The Eternals is the Worst Marvel Movie
I normally don't write about movies or TV shows immediately after my first viewing. I prefer to watch multiple times and thoughtfully examine the material, to try to truly understand it, and to ensure my analysis is accurate and precise. But occasionally, a film fails so hard, on so many levels, that I have to write about it immediately in order to process how it made me feel, and I have zero interest in going back for several re-watches. The Eternals (2021) is one such film.
I've also been a huge fan of many of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films. Black Panther was a life-changing inspiration, Doctor Strange and Thor: Ragnarok were good fun that I constantly re-watch, and the Captain America and Iron Man films managed the seemingly-impossible feat of getting me to actually care about Captain America and Iron Man as characters. Even the MCU films I enjoyed the least were mediocre at worst. And while my interest in the MCU has waned a bit after Avengers: Endgame (it felt like the perfect ending to a complete story, giving the main characters the poignant send-off they deserved), the post-Endgame MCU films I've seen were pretty decent; Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was great fun and creatively inspiring to me, and Black Widow was...fine. But The Eternals feels like such a huge misstep that it doesn't even feel like it came from the same studio. And, in many ways, it feels like a film from the 1990s, which is not meant as a compliment; much of the film's messaging was deeply uncomfortable and cringe-inducing on a level I've not seen in a very long time.
(Disclaimer: There will be spoilers beyond this point, and this probably won't be my most polished film critique.)
The Eternals starts off with a text scroll explaining some high-fantasy universe lore: There are big god-like beings called "celestials", and they partner with some superheroes called "eternals" to fight eldritch-demon creatures called "deviants" all over the universe. Cool, fine, totally a normal setup. Esoteric lore is not a problem here, and while needing a text scroll to even make the first scene make sense is a sign that we're in for a whole bunch of Weird, it's not a dealbreaker, they just need to really stick the landing.
Once you've done the reading, we open on a whole bunch of people in a funky triangular spaceship standing around a conference table, speaking to each other entirely in important-sounding lore references that haven't been explained yet, and then they all suit up with really cool-looking space-magic effects. I have no idea what's going on, but it looks awesome, so we're off to a strong start.
Then we cut to "Mesopotamia, 5000 BC". Which is on the coast of an ocean apparently. And we've got a few people wearing rags and spearfishing on a beach. Hm. But then this rubbery tentacle-wolf-thing comes out of the water and starts attacking people; I guess this is one of those "deviants" they mentioned at the beginning? All hope seems lost for the random kid we've spent a whole 1.5 seconds with, when suddenly he's saved by...some guy! In one of the shiny metallic space-magic suits that the people on the ship were putting on! So I guess he's one of them!
This opening is a perfect microcosm of one of the core issues that plagues the entire film: There are WAY too many Eternals, and it's impossible to tell them apart until the very end of the film. Even then, they're kinda interchangeable and disposable, and I still couldn't tell you how many they started with or how many make it to the end; I think there were nine of them, maybe, but it felt like more at times. They're a pretty diverse cast, which is excellent, and they all have unique powers, but all their outfits are nearly identical, and they're not even wearing unique enough colors to be able to identify them as "the green one" or "the blue one". Because there are like five of them wearing blue, and at least two or three wearing green. Even their powers all use identical-looking glowy orange particle effects, so it's really hard to tell how different their powers really are at first; do they all have the same power set, and are just doing different things? Or do they actually all have unique abilities? Or is it a little of both?
So, at the beginning, we don't know who these people are as individuals, or what they're capable of, or why they're fighting (aside from the obvious optics of "that thing looks like a demon, so it must be The Bad Guy, and the Good Guys are protecting humans because reasons I guess"), making the whole thing just a spectacle of A Bunch Of People Doing Stuff.
To be clear, it's totally fine for a film to open with A Bunch Of People Doing Stuff; that's a fantastic way to establish a group of soldiers, for example. But in the language of cinema, it implies that we don't need to care who they are as individuals, and that one or two of them will be developed as individuals for the purpose of splitting away from the rest of the group. And in this case, the intent is clearly to individualize ALL of them, which doesn't work when we're introduced to them in a way that expresses "you do not need to care who any of these people are on an individual level". Plus, as a team, the Eternals are too big to feel like a single special-forces unit, but too small to be an entire faceless army, so they're in an awkward middle-ground that just falls flat.
