In a cross talk, two writers sit down to discuss a book, movie, TV show, or piece of art they both feel strongly about. Sometimes they disagree; other times, they’re in perfect harmony. Here, Arts & Culture Editor Oscar Kim Bauman and News Editor Jiyu Shin discuss “Eternals,” the latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, directed by Chloé Zhao.
In “Eternals,” a group of superpowered immortals called the Eternals are sent to Earth to protect humanity from a race of creatures known as Deviants. After watching over Earth for millennia, the Eternals split up centuries ago, thinking their mission was complete. In the present day, they reunite when they realize the Deviants have returned and an even greater threat may be present.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity, and contains spoilers for “Eternals.”
Oscar Kim Bauman: We just got out of “Eternals.” I’d say I think I’m still processing it. It was a weird movie.
JS: It was long.
OKB: It is two hours and 37 minutes long, which is the longest Marvel movie besides “Avengers: Endgame.” And I’d say it felt long.
JS: I agree. There was a lot of plot.
OKB: One thing that I did appreciate was the incredibly diverse cast. Although I think it is a little weird that the first movie to have all this representation is the one where the characters aren’t actually people. They’re aliens. So the Eternals are immortal space-people with powers. They all have different powers. Their mission is to protect humans from the Deviants. And they thought the Deviants were gone, but they’re back. I’d say the main thrust of the movie is getting the gang back together. Because the Eternals broke up a long time ago, after the massacre of the Aztecs by the Spanish conquistadors at Tenochtitlan in 1521.
JS: Druig, played by Barry Keoghan, takes issue with the fact that all the Eternals are standing there watching that genocide happen. And so he takes it up with their leader, Ajak, played by Salma Hayek, and [uses his powers to] control the minds of the conquistadors to make them stop murdering the Aztecs.
OKB: This is sort of the thing people ask when you have these powerful, immortal characters: Why didn’t they stop genocides? The answer this movie gives us is that some of them wanted to, but the rest of them didn’t. This can bring us into the characters. Brian Tyree Henry plays Phastos, who has been getting press for being the first openly gay character in a Marvel movie. Phastos’ powers are that he’s the technology guy. He creates devices and wants to help humans advance. There is this jarring scene where it just cuts to a mushroom cloud and the on-screen text goes, “Hiroshima, August 1945,” and Phastos is sitting in the wreckage, upset because the humans have used his technology for this. Inserting superheroes into this feels weird.
JS: It was very much saying that he started the seed of technological progress and then the humans ran with that and eventually developed the atomic bomb, and then he watched it happen.
OKB: I want to give credit for addressing where these immortal beings were during all these huge historical events, but it just has all these horrible implications. What were the Eternals doing during the Holocaust? Were there Eternals watching sadly on 9/11? It brings in all these questions that are the exact opposite of what you want to see in a movie about space people in colorful costumes. To our beloved Argus readers: I’m sorry if you’re having trouble following this. We did too.
JS: That’s the real issue. There’s just so much lore to understand.
OKB: I thought it was very strange. I’m going to say it’s not the worst Marvel movie because it’s at least trying to do something interesting. I think it could have been a half-hour shorter and used another rewrite, though. Its low Rotten Tomatoes score is getting a lot of attention. I think that score is deserved, but maybe other Marvel movies deserve lower.
JS: I agree that the Rotten Tomatoes score is correct. I like when Marvel movies are fun and enjoyable to sit through and not just lots of comic things coming to life. They’re superhero movies for a reason, to be enjoyed by a general audience, and the minimum amount of this was enjoyable.
OKB: The strongest part of this was the performances. I really liked Gemma Chan as Sersi and Kumail Nanjiani as Kingo. Those are fun performances and I like those characters, but in terms of the overall plot, it gets pretty messy because it’s trying to do a lot. I was not anticipating that Gemma Chan’s character, Sersi, was our main character. I had no idea who the main character was going to be going into this because there are 10 Eternals. Ten is too many characters to introduce to us and I feel like I got to know a solid six of them.
