After over a decade, and dozens of films, it’s hard to imagine that there are even more superheroes springing out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It strains the mind to conceive of a universe with so many heroes, and yet, so much continuing to go wrong. Eternals is the first film to my knowledge to point out the common denominator in all this world-scale carnage. Is it possible (maybe?) that these heroes are perpetuating the danger that makes their presence so necessary?
This film is directed by Chloé Zhao, fresh off winning Best Director for Nomadland earlier this year. This is a major shift in Zhao’s filmography, to put it mildly. Her films have always had sparse narratives and a documentarian’s curiosity. She’s much more interested in discovery than in character arc. So to venture into Marvel feels counterintuitive, at least to me, to her entire philosophy. Perhaps that’s the point, as Zhao strives to take the organic nature of her style and place it into the corporate filmmaking of Hollywood. The effect is real and obvious to the eye. Eternals is more frank in its dealings with love (a sex scene! a gay kiss!) than anything previously done in the MCU. And while the violence is still bloodless, there is a consideration of the toll it takes on those who participate.
This isn’t a perfect film. It gets sluggish when it needs to hit you with a ton of exposition, and that happens a lot. But the internet narrative that this film is some kind of failure seems to be coming mostly from people who haven’t actually seen it. It appears to me that Eternals does everything we’ve been asking these movies to do: mainly, have a singular style influenced by its director. No one would confuse this with Nomadland or The Rider, but throughout Eternals is the earthy, philosophical tone that permeates throughout Zhao’s films. Her characters continue to strain for empathy between each other but more importantly within themselves.
The script is by Zhao along with Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo, and Kaz Firpo. Like its fellow Phase 4 film from earlier this year, Shang Chi, the weight from having to introduce the origins causes the foundation to buckle a bit. Unlike Shang Chi, Eternals does not subscribe to light stakes and quippy humor. From the beginning, the fate of the world is at risk. The Eternals are immortal beings from Olympus sent by the Celestial Arishem to protect the population of Earth against Deviants, which are vicious, four-legged creatures who attack like big cats and have a body made of ropy, tendon-like vines. Arishem chooses Ajak (Selma Hayek) to be the leader, and she informs the Eternals that they cannot under any circumstance interfere with any non-Deviant danger that the human race may be entangled with.
So this explains why they were a no-show when Thanos made half the population vanish, or any other human atrocity throughout our history. Not all of them believe in this practice. Thena (Angelina Jolie), the group’s fiercest warrior, and Druig (Barry Keoghan), who can control minds, feel their hands-off approach is leading the human race into ruin. What kind of protectors are they? Others, like Ikaris (Richard Madden), are devoutly loyal. Ikaris can fly and shoot lasers from his eyes. It’s well-understood that he is second-in-command. He’s also in love with Sersi (Gemma Chan), a fellow Eternal who can manipulate matter with the touch of her finger (in a pinch, she turns a full bus into a mountain of rose petals). It’s Sersi, living in contemporary London, who first discovers the Deviants are back, bringing a reckoning within their centuries-long stasis.
Despite hard feelings and lost contact, a reunion between the Eternals begins. Sersi and Ikarus assemble the crew which also includes Sprite (Lea McHugh), who can project realistic visions and is entrapped in the body of a prepubescent girl. There’s Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), who can shoot energy beams from his hands and fingers, and who must put his new life as a Bollywood megastar on hold (Harush Patel plays Kingo’s enthusiastic valet who joins him on his journey to make a documentary). Phastos (Bryan Tyree Henry), is living in the Midwest with his husband and son. A brilliant inventor, he blames himself and his influence for the wartime atrocities of the Twentieth Century. Lastly, there is Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), capable of super speed and whose deafness allows her to use her heightened sense of vibration (the most inexplicable detail in this film is that she, a being from over seven thousand years ago, uses the two hundred-year-old American Sign Language to communicate).
Eventually a plot reveals itself and the entire fate of the world is at stake, yadda yadda yadda. That part of Eternals is essentially on autopilot. It’s my experience that Marvel always does well with these first films. It’s when they’re stretched into sequels that must tie into the universe of other films/timelines/characters that things begin to go sideways. I don’t think Eternals will be an exception. Marvel may have actually reached Too Big To Fail but they can still put together a fun time when they are not so preoccupied with the structure in place. Eternals shows that they may actually let a director enact their style on their precious MCU. The result is actually an interesting movie.
Directed by Chloé Zhao