*Warning: This article contains major spoilers for Eternals. Read at your own risk.*
The best superhero films are the ones that questions the audience on the very idea of what constitutes a superhero. Or better yet, a film that puts the hero in a situation where their mythic figure is challenged, with the world either cheering or running away from them. It’s what Zack Snyder did when he re-questioned the idea of a “Superman” in Man of Steel, transforming the hero from a symbol of hope to a weapon of mass destruction. Audiences didn’t seem ready for Superman to be this different, but the ones that accepted his subversion of the famous hero hail it as one of the greatest comic book films ever made. It’s the greatest Superman film ever made, and I’ll go out on a limb and say that it contains some of the best, if not the best, superhero action ever put on film. Every time I rewatch it, it’s incredible to see how much detail went into crafting its action setpieces, from the vivid visual effects to the ultra-dynamic Dragonball Z-style one-on-one fights between Superman and Zod. Snyder has a distinct style and feel, and he may not be for everyone. But his style has consistently pushed the visual boundaries of cinema and has always blown me away from his first film to his most recent Zombie-driven Heist production.
The same can be said with Chloé Zhao’s poetic style. It isn’t for everyone. Not to be elitist or anything, but some audience members are put off by ultra-reflexive and meditative films with a soft camera in constant focus on his characters and their facial expressions. Zhao’s last film, Nomadland, had moments of minimalist beauty through Joshua James Richards’ natural cinematography and Frances McDormand’s rawest performance yet. She didn’t need to do much—but we understood everything through her eyes. It was one of the most heartbreaking films last year, which deservedly gave Zhao the Academy Award for Best Picture. But to the ones who don’t like minimalist slow burns, it might not have reached such a broad audience.
And so, to have her direct the twenty-sixth installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Eternals, was certainly an interesting choice. For those who may be inexperienced with Zhao’s quiet and reflective style, maybe this won’t be your cup of tea. But for the ones that have a fond affinity for natural beauty through silence and a much-needed remythologization of heroes inside the Marvel Universe, this could very well be one of your favorite films of the year.
Whenever a critic says that an MCU film is “unlike anything the MCU has ever done before,” I take it with an extreme grain of salt because every movie or show Marvel releases seems to get the exact reaction. But I’ll allow it once with Eternals—it’s genuinely unlike anything Marvel has ever done, for better or worse. You will immediately know if you like the film within its first minute, where an opening crawl establishes who is the Eternals, a group of immortal beings who are created by Arishem the Judge (David Kaye) to protect the universe from invasive Aliens called Deviants. Five thousand years after their last encounter with a Deviant, Eternals Sersi (Gemma Chan) and Sprite (Lia McHugh) stumble upon a Deviant, a sign that a cataclysmic event named The Emergence will begin, which would extinguish all life on Earth and the planet with it. Sersi and Sprite reunite with Ikaris (Richard Madden) to reassemble (heh) the team of Eternals comprised of Ajak (Salma Hayek), Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), Thena (Angelina Jolie), Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), Druig (Barry Keoghan) and Gilgamesh (Don Lee) before Arishem unleashes The Emergence.
Eternals does get lost in its sea of endless flashbacks during its first act, which makes its introduction to the characters a tad bit unfocused. For instance, we know nothing of Salma Hayek’s Ajak, aside from a flashback sequence that shows she’s the team leader, yet the first time we see her in Present Day, she has been killed by a deviant. It wouldn’t have been a problem if her character was introduced first, but the flashbacks only allow for sparse moments of character development, with the current setting filling in the gaps on what the audience has missed. Thankfully, Ajak is the only character that suffers from the “flashback” problem, but that’s only because she dies before anyone gets the chance to know her. Everyone else has their time to shine, whether in a disjointed flashback or a present-day action sequence.
Disjointed because these flashbacks seem to belong in the first installment of Eternals, and this film feels like it’s a direct sequel to a movie we’ve never seen. But it doesn’t necessarily matter since these flashbacks will eventually feed into how these characters are in the present day. For example, take a look at Phastos, who has regained faith in humanity after meeting his husband (Haaz Sleiman). The Eternal accidentally helped humans develop new technologies for centuries that would ultimately do more harm than good. Or look at Thena, who grows more distant as her memory issues, and PTSD of her past lives become more apparent with time.
As unfocused as they may be, the flashbacks help us understand who these characters are (minus Ajak, sorry) before they become more rounded as the film moves forward. It sounds less like exposition dumps and gives us a look at who they were before we see who they are now in complete form. I’ll even say that the film has way fewer exposition dumps than Denis Villeneuve’s Dune. Zhao is far more interested in developing their characters and making the audience see a glimpse of the worlds they inhabited and the enormous scale of Celestials before presenting its main threats. The movie never once feels like a sequel set-up. Once the plot gets in motion, the film always stays in the present moment, unlike Dune, which only sets things up for Part Two, ultimately forgetting to be something more than an exposition-laden film.
