Joan of Arcadia is a forgotten American TV show about a teenage girl who gets assignments from God (yes, of course the title is a play on Joan of Arc). Ostensibly a replacement for the sickeningly sweet Touched by an Angel, the series proved more rebellious than its predecessor, with the angsty Joan refusing to blindly follow God’s bizarre and often annoying tasks. But it’s not until a man with his own assignments from God shows up that the series flirts with a truly complicated turn. He blazes in with the point of view that God isn’t all they’re cracked up to be, and after dispensing with the usual look-at-this-messed-up-world argument, he gets to the good stuff: “I didn’t ask to be born, but now that I’m here, it’s all up to me. I like it that way. My life is a gift? Okay, thanks. You can’t ask for it back.” What he’s getting at here is a question about free will, of why God would create beings with choice and then throw them into such a painfully flawed world where they’re asked to make all the right ones. There’s cruelty in it if you look from a certain angle, one that might make God’s plans not worth following, or more insidiously, might make God themself unworthy of deference.
Sadly, the series never got to explore these ideas because it was cancelled right after this character was introduced. Still, a nice little show on American network TV broached them, and it was hardly the first piece of pop culture to take on uncomfortable questions about God while also entertaining us.
That’s why I will not be giving Eternals brownie points for posing a similar scenario, even if it does make the film one of the headier entries in the MCU. We all sensed that Phase 4 was going to be a revamp, a freshening of a story that reached a semi-conclusion with Endgame, and pivoting as Eternals does to explore superheroes as agents of a flawed, god-like figure is certainly a revamp, even if it doesn’t prove to be a particularly refreshing one.
The odd thing is that the pivot ostensibly makes this a perfect entry point for Chloé Zhao into the MCU. The Oscar-winning director of existential character pieces like Nomadland and The Rider was an unexpected get for the series, and while some decried it as a “selling out” by one of our great low-budget filmmakers, most (including myself), gave her the credit she deserves. Maybe she could take a group of little-known superheroes and infuse their story with the thematic depth that’s missing from much of the MCU. Others have produced similar magic within its confines, from the not wrong bad guy in Black Panther to the melancholic loneliness that underlies Captain America, and don’t even get me started on non-MCU superhero franchises (if you ever want a full-throated endorsement of Logan, I’m your guy). No, the myth that superhero movies have to choose between being bombastic, money-making productions or contemplative allegories is just that, a myth, and Zhao had the potential to bring the false dichotomy crashing down.
Unfortunately, the picture she’s made may just reinforce it. What she’s done as a co-writer and director within the MCU is create a movie that lurches between the empty Play-Doh punching of the series and the lurking existentialism she infused into her previous films, the former not being inventive enough to find new thrills and the latter getting too little time to build depth.
The pieces for both elements were right in front of her with the eclectic bunch that is the Eternals. A quick intro establishes that they are a group of beings sent to Earth by God-like figures to help humans along by providing inspiring stories, advanced technological blueprints, and protection from evil monsters (but only one kind of monster, which is why they haven’t helped before). Their various powers means all ten (yes, ten) of them are essential to humanity’s development and have their own unique relationship to their wards. Some, including Gemma Chan’s Sersi and Brian Tyree Henry’s Phastos, find beauty in our cultures and choose to live among us. Others, like Salma Hayek’s Ajak and Don Lee’s Gilgamesh, are curious but keep themselves removed while Barry Keoghan’s Druig gets way too emotionally involved. Basically, each near-immortal creature gives Zhao a different way to examine humanity’s faults and strengths, and then those lived experiences get to bash against the cold perspective of a remote God.
So much potential! Way more, it turns out, than Zhao could realistically fit into one film, and instead of focusing on the intersections between these complicated perspectives or narrowing it down to one or two deep dives, the emotional core of this movies is…a love story (and not even the gay one). A bland, been-there-done-that, sparkless romance between Chan’s Sersi and Richard Madden’s Ikaris that was intended to serve as the clash (and rooted-for resolution) between the figureheads of an ethical split that forms among the Eternals.
Basically, they’re Captain America and Iron Man in Civil War, and in the same way most of the heroes in that movie took sides based on narrative convenience instead of any semblance of character-based reasoning (seriously, Iron Man wants oversight?), each of the Eternals pick a side without us spending enough time with them to understand why. Instead, it gets distracted by assembling the crew (which becomes a series of Eternal fetch quests as protracted as the Infinity Stone fetch quests in Endgame) and repetitive pounding of the barely explained monsters they’re protecting humans from.
Perhaps this format would’ve worked if what we learned about each Eternal’s life carried over into their actions with the group or if the monsters attacking them played into the existential questions at this movie’s heart. Since they don’t, these structural elements feel like unrelated holdovers from the series this heady movie is clunkily trying to fit into, and frankly, like a boring waste of time.
Again, the issue here isn’t that an intelligent theme can’t exist within the familiar structures of the MCU, and the fact that both are present in Eternals tells me that Zhao recognized the potential as well. She just didn’t use each element to build up the other, so each exists in their own half-formed state, with neither being enough to satisfy.
Release: in theaters November 5th, 2021
Director: Chloé Zhao
Writers: Chloé Zhao, Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo, Kaz Firpo
Cast: Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Kumail Nanjiani, Lia McHugh, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Ridloff, Barry Keoghan, Don Lee, Harish Patel, Kit Harington, Salma Hayek, Angelina Jolie