After that opening-scene fight, there's a scene where one of the Eternals turns the kid's flint-on-a-stick knife into an Egyptian-looking gold knife with a stone handle, and hands it to him with a warm smile. Always violate the Prime Directive with a smile! Then, hard cut to that same woman in present-day London, 7000 years later, looking up at a giant billboard advertising the opening of an exhibit featuring that same knife at the British Museum. I guess we know now why they're called "Eternals"?
They later confirm that the Eternals, after arriving on the coastal beaches of Mesopotamia, just kinda stuck around for a few millenia. Which, in isolation, is also not inherently a bad story idea, you could do some really interesting stuff with that, but it introduces the same inescapable question as all the other long-lived time-displaced superhero stories (like Wonder Woman), on a WAY bigger scale: If y'all have always been there, and clearly have powers to do literally anything on an incomprehensible scale, why didn't you do anything about all the awful atrocities that happened between when you got here and now?
That isn't to say that they necessarily should have intervened heavily in human societal evolution. It's a very grey question with no clear answer, which is what makes it an interesting question to hang the story on. And the obvious starting point to answering it is "We didn't intervene because...", since this is clearly the world we know and even those who don't know anything about history know enough to see that this is fishy. But there can be very valid reasons for characters like this to sit on the sidelines, like strict rules/codes about non-interference ("we can only fight things that the humans can't handle, they're on their own for everything else", aka the Christian explanation for why bad things still happen even when there's an omnipotent God). And since there's a whole bunch of them, struggling with/debating this policy could make for some really interesting character moments.
The Eternals, however, treats this question as just something to hand-wave. The film has no interest in actually exploring it in a meaningful way. And when the characters DO tackle it, the answers only lead to more questions. And not good questions borne of curiosity. These are questions of confusion and judgment.
As an example, Alchemy Woman who was staring at the billboard in London apparently works at the British Museum (one moment while I check to make sure I didn't accidentally change the channel to Wonder Woman). She's apparently a "museum scientist", which definitely sounds like a real job title and not something someone wrote as a placeholder and then forgot to look up the real term later. And she's come to teach a bunch of kids about...zoology? She's giving a presentation about apex predators, in a room filled entirely with stolen ancient artifacts, at a museum known primarily for its collection of stolen ancient artifacts, and what little we know about this character implies her area of expertise is probably archaeology. Sure, fine, whatever, I'm not here to "ding" silly writing choices. But then, there's a huge earthquake in London (it's a Marvel movie, these things happen), and one of the giant artifacts on the wall - a big solid stone tablet the size of a car - starts to fall and crush a kid. So Alchemy Woman rushes over, and instantly turns it to dust with a touch, in full view of everyone.
This being a Marvel movie, that's not that weird, all things considered. The other teacher-type guy in the room, who turns out to be her boyfriend, even asks her later "Are you a wizard, like Doctor Strange?", which is an adorable reminder that this is a version of our everyday lives where "wizard" is just a normal thing some people are as a side-gig. But, the earthquake incident establishes that she clearly had no qualms about using her powers to save a human from a completely non-supernatural event, just like she had no qualms about giving ancient humans a knife literally thousands of years more advanced than anything they had.
The real problems start a few scenes later. We get another fight scene, this time at the gates of Babylon, a couple thousand years later than the Mesopotamia scene (I forget the exact year, but it was like 1500 BC). The various Eternals are just hanging out in ancient Babylon in their space-magic suits, punching the crap out of an evil demon creature, and this is clearly something they've been doing so long that this isn't even that unusual, it's just an ordinary Tuesday in the Babylonian Empire. It's apparently so normal that the Babylonians never wrote any stories about these shiny-costumed people using flashy, glowy magical powers to defeat demons in their midst. Although, one of the Eternals did just address the other as "Gilgamesh", so maybe it's like a Stargate-Asgard situation: These advanced aliens showed up, and took on the names of local dieties so that the people wouldn't find their superpowers weird.
Then, once the fighting is over, they're all milling around at their ship, getting ready for a post-battle board meeting I guess. One of them (was he in the fight, or was he on the ship the whole time?) is working on a holographic schematic of...something. It's an exploded view and hard to make out, but it's probably some sort of incomprehensible space-magic gizmo for punching tentacle demons better.