In Eternals, exposition never feels like exposition. Of course, some plotting is crucial to understand the Eternals, Celestials, and Deviants, but once everything comes together, the movie never lets up and delivers one of the best superhero spectacles of the year. Better than Zack Snyder’s Justice League, you ask? First and foremost, you can feel Zhao’s love for Snyder and Richard Donner’s Superman every time she directs an action scene. The action sequences with a whimsical quality are plucked straight out of Donner’s magical filmmaking style. In contrast, the ones that need emotional weight and overwhelming visual effects should borrow Snyder’s lens. Ikaris is Marvel’s answer to Superman, and Richard Madden portrays him brilliantly—a hero caught in the fine line between saving the people of Earth or letting Arishem’s cataclysmic Emergence begin.
Ikaris isn’t a villain, per se, but his blind allegiance to Arishem will make him the story’s main antagonist once The Emergence begins. It’s a rather tragic portrait of a once-Godlike figure (does this remind you of a certain Man of Steel, perhaps?) now trapped in the middle of his own self-destructive path. Every step he takes to ensure Sersi knows nothing of The Emergence fails miserably, and once he is forced to kill the heroes, he can’t hurt them because he loves them so much. The love he has felt for Sersi is so powerful he’ll never be able to overcome it. Madden portrays that guilt with such emotional fervor that it becomes pretty hard for us not to feel for him when he immediately shatters himself after killing Ajak. He knows the mistake he has made, and yet he continues to make more of them. That’s what made the character so interesting for me and a better antagonist than a carbon copy of the protagonist (but evil) we barely see, as is the common trope in most MCU flicks.
The third act also does not make the cardinal mistake of ending with an assortment of CGI and throwaway villains (well, there’s Kro, but he’s more of a representation of Thena’s limiting beliefs and fears than anything else) and instead celebrates the best of superhero cinema with a startlingly creative action sequence that’s both dazzling in its aesthetic and superhero kinetics. The IMAX cinematography from Ben Davis is stunning, but what’s even more exciting is how Zhao visually represents her heroes inside their powers. For example, we’ve all seen the super-speeder hero slowing down (countless times) for it to become overtly clichéd, but how about seeing them speed up in action instead? The result will make your eyes widen in pure awe. I can’t even express the cathartic release I got from seeing Makkari fight Ikaris like that in words, but it must be seen to be believed. It’s truly one of the greatest superhero action sequences I’ve ever seen since Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. It may sound like overhyping, but that’s precisely how I felt while watching it.
While some critics may think there are too many characters, everyone gives terrific performances and has their time to shine when needed (except Ajak, but I sound like a broken record now). Chan shares incredible chemistry with Madden and Kit Harington’s Dane Whitman. At the same time, Lauren Ridloff’s portrayal of Makkari is filled to the brim with raw humanity that it becomes hard not to bubble up when she has to fight one of her own. Eternals seem to be larger-than-life heroes, but Zhao continuously grounds them as broken humans longing for their way “home.” But once it’s revealed that their “home” doesn’t exist and they’ve developed a genuine affinity with the human race, it’s up to them to use their own love, the most potent weapon of all, to save the world. And as Ikaris wants Arishem to succeed, his torment stems from his love towards Sersi, which will ultimately prevent him from doing further harm than he did before, since love will always conquer anything in its path.
As the movie sets up the next batch of MCU storylines with Harry Styles’ Eros/Starfox and Mahershala Ali’s Blade asking Whitman if he’s ready to wield the Ebony Blade, Zhao’s imprint on the MCU is just getting started. But a cold reception could potentially shift plans further. I was particularly gobsmacked by a critic who essentially said, in his review, that if Eternals was formulaic, it would’ve been a good movie. How could a predictable film be any good if we know exactly what’s coming? Cinema can’t evolve if it stays in formulaic platitudes. It needs to break away from the gimmicks of a predictable script and do something different, anything really, that dares to break familiar tropes and clichés that we’ve all seen in countless films and isn’t afraid of making some errors along the way.
Eternals doesn’t hide its imperfect structure, but its magical action sequences, lush cinematography, sweeping score from Ramin Djawadi, and incredibly human performances from its star-studded cast make it a visually audacious and spectacular superhero epic. If anything, its critical reception may make Marvel take fewer risks with its structure and themes, which is a damn shame because Chloé Zhao should make another Marvel movie. Not necessarily Eternals 2, but she would be a terrific fit for Nova (or Zack Snyder, come on, Feige, you know you want to), and I’m not even joking. I’ve seen all of her movies, and I can say with confidence that Eternals is her best work yet, a profoundly human work of stunning beauty that celebrates the very best of superheroism while being unafraid of challenging its audiences with mature themes and a much-needed remediation on what it truly means to be a hero. For a hero to succeed, their actions need to stem from indelible love. It’s the purest form of life imaginable and one that gives people hope. And “when you love something, you protect it.”
Eternals may not be for everyone, but if you’re willing to embark on its beautiful journey from its opening scroll to the film’s last frame with the lowest expectations possible, you may love it as much as I did. See it on the biggest IMAX screen you can. You may not regret it.
Eternals is now playing in theatres everywhere.