After 13 years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there’s come to be a recognizable formula that many of the films follow. By now, most fans can come for the expected humor and action and leave satisfied from the theater. That being said, Phase 4 of Marvel’s releases is only starting to truly break out of said formula. The latest MCU entry, Eternals takes an unprecedented approach in telling the tale of earth’s first superheroes. Many delays have finally led to the much-anticipated release from Oscar-winning director Chloé Zhao, and to no surprise, she takes the superhero genre to bold territory.
The comic of the same title was originally created by legend Jack Kirby and followed the Eternals in their lifelong quest serving their creators, the cosmic gods of the Marvel universe known as the Celestials. The Eternals in this film adaptation hail from the planet Olympia and are sent to earth by the Celestials to protect natural life from parasitic monsters called Deviants. Ajak, played by powerhouse Salma Hayek, leads the group of nine other Eternals to fulfill their mission on Earth in hopes to return to Olympia someday. What plays out is an ensemble piece traversing space and time in the span of a couple thousand years. Turmoil within the group ultimately leads them to “break up” and live out separate lives across the planet until they are once again needed in the present.
Each character has their own time to shine, some more than others with such a grand cast. Kicking off the lineup is Sersi (Gemma Chan) leading a fairly normal life in London, working at a museum and dating Dane (Kit Harington). Fellow Eternal Sprite (Lia McHugh) also lives with Sersi and bides her time using her illusion powers to interact with others. When a mysterious Deviant returns to destroy them, a much-needed reunion is called for this disjointed family. Ikaris (Richard Madden) quickly enters the scene as not only a former teammate to Sersi but a former lover as well. Their timeless love story is told through a series of flashbacks, though nothing to touch upon the demise of their relationship. The three unite to search for their former leader in Ajak, and are unfortunately left with more questions than answers.
Next, we meet Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) the renowned Bollywood star in probably the most genuinely hilarious introduction of an MCU hero thus far. There’s no denying Kingo is a scene-stealer, however, it’s important to note that he is MIA for a large chunk of the film and it’s extremely disappointing. Moving onto Gilgamesh (Ma Dong-seok) and Thena (Angelina Jolie) who live together in the middle of nowhere Australia. Their unique, platonic bond as friends who take care of each other is poetic. Druig (Barry Keoghan) is the least reluctant to rejoin the group but has no choice. His performance is the most nuanced and rightfully so since he has the power to control minds. Brian Tyree Henry as Phastos is another notable performance. He portrays the first openly gay character in the MCU, and it’s played off smoothly with no questions asked (these are aliens after all). Lauren Ridloff’s Makkari is the last to rejoin them, making her role one of the smaller ones which is a bummer. Nonetheless, having Makkari as the first deaf superhero is a game-changer due to its natural inclusion and is such a fun watch.
There’s a lot of ground to cover, to say the least. This is the most lore-filled MCU film to date. Screenwriters Patrick Burleigh, Kaz Firpo, Ryan Firpo, and Chloé Zhao had a tough job to establish all ten of the Eternals, the history of the Celestials, and the task at hand to save Earth. There are countless flashbacks inserted throughout, at times they serve the larger narrative while others are left feeling disconnected. Many famous events in history are featured in the Eternals’ lives and complicate the story further. Traveling across time can be visually stunning, given that such exploration is actually new territory for the MCU and it seems like Zhao and cinematographer Ben Davis got the most they wanted out of it while still staying true to their visual palette. The two craft gorgeous worlds, both familiar and taboo. Each location manages to maintain a degree of spectacle despite there being so many.
For a film that boasts a highly diverse cast, they’ve ensured that each character is given just enough time to breathe in new life. It’s through its dynamic ensemble that Eternals subverts the genre in the most striking way. It’s not just another superhero film that comes and goes, it challenges the audience to think about some of life’s toughest questions surrounding purpose and finality. At a run time of over two and a half hours, the narrative takes its time to get you to care and it’s this pacing that may turn off those expecting quick and fun action. This pacing is also not perfect itself, for it’s often slowed down by the need for exposition and more backstory. Yet the payoff is worth it, for Eternals surprisingly goes to some very dark places with its themes, giving it possibly the most weight from this entire franchise. It may not be what you expected or even your cup of tea, but it is undeniably all its own.
The film’s grandeur also makes its “end of the world” plot feel more justifiable and earned than other comic-book films. And even though the first two acts may not be heavy on action, all is made up for in the finale. The third act fight choreography is visceral and makes for some impressive visual effects, even by Marvel’s standards. Each of the Eternals’ abilities, although some already having been seen elsewhere in live-action, are visualized in creative and fascinating ways. In fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that some of these powers, such as super-speed, have never been done better. What is also welcome is the film’s high tension, for once you feel like our heroes may not make it out alive – which is a notion that is becoming rarer in the genre.
Above all, Eternals is a romance-centered epic from platonic to unrequited love. Astonishingly, there’s even a short intimate sex scene included – the first since Iron Man in 2008! The love and emotional power are always tasteful thanks to Zhao and her signature style of putting the more quiet and intimate moments at the forefront. The ensemble carries the film efficiently, regardless if some are left with less to do. By the second half, it’s clear that Gemma Chan is the driving force till the end. She’s a reluctant hero who proves to be the mightiest and you can’t help but root for her, bravo Sersi. It’s Zhao’s clear touch that makes the strongest elements the most memorable and the lesser (such as pacing and plot) more forgiving. Eternals just suffers from telling too much all at once. It’s not without its merits, hopefully, this will set a new tone for a more diverse, inclusive, and remarkable future for the MCU.
★ ★ ★ 1/2