Except, no, it isn't. He wooshes all the pieces together to proudly show it off to his colleagues, and it's a steam engine. Complete with random steampunk gears on the side. He proudly presents it to the others as something he wants to give to the humans...of the early Babylonian Empire. And everyone else reacts like "are you crazy!? You can't just springboard their development that fast!". Cool, legitimately good answer everyone! And now there's conflict around that inescapable "why didn't you help?" question! It's something they're finally gonna debate and wrestle with!
Except, no, it isn't. In a complete bit of narrative whiplash, the engineer guy gives some token resistance, but reveals that he's already been giving humans technology. And by "reveals", I mean he points out that everyone has been completely supportive of him giving humans technology up to this specific moment, and it's something they routinely do as a team. The team consensus is that humans just aren't ready for steam power yet, and ask him to design something simpler, so he whips up a holographic concept sketch for a basic plow. The rest of the team agrees that yes, this is appropriate for humans, and they'll start teaching them how to make it immediately. This is at least 4000 years after the actual invention of the plow, but whatever.
So, we've basically gone from reasonable questions about non-interference to full "ancient aliens" bullshit. Which I thought would be my biggest problem with the movie; Stargate has the excuse of starting in the mid-90s, this is a brand-new film released long after people started realizing that "ancient aliens" theories were, at best, unknowingly based on the same biases that underpin white supremacy, and most are outright in their racism (if you're not already aware of the inherent white supremacist biases in those ridiculous theories about how aliens built the pyramids and what-not, I highly recommend reading this article as a starting point).
But it gets worse!
So, the one guy got name-dropped as "Gilgamesh", fighting to protect people from demons at the gates of Babylon, and it seemed like that might be a setup for either the Stargate model of ancient aliens (powerful beings showed up and adopted the names and pre-existing mythology of humans because "we are the gods you tell stories about" would've been an easier pill to swallow than "we're aliens from another planet and came here in our spaceship"), or the MCU Asgard model of ancient aliens (powerful beings showed up, did some cool stuff, and then left, but the people were so inspired that they wrote stories about these godlike beings, and the aliens just let the people think what they wanted to).
Instead, The Eternals goes all-in on being an ancient aliens story: Not only did the Eternals decide, as a team, to give humans technology to spark their development, but they also CREATED the mythology around their names and deeds. The next scene shows one of the Eternals (the one who's permanently a kid, I'll call her Illusion Girl because none of the names make sense and I can't remember most of them) telling stories to the Babylonians as a way to teach them constellations. We find out that all the Eternals have mythological names (but all from different cultures, which makes sense until you think about it for five seconds and ask "wait, if they were all hanging out together for thousands of years, why didn't all of their names show up in every culture? Why just one here and there?"), and they make cutesy references to how they invented various well-known stories about themselves. Most notably Icarus (I'll call him Flying Eye-Laser Man), who apparently liked to tell the story of how he flew too close to the sun as a way to brag
So. What we have here is, essentially, a story with the premise of "these are good, responsible Ancient Aliens, heavily intervening and guiding ancient cultures because the humans of the Middle East wouldn't have advanced fast enough otherwise". A concept so patronizing and colonialist that I spent half the movie certain I was missing something, but no, I don't think I did.
But it gets even worse!
In another historical flashback, the Eternals are now chillin' in Tenochtitlan (which became Mexico City), in 1521. And the moment I saw that location and year, I immediately thought "Hm. Not so sure about this choice. Not hype on where this is going." But, given how loose they've been playing with their history thus far, there was no guarantee that they'd actually show what was really going on in the Americas at the turn of the 16th century.
The various Eternals are still Doing Stuff, beating up the evil-looking creatures that appear to just show up randomly all over the world and try to eat humans occasionally. Still not really sure what motivates these things beyond "they look designed to look evil, so they probably are". Still can't quite tell the Eternals apart in a fight, or identify who has what power, so it's still just A Bunch Of People Doing Stuff. They chase the demon thing into the lush, temperate forests of central Mexico, and then...talk about something? I kinda forget, I was still kinda hung up on "wait, where the heck did this forest come from; even the establishing shot was a desert", but it doesn't matter, because the NEXT thing that happens is a bunch of Spanish Conquistadors show up, shooting their way through a bunch of indigenous people trying to flee their invasion of Tenochtitlan.
