 10 protagonists, all of whom have millennia’s worth of backstory that needs communicating to its audience, it successfully manages to make us care for these people. Though some of the movie’s many leads don’t quite get the airtime they deserve, it still manages an admirable job under the circumstances. Walking away from this film leaves with a melancholic ache that isn’t always easy to achieve. We care for these people; we remember them once the credits have come to pass. Our heroes feel rich and authentic in a way that seldom is the case during these sorts of films. The diverse cast further help to make these characters feel more believable. Seeing as the world we live in is made up of all sorts of ethnicities, sexualities, shapes, sizes and backgrounds; implementing a cast that reflects such multiplicity gives the film an authentic tactility that benefits the finished product.
In terms of its pacing, however, none of this quite adds up. There are plenty of moments throughout in which the story doesn’t appear to know what to do with itself. It meanders and stalls during the moments when it should be soaring high like Ikarus on a mission. At times, this can make for a story that can feel dull and confused.
Some of the decisions made during those more confused of moments hint at a misguided attempt to create drama in areas where something different should have been applied. Taking catastrophic real world historical events that continue to impact people to this very day is an example of a film that doesn’t quite understand the nature of what it is. As welcoming as it is to venture away form the status quo, Eternals is still a whimsical sci-fi fantasy that should pretend it’s anything more real wordly than that. Trying to blend real world horror and blockbuster sceptical in such a fashion is understandably going to come across as tasteless. Perhaps in these circumstances, Eternals should have made use of the universe it belongs to and utilised some of the in-univere events that could have retained the approach they were going for in the first place.
3 thoughts on “‘Edge of the Jigsaw’ – Eternals”
I’m going to re-watch it at some point because I didn’t attach to much at all, but this is a really interesting insight, especially regarding their focus on tragedy and their choices there.
I’m normally good with stories that don’t give you anything but I didn’t care for a few of the characters at all. I wonder if a revisit will give me the insight to understand them more, before I meet them, but with a vague story in places, I also just lost interest – despite it all looking beautiful.
I did love the diversity though, and I’m enjoying this across a lot of TV, films and genres, generally!
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I think a lot of people have come away from this one with feelings of detachment from the characters. I think I’m in the minority when I say they were one of the few aspects of the film I appreciated. I can see why others didn’t hold the same opinion though. I think you’re right, the story makes it extremely difficult to retain interest. The film’s meandering tendency gives viewers very little to grasp on to, which is a real problem.
Much agreed regarding diversity. Film and television across the board appears to be improving their approach when it comes to representation. In many respects, Marvel are fairly late to the game by comparison to other franchises.
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I definitely want to re-visit, I’m wondering if my personal connection is to do with the sheer scale of the story they’re trying to tell, I feel I even missed some bits even though I’m usually quite good at taking things in!
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