JS: Yeah. I did not remember all of their names, but I knew the general traits that were assigned to them. I knew who was supposed to be strong and who was the movie star and who was the love interest. I thought Kit Harington was going to have a bigger role. He’s just a human named Dane.
OKB: What other characters have we not mentioned? There’s so many of them. Oh, there’s Lauren Ridloff, who plays Makkari.
JS: So Makkari’s deal is that she is fast, very fast, and is deaf.
OKB: I wish there was more to say. She uses sign language, which is a cool thing to see in a big movie like this. She has cool scenes of her being fast and saving people. But I feel like there’s not a lot more to her character. Although that’s more development than Don Lee gets as Gilgamesh, whose thing is just that he is strong.
JS: All the performances were doing the most that they could with the script and story that they were given.
OKB: I thought Richard Madden was not very good as Ikaris.
JS: Ikaris is not a good character. I think that’s why Richard Madden doesn’t come off very well.
OKB: There’s not a lot for Ikaris to do. He’s a very serious square-jawed guy. He’s basically Superman. He can fly and he has laser beams from his eyes.
JS: And he’s in love with Gemma Chan. This is the key point of the movie.
OKB: A lot of Richard Madden’s scenes were him with a straight face staring into the distance.
JS: The accent is good though. I like that he kept his natural accent.
OKB: I think a lot of the attention “Eternals” is getting is that it was directed by Chloé Zhao who just won Best Director and Best Picture last year for “Nomadland” (2020). I think they’re very different movies, but I have the same opinion of “Nomadland” as I have of “Eternals.” They are both movies that are trying to do a lot and it doesn’t really land for me.
JS: I think that’s a very good summary. I agree about “Nomadland,” and I think it’s so funny that some people have reviewed “Eternals” and they say they can see the influences of “Nomadland” in this movie, because I don’t want that in a Marvel movie.
OKB: Also, people are talking about this as if it was Chloé Zhao’s project after “Nomadland” when “Nomadland” was fully filmed after “Eternals.” They’ve just postponed it because, you know, pandemic. Does the influence show? There’s a few scenes where they’re standing on a beach or in a field and there’s some nice natural light.
JS: Lots of landscape shots.
OKB: Also, Ajak rides a horse in one shot. [Zhao] likes the wide expanse of the American West. But as weird as it is, I feel the same way coming out of “Nomadland” that I do coming out of “Eternals.” When I watched “Nomadland,” I was like, “Wait, what, what did I miss? I thought people liked this movie.” Versus with “Eternals,” I feel kind of vindicated because I’m like, yeah, everyone else agrees this is a weird messy movie that doesn’t really work.
JS: And that might not be entirely Chloé Zhao’s fault. I’m sure she tried her best with this movie, but I wouldn’t necessarily be able to tell like, “Oh, she directed this.” Overall, it’s just not very well put together.
OKB: The writing credit reads, “Written by Chloé Zhao AND Chloé Zhao and Patrick Burleigh AND Ryan Firpo and Kaz Firpo.” I don’t know what the rules are for writers, but that implies, to me, there were three separate drafts, and this does come off as a movie that was written three different times.
JS: Yeah. I think you can see the divergence in the directions that this movie really wants to go, but it doesn’t end up unifying any of them.
OKB: My favorite scene was the scene where Druig argues that the Eternals shouldn’t let genocide happen in front of them because there was actually a lot of emotion and talking about the implication it has on the real world. Obviously, that’s not a thread they handle well overall, but that scene was pretty well done. Marvel movies always have jokes in them, but in this I found many of the jokes off-putting, because they’re also talking about global atrocities and the end of the world.
JS: I think because the overall implications of the Eternals having been on Earth since the beginning of civilization are so dark, once you start thinking about them, that trying to balance that with humor is very difficult. But my personal highlight from this movie was Kingo.
OKB: We stan Kingo.
JS: Kingo is the best Eternal.
OKB: Kingo is played by Kumail Nanjiani, whom I like. The other Eternals are hiding from humanity because they’re immortal and that would attract attention. Kingo is like, “Nope, I’m a Bollywood star.” And you’re introduced to him through this big, fun, colorful dance number. He explains later that he pretended to be his own father and grandfather and great-grandfather and great great grandfather. So he, to the public, is an acting dynasty of guys who look identical to each other, which is very funny. Good job, Kumail.