So, ok, maybe they'll stick the landing on this; they clearly knew their story premise begs the question of "why didn't you do something about colonialism", especially after they've clearly established that these characters have NO problems intervening in human activity, and basically no boundaries or limitations on that intervention beyond "we think this will be too much for humans to handle right now, based on nothing except our own arbitrary feelings as a group". Maybe they have a profound anthropological or philosophical statement to make here, OR maybe they'll actually intervene in a way that shows they're only useful at stopping deadly aliens and are kinda ineffectual at dealing with human conflict. A previous scene showed one guy mind-controlling everyone in a bar to stop a bar fight, which is played for laughs, but also tries (and fails) to make a profound point about how humans need to work out their own disagreements, ultimately just serving to show that maybe these Eternals don't understand humans as well as they think they do if literally puppeting a bunch of people is their solution to a bar fight.
What actually happens is that Mind-Control Guy wants to puppet the whole Spanish army and make them stand down (implying that this is a thing he is able to do), but the team leader stops him and says "No, we can't interfere in their wars". What. The immediate next line comes from the Engineer Guy, saying that their weapons have become too powerful and they shouldn't have helped them. Yes, very good point Engineer Guy! But then the team leader responds to this with "You did what you had to do, we had to help them advance."
I'm sorry, WHAT. What the actual fuck.
According to these Eternals, it's completely ok and also vitally important to teach advanced technology to a civilization you see as more primitive. But only if you don't help them "advance too fast", with "too fast" being entirely based on the consensus of the only other 8-ish people you see as equals on the entire planet. And it's also completely ok to influence "primitive" cultures with your own self-insert stories to build mythology around yourselves as their gods (which is far worse than passively condoning humans doing it themselves OR co-opting existing mythology to pass as a god, and something even Stargate SG-1 knew to drop/downplay twenty years ago). And it's their core mission to prevent random evil creatures from showing up in cities to kill humans. But it's not ok to even TRY to take any action whatsoever to prevent - or even mitigate - a LITERAL GENOCIDE that killed WAY more humans than these "deviants" they're fighting ever did, because the genocides of colonialism are something humans do to each other and there's just nothing the Eternals should do about that.
I didn't fully realize it in the moment, but that was the exact moment where my brain gave up on this movie. But there was more movie left.
Thankfully, "it's ok to basically invent human culture and advancement from whole cloth and protect them from the occasional eldritch horror but preventing genocide is just too much help" is the moral low point, but the film isn't done with surprises. They're just bad surprises.
After the Tenochtitlan scene, a bunch of other stuff happens. I was struggling to care about the story by that point, but the Tenochtitlan scene is at least the point where the team members go their separate ways, partly due to disagreements over the whole genocide thing (Mind-Control Guy goes to live in a secluded tribal village in Brazil at this point). There's a scene where Engineer Guy is standing in the freshly-bombed rubble of Hiroshima (apparently Eternals are immune to radiation and also have a teleporter), lamenting how they shouldn't have helped humans at all because, as a species, we weren't worth saving. And an on-again-off-again romantic conflict between two of the Eternals, which turned into a love triangle, but I just could not bring myself to care at all, because once you introduce and then try to hand-wave condoning genocide, I'm just not that interested in whether Alchemy Woman and Flying Eye-Laser Man will get back together, ya know?
But then, we get the BIG REVEAL: The all-powerful solar-system-sized being they work for, with the evil-sounding voice and creepy-looking design, who only speaks in vague villain cliches, is Bad Actually!
In fairness, this is kinda playing the same game as Captain Marvel: From the beginning, they telegraphed that the Eternals were unknowingly fighting on behalf of the Bad Guys, so it was more a question of what exactly the Bad Guys are doing. And the real answer turns out to be a doozy.
The "celestials" were introduced as godlike beings in the opening text crawl, but without much clarification. The only one we actually see is only seen as a tabletop model that talks to them (which is kinda hilarious and impossible to take seriously the more I think about it, like if Jeff Bezos only joined meetings via an action figure of himself with a speaker installed in it), or in visions where he's obviously huge but with no reference for scale. Apparently, celestials exist on a scale that allows them, as human-shaped beings, to hold a star in their hands like a basketball. And their job is to...give life to the universe with their cosmic powers, I guess?
This movie is clearly going entirely for magical space-fantasy, so I can roll with all of that; I play Dungeons & Dragons every week, this is far from the weirdest character concept I've ever heard. However, these celestials of impossible scale, instead of transcending any concept of a human lifecycle, have a very coherent and natural lifecycle. Once every billion years, a new celestial is hatched. Literally. As in, from an egg. And what kind of egg does a celestial come from? A planet! Like, a whole planet!
