Chloé Zhao was named the director of Marvel’s Eternals well before she would go on to win two Oscars at last year’s ceremony for Nomadland. Of course, there were some lovers of art house cinema baffled by the indie darling’s choice to make a movie for Kevin Feige’s Marvel machine. But Zhao taking on Eternals left one big question that wouldn’t be answered until the film started screening – Would Zhao be able to break through the Marvel mold and create something that stands out from the rest of the MCU? The answer is kind of. Eternals isn’t a complete disaster nor is it a home run. The style of Marvel and the style of Zhao don’t always meld in the rather busy, overstuffed Eternals. At times Zhao’s superhero epic is able to breakaway from the Marvel mold, but in the end the movie is still beholden to the broader MCU.
In the universe there are beings known as Celestials, and they harness energy to create life and worlds across all of existence. The Celestial known as Arishem created the world as we know it, but creation was plagued by violent creatures known as Deviants. To protect life, Arishem send a race of beings known as the Eternals from the planet Olympia to Earth. Led by Ajak (Salma Hayek), the Eternals are tasked with protecting humanity from the Deviants. Among the Eternals are Sersi (Gemma Chan), who can change matter with a simple touch; Ikaris (Richard Madden), a powerful force capable of flight and shooting powerful beams from his eyes; Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), who also shoots some kind of projectiles; Thena (Angelina Jolie), the goddess of war; Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), an intergalactic engineer capable of creating incredible inventions; Sprite (Lia McHugh), a mystic capable of projecting various images; Gilgamesh (Ma Dong-seok, credited as Don Lee), a man of incredible brute force; Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), a mute with blistering fast speed; and Druig (Barry Keoghan), who can control the minds of mortal men. For millennia, the Eternals fight the Deviants and guide humanity from the shadows until the destruction of the Deviant threat causes these eternal beings to go their separate ways on the planet Earth.
It’s easy to see the potential problems that could arise from Eternals by trying to summarize the basics of the plot. You have a robust cast of new characters with their own centuries of backstory and unique powers. Zhao takes the action between the past and present for much of the film’s first half, establishing what these characters were like then and where they are now. They’re called into action when the Deviants return to Earth and once again threaten humanity. So the Eternals are then reunited and it leads to a fair amount of the film’s bloated running time as these characters are now given multiple introductions throughout the first half. With so many characters, so much backstory, and no clear villain, it can be hard to see just where Eternals is going in its first half.
The first half of Eternals is also very dry. The latest Marvel film lacks the constant humor that have become a trademark of the MCU. While it’s understandable that some people think the MCU films are a bit too jokey, the humor helps these films maintain a consistent tone of pop entertainment, and joking about the absurdity of the scenarios makes the absurd more digestible. It’s not until the Eternals reunite, starting with what Kingo has been doing with his life, that the film is really able to tap into the humorous aspects, and it’s from that point on that Eternals has a bit more levity and a brisker pace.
Thematically, it’s obvious that Chloé Zhao is drawn to these characters as a means to explore not merely the burdens created by superpowers but the immense emotional strain of immortality. In the screenplay written by Zhao (credited twice thanks to a WGA process) with Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo, and Kaz Furpo, thousands of years of their personal pain is examined as well as the pain of watching generations live and die from famine, war, and other maladies of the human condition. It shows that there is a level of ambition at play in Eternals but the constraints of the larger MCU and the sheer breadth of the film’s ensemble make it all but impossible to get into these themes with adequate depth.
Helming her first action-packed blockbuster, Chloé Zhao delivers mixed results as an action director. Fight scenes featuring more close-ups aren’t nearly as stunning or effective as the action sequences that unfold in wider shots. While Eternals does eventually descend into a rather bombastic CGI finale, it’s not quite the same as recent MCU climaxes, meaning that while there’s plenty of CGI spectacle its not just a parade of anonymous baddies being dispatched en masse in a pixelated orgy of bloodless violence. The finale is kind of the Catch-22 that Zhao finds herself in directing a Marvel movie – these movies follow a successful formula and there’s only so far you can stray when hundreds of millions of dollars are on the line.
With its vast roster of characters played by accomplished actors, Eternals at once gives some actors their due and shortchanges others. The big standouts are Kumail Nanjiani, Brian Tyree Henry, and Ma Dong-soek, each balancing the humor and pathos of their unusual eternal beings. Angelina Jolie and Salma Hayek bring a certain movie star steadiness to their characters but neither really hits their top form. Gemma Chan does a nice job anchoring the film as its de facto lead. However, her old flame played by Richard Madden really leaves their scenes with a massive charisma void. Madden just can’t carry the scenes he’s tasked with, and his onscreen chemistry with Chan mostly fizzles when compared to the relatively few scenes Chan shares with her human romantic interested played by Kit Harrington. It leaves Eternals with a number of likeable or inoffensive characters, but none with whom you can really connect with in any lasting way.
In the end, Eternals embodies the good and bad that has run through the MCU since its inception. At once, it’s a piece of pop entertainment that touches on some interesting themes but can’t dare to fully follow through on going beyond the surface. It’s a film that shows a bit more ambition than its MCU brethren but is still reined in by the larger corporate gravity interested in keeping the box office receipts robust. Look, I think the MCU would be better suited if they did let their creative teams take more chances like Chloé Zhao attempts in Eternals. That being said, it’s important that Kevin Feige and his team actually let these movies follow through on their ambition and get really weird. Eternals merely hints at the grandiose space insanity of Jack Kirby. The MCU isn’t going to keep dominating pop culture if they keep playing it safe, and Eternals plays it too safe to really stand out from the pack.
An ambitious comic book epic that tries to break the MCU mold, Chloé Zhao’s Eternals takes on a new roster of immortal heroes and a story that spans centuries but that ambition can’t break free from the constraints of the broader MCU.