Eternals was always going to be a hotly anticipated Marvel Studios property. Created by the legendary Jack Kirby (and giving a somewhat defining run by Neil Gaiman), the race of cosmic super-beings had the potential to shake up the typical Marvel formula. This sense only intensified when Chloé Zhao, a celebrated independent filmmaker known for her naturalism and ease with actors and non-actors alike, was hired to co-write and direct. Now Eternals is finally here, just a few months after Zhao picked up a Best Director Oscar and her film Nomadlanddeservedly took home Best Picture and ahead of a large gap in Marvel theatrical product (after December’s Sony-produced Spider-Man: No Way Home, the next entry in the MCU is the Doctor Strange sequel in May 2022). Andnow that the Eternals are here, can they shoulder that weight of expectations? Yes. Well … mostly.
Eternals begins basically at the beginning of human civilization. After a brief text screen about the nature of Eternals and their foes Deviants (one of many new elements the movie introduces to the MCU), we’re plopped into the action – they are defending some humans against a group of winged Deviants, sinewy creatures that emerge from the sea and sky. The group is diverse, with each member equipped with a different power – leader Ajak(Selma Hayek) can miraculously heal; Sersi (Gemma Chan) can transform inanimate objects (turning wood to stone, etc.); Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) shoots energy blasts out of his fingers; and so on. It’s a thrilling sequence, one that hasn’t been pre-viz’d to death and greatly enhanced by Zhao’s insistence that the action be staged in a natural setting in natural light – not a bluescreen to be found! And the cast is dynamic and engaging, right off the bat; if we’re following them for thousands of years, that’s okay.
By the next scene (after a brief transition scored not by the typical Marvel bombast but Pink Floyd’s “Time,” the second time Floyd has been blasted in the MCU after Doctor Strange’s use of “Interstellar Overdrive”) we’re fully in the present day. There have been a series of mystifying global earthquakes; and Deviants have re-emerged from the depths after being dormant for thousands of years. After Sersi, the Superman-ish Ikaris(Richard Madden) and the childlike Sprite (Lia McHugh) are attacked by a Deviant, they make a pact to round up the rest of the Eternals to combat whatever spacey evil is headed their way.
Of course, all is not what it seems, and Eternals takes some interesting detours getting to its decidedly more low-key finale. And, this being a story that charts the development of ten main characters over the course of thousands of years, it is long. (It goes without saying that dumb-ass tweets aside, the less you know about the movie’s conclusion and its pair of jaw-dropping credits sequences, the better.)
Eternals is wildly ambitious both thematically (it tackles big themes about identity, family, and our relationship with the planet) and on a narrative level (there are some big swings, most of which are better left unspoiled). It feels very much like a Zhao project. Most of the action sequences, like that introductory moment, take place outside in natural light, lending it a vibration all of its own – different not only from other films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe but from other big budget studio movies, period. It frequently inspires awe and should widely be embraced not only for the type of story it tells but in how that story is told, with a multicultural cast full of dynamic personalities (and the first deaf actor in the MCU, Lauren Ridloff as the super-speedy Makkari). And there are things here that you’ve never seen in a Marvel movie before – including but not limited to an actual sex scene and a homosexual hero. Eternals contains multitudes.
Not that the movie is flawless. It isn’t an out-of-the-park homerun, the kind of Marvel movie that leaves you with a big dopey grin on your face as you walk to your car. There are some tonal issues and some pacing issues; it occasionally drags and the structure, with frequent flashbacks to the past, can stop the momentum dead in its tracks. And for all its beauty, its luminousness, its expansive richness, Eternals can frequently be bogged down by mundane details and, most shockingly, slack filmmaking.
Zhao is obviously an immensely talented filmmaker of great grace and complexity. But up until now she has dealt with stories that center around a small group of characters, many of them nonprofessional actors, telling the stories in more elegiac ways, juxtaposing handheld, roving camerawork with poetic narration. She lets you into character’s emotional and intellectual spaces; the places that make them who they are, not through an excessive amount of dialogue but through observing them so keenly.
Eternals is burdened with a staggering amount of expositional dialogue and fantastical comic book-speak (a hallmark of Kirby’s work) and instead of doing something interesting with these sequences, Zhao falls back on coverage that is, quite frankly, boring. (The amount of shot/reverse shot set ups and clunky ADR voiceover is unbelievable.) Scenes are awkwardly staged, particularly when there is more than one character in said scene, with little attention given the geographic or spatial relationship between the characters and, say, some runaway alien beast.
These elements are downright baffling, especially given how proficient and confident Zhao is with the action sequences and other elaborate set pieces (including a lavish musical number let by Kingo, who in the modern era is a Bollywood star) and in the way she crafts a compassionate portrait out of a character that could have been one joke (Kingo’s valet and documentarian, played by the great Harish Patel). Some of the shortcomings undoubtedly had to do with the limited availability of some of the sprawling cast (Angelina Jolie, for all the attention the press have lavished on her, was clearly being pulled in multiple direction). But there is only so much you can blame on a lack of resources. And these uninspiring moments drag the film down, away from what really works about it and into a place far iffier.
But ultimately, the filmmaking shortcomings can’t torpedo an otherwise dazzling film. And sometimes the sentiment can positively outweigh the actual narrative. (I’m also fairly certain that another viewing, free of trying to make heads or tails of the sci-fi gobbledygook that makes up the plot, will be more purely enjoyable.) Eternals should still be championed. After all, they’d champion us.