So, the celestial who gives the Eternals their orders is apparently the boss-celestial, and he's in charge of picking which planet will be implanted with celestial-sperm to be used as a celestial-egg. But it can't be just any planet, because newborn celestials apparently need to eat. Meaning the planet they hatch from has to be covered in food. And, of course, they can't eat just any food, they specifically need to consume "intelligent life energy" or something in order to hatch.
Putting this all together: Celestials are immortal beings that hand-craft and personally manage solar systems to facilitate life throughout the universe. All that stuff we think we know about astronomy, physics, chemistry, and biology? None of that is real, it's all just a bunch of celestials doing little modeling projects. But new celestials must be born on a regular basis because reasons, they hatch from eggs like fucking birds, and those life-supporting planets they so meticulously craft are the eggs, because they apparently eat when they're born, and the billions of "intelligent" life forms living on those planets are their food.
This was the point where my brain segfaulted due to a head-on collision between science-story-brain and fantasy-story-brain. One of the core tenets of good sci-fi is that you have to pick whether you're telling a fantasy story or a hard-science story, and if it's the former, the cardinal sin is over-explaining the science in your fantasy story (a trap the Star Wars prequels fell into head-first). But The Eternals decided to hang the entirety of the plot on over-explaining the one thing that should not have been over-explained, while under-explaining everything else; the celestials exist on a scale that allows them to hold our sun in their hands, we do not need a scientific analysis of their reproductive cycle to see them as a threat in this story.
Anyway, through this reveal, we also get an answer to who the Eternals actually are, and what they're really doing: They're not immortal people born with funky powers on a utopian planet, they're genetically engineered to essentially be "farmers", making sure enough "intelligent life" grows on an egg-planet to allow the celestial growing inside to hatch. But they're version 2. The "deviants" are actually version 1 Eternals, which were naturally bred, but eventually evolved to a point where they attained free will and decided to fight back against the celestials. So, the version 2 Eternals are programmed to never change or evolve in any way. Once the celestial inside the egg-planet hatches, the Eternals on the planet are killed with everyone else, but not before their memories are downloaded for study. Then, a new batch are cloned from scratch with a blank brain-template and sent to the next egg-planet, believing it to be their first mission.
To be honest, this is not the most ridiculous premise for a Marvel movie. There are arguably weirder ones that have already been made and that are awesome. And I can't quite put into words why I feel like this falls so flat, but I think it's the scale: The enormity of the story is so far beyond anything we can conceive that it's impossible to relate to on its own terms, and while this can be addressed by framing it through the lens of more individual human emotions, it requires having characters we care about and relate to, and there aren't any in this entire film. None of the Eternals are relatable in any way, even if we completely ignore all the other stuff that I found off-putting. The problems they face are not human problems, the decisions they have to make are not human decisions, and they have no meaningful human connections to each other. For contrast, Thanos snapping half of all life in the entire universe out of existence in Infinity War wasn't gut-wrenchingly painful because of the scale of that genocide, it brought the audience to tears because it resulted in a bunch of characters we related to fading to dust in front of our eyes, while other characters we related to had deep, genuine emotional reactions to that loss. Meanwhile, the Eternals mostly react to the news that the entire Earth is about to explode with roughly the same emotional reaction I would have to finding out the grocery store ran out of my favorite ice cream flavor.
But, there's the big conflict. And what do the Eternals do with this information? Clearly, they have to prevent - or at least delay - the celestial inside Earth from hatching, preferably by having Mind-Control Guy put it to sleep! Why? ...That's actually a question they never even considered asking. The writers felt it was so self-evident that the Eternals should do this that they didn't even realize how many of their own story rules it breaks.
Like, yes, we the audience currently live on Earth (as far as I know), and would like for that to continue happening. So threatening planetary destruction should theoretically be enough to get the audience to care, and obviously someone should stop such a thing from happening.
However, based on the rules of this story universe established in this film thus far, it's kinda like "Charlotte's Web" on a cosmic scale: Humans are being farmed as lifestock, and will eventually be slaughtered for food, but the farmer's kids think we're cute and they taught us a bunch of neat tricks, so they want to stop the slaughter. But, unlike Charlotte's Web, they fail to really express that desire or the reasons for their change of heart in any coherent way, because the writers failed to realize that, like Charlotte's Web, they've created a world where it's just a normal, everyday thing for the farm animals to be slaughtered, and they have to establish an actual basis for this specific group of farm animals to be the exception.
