It’s all in the eyes, as they say. All those quotes and euphemisms. Windows to the soul, eye for an eye, the hills and their eyes, you know the gist. I’m reminded of Christian Bale’s cold, unhinged performance as the serial-killing banker Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. “We talked about how Martian-like Patrick Bateman was,” director Mary Harron told BlackBook in 2009. “How he was looking at the world like somebody from another planet, watching what people did and trying to work out the right way to behave… He just had this intense friendliness with nothing behind the eyes, and [Bale] was really taken with this energy.”
This quote is the first thing that came to mind while watching the 26th movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Eternals. I see it most clearly in eyes I’d never seen so empty: Brian Tyree Henry’s. His eyes have exuded disillusionment in Atlanta or menace in Widows. Here, in his first Marvel-movie appearance, his eyes, in the vast, airless void of his character Phastos, whisper “save me” or turn inward, asking, “How did I get myself into this mess?”
The story goes like this: the Eternals are basically the universe’s narc gods. They carry out the will of the Celestials, multiversal forgers who, at the beginning of time, molded the three main consciousnesses of the universe: humans, narc gods, and what are known as Deviants. In order for the population to remain balanced, the Celestial Arishem, the Judge, deploys the Eternals to different planets to keep everything—technology, culture, war—moving along smoothly. Arishem, through his interlocutor and de facto leader of the group Ajak (Salma Hayek) has one basic rule: Do not interfere. So this explains why the matter-shifter Sersi (Gemma Chan), kind brute Gilgamesh (Don Lee), and the flying Superman-like hero, Ikaris (Richard Madden), though they claim to harbor a deep love for humanity, do not infringe on things like, say, genocide, the bombing of Hiroshima, and the most recent human tragedy, courtesy of Thanos’s very large thumb. A warrior-god like Thena (Angelina Jolie), Makkari’s (Lauren Ridloff) light-speed sprints, or the jacked Kingo’s (Kumail Nanjiani) finger guns pew-pewing their way through the Purple Chin’s army maybe could’ve saved millions of lives. But alas, they stayed on Earth cosplaying as humans while Earth was threatened with global catastrophe every few weeks, just sucking up air and eating all the food.
Despite their rules, the Eternals begin to question what exactly their purpose is, and it’s that central existential question that is meant to propel the narrative. It’s an interrogation common to Zhao’s work—namely her first two films, Songs My Brothers Taught Me and The Rider—and like those movies boasts an intense admiration for landscapes. If there’s anything that convinces these characters to protect the Earth it’s the diversity of the land. So often do we see characters, in pairs or completely alone, taking in the scenery—Sersi and Ikaris holding hands amid a vast red-orange mountain range; Gilgamesh and Thena delighting in the sounds of loud Amazonian insects; and, over in Mesopotamia, Druig (Barry Keoghan), the mind-controlling rebel, and Makkari, the sign language-speaking speedster, canoodle in a bustling bazaar, their love blooming out of a common need to police its people whilst skirting the rules of non-intervention (thus proving their arbitrary nature). Nothing feels totally natural though. Theirs are eyes filled with a peculiar exhaustion; blank sheets that render these tender moments in awe-inspiring environments moot.
While there are striking images on display in Eternals, including the 157-minute film’s climactic battle sequence, its weak script, a mélange of cliches and popcorniness, washes out any visual splendor (phrases like “the truth will set you free” and references to BTS abound), and may be the messiest one the Marvel Cinematic Universe has produced since Age of Ultron. Plus, the plot’s relentless focus on in-fighting, sensually tasteless romances, and an exceptionalist need to “push humanity forward” betrays any sense of sturdiness it could have had. As in most Marvel team-ups, there exists a world-ending threat that challenges its heroes to look deep within themselves and find the strength and pathos to save the world. And these characters supposedly care deeply about the world, as we learn via flashbacks to some of the worst moments in human history, from Spaniards massacring the Aztecs to the aforementioned Hiroshima A-bombing they could have stopped, or that one time their hands touched and they made love. But it’s all so stiff, so robotic, so unintimate you’re never fully convinced.
If that weren’t enough, for a group blessed with such wide-ranging powers, it’s hard to shake the feeling that every fight scene feels similar—and the mental-health struggles of Jolie’s Thena are handled with such little care that it only reifies the harmful notion that the mentally ill are inherently flawed and deserving of isolation. There are a multitude of curiosities in Eternals that explore autonomy, such as Ikaris questioning the role of mythological godhood; Sprite (Lia McHugh) interrogating the usefulness of deification; and Druig’s selectivity in granting (or not granting) Indigenous peoples control over their own minds. But these all come secondary to a yawn of a story throwing very pretty people into a multiversal conflict that somehow feels thinner than air. Eternals is, for better and mostly worse, the MCU’s most confounding spectacle: a hodgepodge of friendly faces, cute jokes, cool lasers and hand-dances with absolutely nothing behind the eyes.