JS: And we haven’t talked about Angelina Jolie.
OKB: Angelina Jolie plays a character named Thena who is a warrior. She can make weapons, and she sometimes has mental breakdowns and tries to kill everyone? Lia McHugh plays Sprite. Her powers are illusions. They’re all immortal but Sprite, for some reason, looks like a 12-year-old and the rest look like adults. So Sprite has a crush on Ikaris, but Ikaris does not return it.
JS: Love triangles. They have them in this movie.
OKB: I’m not sure how they’re going to mix the Eternals with other [Marvel] characters. Because you have the upcoming “Hawkeye” series. He’s a guy who shoots arrows. You had “Shang-Chi,” which is about a guy who is good at martial arts. And now you have the Eternals who are immortal and fight God.
JS: God, who is a red robot.
OKB: Yeah, God who is a red space robot. Would you recommend that people see “Eternals”?
JS: Even with bad Marvel movies, I normally say, if you’re a Marvel fan, go see it. But I don’t think I can say that for this. If you really want to sit through two hours and 37 minutes of all these famous people acting like eternal beings getting together to save the world and it’s shot and directed in a very confusing way, I would say go for it.
OKB: I didn’t love “Eternals” as a movie, but I kind of wish they would make more big blockbuster movies that are just incredibly strange. Because I’ll take strange and bad over boring.
JS: I think Disney is doing a good job, surprisingly, of handling Phastos as a character. Phastos being a central character with his family as his motivation for wanting to save Earth, I think is a nice touch from Marvel. And I think Chloé Zhao and the rest of the cast defending the inclusion of characters like that and widening who is included in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a good thing.
OKB: “Eternals” got banned in a bunch of countries for depicting a gay couple. In the last “Star Wars” movie, they had two women kiss in the background, and in countries where that would have been banned, Disney just cut out that shot. Here, it’s a central character and you can’t cut it out. I think it’s heartening to see that studios are biting the bullet and getting their movies banned in some countries rather than make representation so minimal it could be edited out. This is also the second consecutive Marvel movie that is not getting released in China.
JS: Specifically because Chloé Zhao has spoken out against things that China has done.
OKB: In an interview, she once said something like growing up in China, there were lies everywhere. With “Shang-Chi,” Simu Liu immigrated from China as a child, and he said that his parents left because of the poor situation there. But it’s interesting to see, because I think for the last decade or so, [studios have] been really trying to appeal to every country. Now it seems like that’s going backwards, realizing it’s too difficult to try to make everyone happy all the time.
JS: Usually for movies that get released worldwide, China can make up a large portion of the box office, so to see a Marvel movie that has to work around the absence of that and stand by its director is a change of direction.
OKB: I think it’s probably a good sign that they are standing by the directors and the movies they’ve made rather than firing Chloé Zhao and cutting out 20 minutes of “Eternals” and making people very confused about [Phastos]. But with all this, it’s almost like the discourse around “Eternals” is better than “Eternals” itself.
JS: That’s a hot take, but I think it’s kind of hilarious to see all the conversations that have been coming out of this, whether it’s the Rotten Tomatoes score or just about the characters. It’s intriguing.
OKB: I’m shocked that, with all the quality control that Marvel usually does, something this messy got through. I think a lot of the negative reviews are coming from the fact that this is from the director who just made the last Best Picture winner. People have high expectations. I’m interested to see where Chloé Zhao’s career goes. I think it is a more interesting movie to talk about than to watch.
JS: I was shocked when we were walking out of the theater that we had just seen a Marvel movie.
OKB: Neither of us knew quite what was happening during the finale.
JS: The entire last act I was lost.
OKB: I was like, “What are they doing? What is this? What are their powers? They can do that?” “Eternals”: weird movie. In theaters now.
JS: It is in theaters, you can go see it if you really, really want to.
Oscar Kim Bauman can be reached at email@example.com.
Jiyu Shin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.