So, instead, they take the PETA approach: The celestials' entire way of life is wrong, and they need to stop it because destroying entire planets and eating the life force of an entire species as smart as humans is Just Bad, starting right now with this celestial about to hatch that needs food in order to do so. Which, in this case, isn't even a bad story decision, but it carries a higher burden of proof, narratively speaking; the Eternals don't even know whether there IS a viable alternative, or what the effects of delaying the hatching would be, or anything else that would go into making a rational decision about something with huge stakes.
And on top of that, they do also try to tack on a "humans are exceptional and should be spared" explanation in addition to this, seemingly as an afterthought, and based entirely on the fact that, in the MCU, humans were the ones leading the effort that successfully defeated Thanos. But that's the only time Thanos is mentioned, and there's no indication that the Thanos Snap had any tangible effect on the celestials at all, other than delaying the hatching of Earth by a few years, which is an amount of time that doesn't even register when we're talking about a species with a reproductive timescale measured in billions of years. Plus, defeating Thanos isn't something we can extrapolate to real life, so it accidentally implies that humanity isn't worth saving from a cosmic catastrophe until/unless a few special humans defeat a genocidal intergalactic supervillain with unfathomable cosmic powers.
Oh, and I almost forgot the climate denial!
The Eternals find out about the truth of the Earth being an egg and their mission as celestial-food farmers and egg-protectors because, in the "present day", the Earth is about to hatch. In a week or two from the start of the present-day parts of the story.
And what happens when a celestial hatches from its egg-planet? Well, first its core/mantle start to get more turbulent, heating up the planet, and by extension, the planet's surface. Then the crust starts to destabilize, resulting in worldwide earthquakes, including places where there aren't normally earthquakes, which is what caused the earthquake in London at the start of the movie. Then there's a massive supervolcano detonation at a random location on the surface where the newborn celestial punches its way through the crust (one moment while I check to make sure I didn't accidentally change the channel to the movie "2012"). And, lastly, the whole planet just explodes into cosmic dust as the celestial pops out, suddenly becoming its full size instantly.
So, those icecaps melting and the planet's atmosphere getting hotter and more volatile? That's not because of human-caused climate change in the MCU, that's entirely the result of a newborn celestial preparing to hatch for the last couple of decades!
That's not an extrapolation or subtext, by the way. That's literally written into the text of the film: There's a flashback scene where Flying Laser-Eyes Man is showing the team leader, Funky Helmet Woman, a pack of "deviants" in an icy field in Alaska, right before killing her (he turns out to still be loyal to the celestials or something). And in doing so, he says something to the effect of "They must have been frozen in the ice all these years, but now that [the celestial] is starting to hatch, the ice caps have melted, freeing them."
...I do not have the words to express how gross and tone-deaf this seems. It's thankfully not a huge part of the film, but it's a small inclusion that carries heavy rhetorical consequences.
The rest of the film was unremarkable and unmemorable. They succeed in preventing the celestial from hatching - by just killing it - but it's all just A Bunch Of People Doing Stuff. They try to have some character development and give the various Eternals distinct personalities and conflicts and motivations, but it's WAY too late for any of that, and it just bounces off without evoking any emotion beyond boredom. Flying Laser-Eyes Man is a villain now? That checks out. Illusion Girl is suddenly a villain now too? Sure, why not. The lead "deviant" showed up and is fighting Flying Laser-Eyes Man instead of the others? Ok, I guess he's an ally now...wait, Angelina Jolie is fighting him even though he's helping her allies? Why doesn't she...actually nevermind, whatever, this is fine. Looks like we won, yay and stuff. Oh, wait, Alchemy Woman and...others...just got kidnapped by the boss-celestial because reasons, someone should probably do something or whatever.
Normally, with a disappointing and infuriating film, I just want to write it off and move on with my life, but the truly frustrating thing about The Eternals is that it's not all bad. Far from it, in fact. I've been pretty harsh and snarky toward it thus far, to express how it made me feel to watch, but it also does a lot of things very well. Aside from knocking the technical effects out of the park - this film's story may be a train wreck, but it's a gorgeous train wreck - some of the characters and story points were things I REALLY wanted them to explore in more detail. But they couldn't, because they had to cram a dozen other main characters and incoherent nonsense and poorly-thought-out accidental racism into it.
