THE STORY – After the return of half the population in Avengers: Endgame (2019) ignites “the emergence,” the Eternals—an immortal alien race created by the Celestials who have secretly lived on Earth for over 7,000 years—reunite to protect humanity from their evil counterparts, the Deviants.
THE 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
THE TEAM – Chloé Zhao (Director/Writer), Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo & Kaz Firpo (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 157 Minutes
By Daniel Howat
Going from “The Rider” and “Nomadland” directly to the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a surprising next step for Academy Award-winning writer-director Chloé Zhao. That’s not for lack of talent, though. On the contrary, the recent Academy Award winner is one of the most distinct directors out there working today. Her films focus deeply on everyday characters and their internal human struggles, with her naturalistic sensibilities walking the line between reality and fiction. All of these incredible qualities begged the question: what would a Chloé Zhao Marvel movie look like? Ultimately, Zhao’s introduction on a new ensemble to the MCU, “Eternals,” doesn’t entirely work despite admirable work from the director. The clashing of Zhao’s artistic sensibilities with the bombastic nature of this cinematic universe is a conflict that not even the universe’s mightiest warriors could overcome.
“Eternals” may be the most disconnected MCU film since the first “Guardians of the Galaxy.” The titular Eternals have existed on Earth for over 7,000 years, but with a strict mission to protect the world from Deviants, their evil alien counterparts who could destroy humanity. This inflexible mission means that, even after defeating the Deviants hundreds of years ago, the Eternals have remained hidden, not interfering with other conflicts on Earth. Instead, they mostly live modern lives spread out across the globe. There are references to Thanos and the “snap,” and they try to justify the fact that these insanely powerful beings have never helped in any of the Avengers’ battles, but it never makes much sense at all as to why exactly. Now, Deviants have returned to Earth, and the Eternals must reunite to defeat them. While I’d like to discuss the plot further, it’s difficult to dissect it without getting into spoiler territory.
From the start, “Eternals” feels incredibly unique in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There is an epic scale to the storytelling, spanning thousands of years to when the Eternals first came to Earth. We see glimpses of their time throughout history, including with early humans in Mesopotamia, Babylon, and more. Along with the scope of the story itself, the tone of the movie is regal and dignified. It’s a stark contrast to most Marvel films that can blend together in style and tone, even if the films are, for the most part, good.
“Eternals” primarily follows Sersi, played by the consistently excellent Gemma Chan (“Crazy Rich Asians“) who leads the charge in reuniting the Eternals to face the Deviants. While not every cast member is given as much material as her, Richard Madden, Brian Tyree Henry, and Lauren Ridloff stood out as steady, reliable heroes with interesting characters worth exploring. Kumail Nanjiani is always hilarious and gets his time to shine as a narcissistic Bollywood star. Barry Keoghan and Lia McHugh have challenging roles, as their motivations aren’t always clear and can be misleading to the audience. This lack of clarity in the script leads to less than stellar performances from both of them and a general confusion overall as the screenplay struggles to juggle multiple characters, even with the over two and a half hour running time. Similarly, Kit Harington is hardly in the story, making his inclusion very strange, other than to set him up for future MCU installments. On the other hand, Salma Hayek and Angelina Jolie are magnificent in their supporting roles, allowing the other cast members to shine, despite arguably being the biggest stars in the movie. With such a diverse cast of actors, the individual performers make a general emotional impact, but the group’s chemistry doesn’t always come through. They’ve known each other for thousands of years, but they often feel a bit awkward around each other in their various interactions ranging from dramatic to light-hearted and comedic.
“Eternals” is a film of polarities. Some of the movie’s biggest strengths are also the elements that drag it down. For instance, Zhao’s greatest asset as a filmmaker is her innate ability to dig into the depths of a character, finding every bit of humanity inside of them. This deep sense of character is fresh for the MCU, which is always more about the bigger picture than individual characters, even in their best offerings. And yet, this also becomes a problem when trying to tell such a massive, time-spanning story. How does one communicate deeply felt emotions and relationships that have developed over thousands of years? It’s no easy task, and the final result ends up feeling more unsatisfying than anything.
Similarly, a strength of “Eternals” is how much it tries to stand on its own, setting the stage for a new chapter in the MCU. It’s always refreshing when a Marvel film avoids unnecessary cameos from preexisting MCU stars. And yet, this desire to be its own unique entry feels at odds with who the Eternals are. When they’ve existed for thousands of years, it’s a significant story problem that they’ve never interfered with battles before, even when Thanos made half of the universe disappear. The film tries to explain this away, but it’s never conveyed believably. Disconnecting from the MCU, though admirable, doesn’t make sense in this context. There are almost as many references to Batman and Superman as to the MCU, which is as fascinating as it is bewildering.
Aside from the story’s problems, Zhao’s work as a director is pretty powerful. We’ve not seen her direct action scenes before, and it works rather well here. While birthed out of a weak script, the variety of powers amongst this ensemble makes for exciting action sequences, taking place over vast landscapes. “Eternals” is perhaps the best-looking Marvel film to date, shot by cinematographer Ben Davis, largely thanks to the reliance on natural exterior locations rather than soundstages. There are lots of long, lingering shots aided by natural light, bringing a much-needed visual shakeup to a series that’s needed it for a long time.
Ultimately, “Eternals” is a mixed bag. The highs are high, but the film’s poor script cannot sustain the epic scope and many new characters it is trying to introduce. Still, Zhao’s talent as a director is never in question. Instead, it will be fascinating to find out what Zhao will do next in her career, now that she has a $200 million movie under her belt. “Eternals” may be one of the weakest Marvel movies yet, but there is still enough to enjoy as it propels us into a new and uncertain future for the franchise.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Chloé Zhao brings a beautiful sense of humanity, combined with colossal scope and ambition to the MCU on a scale we have rarely seen before. Gemma Chan leads a talented and diverse ensemble.
THE BAD – The messy, convoluted story spans thousands of years and struggles to draw the viewer in. The stakes are never tangible, lacking a strong and clear antagonist, with bland action that never helps to convey them either.