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When You’re Eternals, You’re Family

Marvel’s new superhero movie is the latest film to celebrate the power of community and teamwork. That’s its appeal but also its limitation

For years now, it’s been easy to mock the Fast and Furious movies for their predictable, unsubtle overriding theme: “You see, the films are really about… family. It’s gotten to the point that during F9, whenever anybody said that particular F-word, I almost wanted to take a shot — the franchise’s big idea has become self-parody. But it’s a theme that shows up a lot in stories: Whether it’s an actual dysfunctional family (The Mitchells vs. the Machines) or a de facto one brought together through strange circumstances (The Card Counter), films are often about how a group of mismatched individuals form an intimate connection, celebrating the power of community. After all, teamwork makes the dream work, right?

This tendency certainly shows up a lot in comic-book movies, which since 2012’s The Avengers have often done things supersized. One guy with a shield isn’t enough — you also need a dude who’s got a high-tech suit, and also an Asgardian god, and maybe somebody who turns green, too. In the process, this notion of community has started popping up more and more, exploring how heroes don’t always see eye-to-eye but eventually come together to defeat a common foe. All families fight, but eventually they realize how much they need one another.

Marvel’s next big movie is Eternals, which hits theaters November 5th, and it too is concerned with how families split up and reunite. The titular heroes are a special case, though — they’re immortal aliens who were assigned to safeguard Earth thousands of years ago — yet what’s disappointing about the film is how pedestrian the execution is, no matter how novel it is to be introduced to a whole new set of MCU characters. There’s much that’s commendable about Eternals, but just like with the Fast and Furious movies, it doesn’t have much new to say about family. The big difference is that the Fast franchise took nine films to get to this point, while Eternals is only on its first chapter.

The Eternals comics first ran in 1976, introducing the concept of a group of characters from the planet Olympia who defend humanity from the vicious Deviants. For filmgoers, the Eternals will be reminiscent of both the X-Men and the Avengers, two other collections of superpowered folks who had the same volatile dynamics as a family without actually being related. Ikaris (Richard Madden) is the square-jawed leader who can fly and zap things with his laser eye rays. Sersi (Gemma Chan) can change matter. Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) blasts beams from his fingers. Ajak (Salma Hayek) has the ability to heal herself. Thena (Angelina Jolie) can create weapons out of thin air. Each of them has their special thing. 

But the Eternals haven’t seen much of each other for centuries after they vanquished the scary Deviants, presumably ensuring humanity’s safety. For those wondering why we never saw these all-powerful beings when the Avengers were battling Thanos, it’s explained that the Eternals were instructed by their overlords, the Celestials, only to fight the Deviants — a weird technicality that runs counter to the way most superheroes behave. (In a pinch, a superhero will go above and beyond in order to save the day — even if it got him in trouble with his Celestial boss.) But when a Deviant shows up in London, the Eternals have to get the band back together. Surely more Deviants are on their way, and our brave alien protectors have to get to the bottom of how these monsters returned from extinction.

Much of Eternals is concerned with the sometimes-awkward reunion of these characters, who have gone their separate ways, moved on with their lives and adopted human identities so that no one will know they’re immortal aliens. Along the way, they’ve also lost touch with one another, and they didn’t always say goodbye on good terms. For instance, Ikaris and Sersi were an item for hundreds of years, but now that she’s dating blissfully unaware human Dane (Kit Harington), it’s a bit tender for her to be around her old flame again. But those kinds of interpersonal issues have to be put aside to defeat the Deviants — although that will prove easier said than done after certain events occur that cause the Eternals to split into different factions.

Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) and a deviant

Marvel has made a big deal out of that fact that Chloé Zhao directed Eternals, which serves as her unlikely follow-up to the exceptional Nomadland. But as much as I like her as a filmmaker, I confess there’s not much about Eternals that feels particularly Zhao-esque outside of a gorgeous shot of Hayek riding a horse across a vast, empty landscape, perhaps a nod to the director’s 2018 drama The Rider. It’s long been generally accepted that MCU movies follow a rigid house style that’s immune to auterial quirks — you, me or Martin Scorsese could make one of these things and it would basically turn out the same way — although Eternals does have a little more emotional shading than is typical of their films. What definitely stands out is the more ethnically diverse cast, and the inclusion of individuals we don’t often see in superhero movies. (One of the Eternals is deaf, and another is gay — and while Disney’s constant “our first gay character!” self-congratulations are getting tiresome, this time it’s actually handled nicely.)

But, ultimately, the test of a good “This movie is about family” film is… well, what do you think of the de facto family? The reason why Guardians of the Galaxy was so successful — despite not having characters many people had heard of — was that their scruffy, bighearted bond was so apparent that you couldn’t help but root for them. In different ways, the Avengers and the X-Men — although far more famous superheroes — are also winning because there’s a particular chemistry to those groups that’s easily relatable. (For crying out loud, Marvel made a whole mini-drama out of the fact that Iron Man and Captain America were beefing, which wouldn’t have worked if you weren’t invested.)  

But so far, the Eternals don’t possess that degree of camaraderie — that feeling that you deeply care about what happens to them. Which is strange considering that Eternals is filled with good actors, including Barry Keoghan as the acerbic Druig and Brian Tyree Henry as Phastos, who’s always dreaming up new tech gizmos. But the problem comes down to an overstuffed film that has to check off myriad boxes in about two-and-a-half hours. Eternals has to establish the Eternals’ backstory. It has to explain the Celestials. It has to explain the Deviants. It has to give us enough information about the 10(!) members of the Eternals. It has to shoehorn in the Sersi-Ikaris-Dane romantic triangle. It has to flash back to specific time periods so that we understand what’s going on in the present. And, of course, it has to have an end-credits teaser. Quite simply, it has to do too much.

The eternal couple — Ikaris (Richard Madden) and Sersi (Gemma Chan)

As a result, the film’s exploration of family gets short shrift. There’s a poignant idea at Eternals’s core — these alien beings, long ago bonded by their mission to protect Earth, are now estranged from one another, and in a sense themselves — but Zhao can only spend so long fleshing out that theme. Even so, Eternals can’t help but feel a bit outdated: Despite its more inclusive cast, it’s just another movie about sad-eyed comic-book characters. The notion of once-great superheroes living like normal folks was already tackled on screen by The Incredibles. X-Men has sufficiently covered the whole “wisecracking misfit heroes” angle. And in terms of introducing some genuine life-and-death stakes — yes, characters in Eternals actually die — The Suicide Squad got there first this year, and was funnier to boot. 

Turns out, a lot of superhero cinema is really about family. Unable to fit in with conventional society, these mighty men and women — much like all of us drawn to such stories — have to seek out like-minded individuals to form our own communities. All of us choose surrogate families outside of the family we grew up in, hoping to repair the damage inflicted by that original family. We’re seeking to be accepted and to be seen — to feel like we finally belong. 

There are hints of that universal longing in Eternals — the characters may be immortal, but they’re as incomplete and wounded as the rest of us — and maybe when the inevitable sequel happens, we’ll get to spend more time with these individuals and not have to deal with all the tedious world-building. But while Eternals is about family, it misses the key element that makes this theme so evocative — we need to feel like we’re part of that family, too. Nobody wants to feel left out — especially the audience.