The Marvel Cinematic Universe can often be accused of giving off a repetitious feel. Those who don’t dig on the MCU claim that the films do the same things over and over again. Even someone like yours truly, who almost exclusively enjoys the movies, sees some of their argument. Marvel has a formula, one they don’t really waver from. Now, with Eternals, they’ve given Oscar-winning filmmaker Chloé Zhao the most free rein of anyone so far playing in their sandbox. For a while now, speculation ran while that Zhao had used that cache to make a flick unlike anything else we’ve seen from the entertainment giant before. Well, that’s true, but not necessarily in the manner we were hoping for. Over a week after having seen Eternals, I still can’t quite figure out if I liked it or not.
Eternals frustrates because parts of it are outstanding. The visuals are unparalleled for a comic book film. Moreover, these superheroes are allowed to be meditative in unique way. Plus, the concept of these heroes and their dogma/powers as seen with a religious lens is quite new. On the other hand, however, the actual action is lacking, the villain is bad even for Marvel standards, and long stretches don’t have much of anything interesting happen. This is the rare case where you can see the independent sensibilities of the storyteller compared to the instincts of the studio, but side with the latter.
This is the saga of the Eternals, a group of ancient immortal beings. The race of alien gods, for lack of a better term, are a creation of the Celestials, meant to guard the universe. A group of ten Eternals were sent to Earth over 7,000 years ago as a means of protection against the evil Deviants. Led by Ajak (Salma Hayek), the group spent centuries beating back their villainous counterparts, before being left to their own devices on the planet once the threat was extinguished. Some have retreated away from humanity after the breakup, like Ikaris (Richard Madden), while others, like Sersi (Gemma Chan) and Sprite (Lia McHugh), live among them. In fact, Sersi has a long term relationship with a human in Dane Whitman (Kit Harrington). When a Deviant of a new sort appears, they know they need to get the band back together.
Reunited with Ikaris, her ex, Sersi and Sprite go seeking their leader Ajak, knowing it will be time to bring the Eternals together again. They find Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) hiding in plain sight as a Bollywood star, while Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) has found a husband and is happy with their young son in suburbia. Others, like Druig (Barry Keoghan), Gilgamesh (Don Lee), Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), and Thena (Angelina Jolie) are in hiding. As we learn more about the circumstances of their parting, the group faces a bigger and more epic challenge than expected. Truly, the fate of humanity may be in their hands.
This is one of the MCU’s most stacked casts for a non-Avengers film. Sadly, not everyone is given the attention they deserve, even in a film with a long running time and space to breathe. Best in show honors go to Kumail Nanjiani, who not just has the most fun Eternals character, but does the most with his time on screen. Don Lee also is very amusing in another somewhat more comedic role, while Brian Tyree Henry is solid in a role we haven’t seen out of Marvel yet. At the same time, Salma Hayek and Angelina Jolie are largely wasted, as is Kit Harrington, while Gemma Chan and Richard Madden are just bland. That’s a shame too, since they’re the heroes Zhao is most interested in. The rest of the Eternals, Barry Keoghan, Lia McHugh, and Lauren Ridloff, don’t make much of a mark. Rounding out the cast is Harish Patel, among others.
Chloé Zhao presents some of the biggest strengths of Eternals with her direction, but also some of its biggest weaknesses with her writing. Zhao oddly gets the harder things right, while struggling with what the easiest aspects of a Marvel movie should be. Zhao’s script, co-written with Patrick Burleigh, Kaz Firpo, and Ryan Firpo, fits with her unhurried pacing, but not with the requirements of the genre. In trying to bend the MCU to a more indie will, the result is beautiful to look at and takes its time to build character, but shortchanges action and overall interest. You’re never in doubt of what Zhao and company were going for, but it’s hard not to think that the powers that be at Marvel wish she’d come a bit more over to their side. They do come up with a hell of an ending, but it’s almost also a reminder of what could have been previously.
The MCU is clearly open to a lot of different possibilities going forward, so it’s almost hard to judge Eternals as a one-off. If some of the opportunities suggested here pay off, it will do a lot to help this one’s reputation in the years to come. If that’s not the case, it may age fairly poorly. Enough here is still open-ended, while both of the post credits sequences (which I obviously won’t be spoiling here) strike your interest, that it’s hard not to at least be intrigued about what’s next.
Eternals is occasionally stunning, clearly representing the best looking MCU flick to date, but it’s also sometimes its most boring. For every step or two forward, there’s one backwards too. Don’t get me wrong, this is a solid superhero movie, but the potential for something more also holds it back. Overall, the film is worth seeing, whether as a curiosity or out of genuine excitement, but despite Zhao’s talents, just keep your expectations in check.