For example, Engineer Guy turns out to be gay, and settles down with a husband and a kid in suburbia, which was really cute, but by that point I was struggling to even pay attention to anything, and the execution of this latest First Disney Gay Character™ (admittedly slightly stronger than the half-dozen other First Disney Gay Characters™ who came before) was so empty and banal that it just kinda slid by. Partly because he had the strongest connection to humanity of all the characters, and kinda-sorta brought that into the "we need to stop the Earth from hatching" discussion, but in a really flaccid way that didn't actually give the audience anything to connect to because we didn't spend any meaningful time with his family. We just saw that he has one, and that's his reason for wanting to save the Earth, but we don't know whether any of the other Eternals even understand what a human family is on that same level; some of them seemed to get it, but some of them very pointedly did not. If the entire movie was told through the lens of this one guy, everything else could've either worked or been overlooked, but that would require Disney to let a gay character have the spotlight, and they'll never let THAT happen.
And one of the other Eternals is deaf, communicating only through sign language, which is also REALLY cool and unique and beautifully-executed. But we never spend any time with her, so even by the end of the film, all we know about her is that she can run really fast to the point of basically teleporting, she likes books, and she's a skilled thief but has no tolerance for humans stealing things. I could've watched an entire movie just about her, but again, not holding my breath for Disney to let marginalized characters be more than just tokens.
Even Alchemy Woman, who they tried to use as the main character, showed sparks of true potential, even though she ultimately ended up being so bland that I can't even remember her character's actual name after watching her for two and a half hours (Xerces, maybe? I'm sure I'm misspelling that). They tried to give her a character arc around her relationship with a human, which could have been interesting to explore and useful for grounding the rest of the story if we ever saw any meaningful interaction between them, or even saw her struggling with her decision to break up. But she never really developed or changed at all as a character.
I don't want to imply that ensemble movies with large casts inherently can't work; some of my favorite films are the 5th, 6th, and 7th Fast & Furious movies, all of which have a main-cast team of comparable size. And while all those characters were established elsewhere in the franchise prior to Fast Five, most of them had bit parts at best, so their prior appearances accomplished little more than introducing the fact that they exist in the story universe; the real development happened entirely in Fast Five. The trick with an ensemble film like The Eternals or Fast Five is that if you can't establish each character individually, you have to establish them simultaneously, as a team, by showing how they interact and work together. The Avengers (2012) and Age of Ultron (2015) showed that a superhero ensemble film can do this extremely easily (and entertainingly) by just having the heroes talk to each other while they fight, and coordinate their attacks in a way that shows they understand each other enough to function as a cohesive team. The Eternals completely fails at every facet of this; when the team is fighting a monster together, there's no indication of coordination or teamwork, and none of the playful banter that did so much of the character development in The Avengers. They're not really even fighting together, merely fighting next to each other. And in almost all of the non-combat scenes, the Eternals are either separate, or silent, or their dialogue is so bland and stilted that it doesn't actually communicate anything beyond "these actors all know how to read their lines on set".
So, I guess to wrap this up: The Eternals is easily the worst thing in the entire MCU (it somehow managed to be worse than Iron Fist), but it didn't need to be. They had a lot of big ideas that, individually, could have been used to tell deeply compelling, challenging, and unique stories, but by trying to use all of them, they were able to use none of them. They also had a lot of excellent characters who, individually, could have carried their own individual films (or perhaps their own episode of a TV series), or could have come together as a team in really unique and interesting ways, but they couldn't really stick the landing for any of them, either individually or together. They put together some of the most stunningly beautiful and unique visual effects I've seen on screen since Black Panther, but it's all in service of an empty, broken story and bland, forgettable characters, so it all just turns into meaningless spectacle. And, most importantly, the whole production is covered in a haze cast by the double-whammy of uncritical colonialism - to an extent that would have felt uncomfortable in the mid-90s, and is frankly unacceptable in the 2020s - and using the existential threat of our generation as cheap plot-filler at a time when the political will to actually address the real problem that we actually face in real life is non-existent. To me, this feels like not only the biggest failure of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, but one of the worst things Disney has produced or released in decades, period.