Marvel’s thoroughly panned new release Eternals is currently sitting at 47% “rotten” on Rotten Tomatoes. Critics have called it everything from, “nobody’s film” to the “worst entry in the MCU.” And the movie had one of the studio’s worst openings, debuting with a $71 million domestic gross, a paltry sum compared to the other comic book movie monsters.
But I watched Eternals, as I do every Marvel movie, because I will watch almost any movie in a theater given the chance. I don’t particularly like most of them, but who am I to say no to big CGI explosions which famously look like shit? But when it comes to Eternals, the critics weren’t totally right. I don’t think it’s any worse than most Marvel movies, and frankly anything is better than watching Robert Downey Jr. on my screen as a smarmy goateed billionaire.
But, part of the larger Eternals discourse revolved around the inclusion of Kumail Nanjiani as an immortal being named Kingo. He got extremely buff for the film, which gave us plenty of sad coverage about how he felt being an actor of South Asian descent appearing in a Marvel movie where dudes are always super jacked (Eternals director Chloe Zhao did not tell Nanjiani to beef up). In interviews, he seems conflicted about his new body. He also keeps talking about it.
I did not see Eternals to watch a newly muscular UCB alum shoot laser bullets out of his hands. But I was shocked to find that, in a cast that features bonafide stars like Angelina Jolie and Salma Hayek (not to mention the Game of Thrones guys Kit Harrington and Richard Madden, who both look exactly the same to me), Nanjiani is actually the best part of the whole movie.
As Kingo, Nanjiani plays one of the titular Eternals, which means he’s an immortal being sent to protect humans on Earth from monsters alongside his other Eternal pals. Having been on the planet for seven7 thousand years, Kingo and the other Eternals (like the one who indirectly causes the Hiroshima bombing and the two who have sex) has to find ways to occupy his neverending time on Earth, so he has spent the last fifty years as a Bollywood star — his lack of aging explained by him pretending to be a part of a family dynasty of Bollywood actors who keep dying at a young age and look exactly like him. I was ready to roll my eyes, but somehow this plot point was the only source of light in the whole film.
Director Chloe Zhao takes her sweet old time making anything of substance happen in the film, which is over 2.5 hours long. It’s often so boring and emotionally sterile it’s hard to understand the stakes or why anything matters. But you know who saves every scene he’s in? Kingo.
In the role, Nanjiani is genuinely funny and charming, standing out from his wooden castmates. I didn’t expect to feel this way – I disliked his hit film The Big Sick, with apologies to his wife and creative partner Emily V. Gordon. But all throughout Eternals, I wanted more Kingo, even though he never takes off his shirt (a real waste of grilled chicken breasts and pharmaceuticals).
Marvel movies all contain one single repetitive joke: a character, in an attempt at sarcasm, says something like, “Okay, so, that happened.” Eternals is mostly humorless and bland, with very few moments of genuine happiness or warmth. But when Kingo is on screen, making his little jokes, I laughed. He’s the only Eternal who doesn’t take being in such a ridiculous movie so seriously. It’s not that the jokes are particularly different, it’s that Nanjiani is a very competent comedian — he knows how to take a joke and he can sell the humour. In contrast to grandiose stars like Angelina Jolie, he takes the Eternals down to Earth. His character is introduced through a Bollywood dance number and against all odds, I liked it. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but I want more Kingo.