Oscar-winner Chloé Zhao brings a different look, feel and sense of thoughtfulness to the Marvel Cinematic Universe's latest superhero team-up.
UPDATE, January 12, 2022: Eternals is available to stream via Disney+.
It's the only Marvel movie by an Oscar-winning director. Focusing on a superhero squad isn't new, even if everyone here is a Marvel Cinematic Universe newcomer, but it's the lone instalment in the franchise that's about a team led by women of colour. It's home to the MCU's only caped crusader who is deaf, and its first openly gay superhero — and it doesn't just mention his sexuality, but also shows his relationship. It happens to be the first Marvel flick with a sex scene, too. Eternals is also the only film in the hefty saga with a title describing how long the series will probably continue. And, it's the sole MCU entry that features two ex-Game of Thrones stars — Kit Harington and Richard Madden, two of the show's Winterfell-dwelling brothers — and tasks them both with loving a woman called Sersi. (The name isn't spelled the same way, but it'll still recalls Westeros.)
When you're 26 movies into a franchise, as the MCU now is, each new film is a case of spotting differences. All the above traits aid Eternals in standing out, especially the empathetic, naturalistic touch that Chloé Zhao brings to her first blockbuster (and first film since Nomadland and its historic Academy Award wins). There's a sense of beauty and weight rippling through almost every frame, as well as an appreciation for life's struggles. Its namesakes are immortal aliens sent to earth 7000 years ago to battle intergalactic beasts, and yet Eternals shows more affinity for everyday folks who don't don spandex or have superpowers than any Marvel flick yet. It's also largely gorgeous, due to its use of location shoots rather than constantly stacking CGI on CGI. But everything that sets the film apart from the rest of Marvel's saga remains perched atop a familiar formula.
Perhaps that's fitting; thematically, Eternals spends much of its lengthy 157 minutes contemplating set roles and expectations, and whether anyone can ever truly break free of either. Spying an overt statement in these parallels — between the movie's general adherence to the MCU template and the ideas bubbling within it — might be a little generous, though. Of late, Marvel likes giving its new instalments their own packaging, while keeping many of the same gears whirring inside. That's part of the comic book company-turned-filmmaking behemoth's current pattern, in fact. Still, even after Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Eternals finds its own niche. It both intrigues and entertains, and it's ambitious — and it's often more than the sum of all those MCU firsts and onlys it's claimed.
As a necessary slab of opening on-screen text explains, Eternals' sprawling central group were dispatched by a Celestial — a space god, really — called Arishem. With the monstrous Deviants, another animalistic alien race, wreaking havoc across the planet, the Eternals were tasked with fighting the good fight. That was their sole mission; they were forbidden to interfere otherwise, which is why they were absent whenever the world was threatened in the last 25 movies. But now, in the present day, a new Deviant attacks Sersi (Gemma Chan, Raya and the Last Dragon), her human boyfriend Dane Whitman (Harington) and fellow Eternal Sprite (Lia McHugh, The Lodge) in London. That gets the gang back together swiftly, unsurprisingly.
In a script by Zhao with Patrick Burleigh (Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway) and feature first-timers Ryan and Kaz Firpo, each Eternal gets more than a few moments to shine — and more than a few defining traits. But Sersi, her love of humanity and her ability to change inanimate materials attracts most of the focus. She's soon grappling with the squad's purpose, after reuniting with the flying, laser-eyed Ikaris (Madden) to reteam their pals. That includes the maternal Ajak (Salma Hayek, The Hitman's Wife's Bodyguard), wisecracking Bollywood star Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani, The Lovebirds), the super-strong Gilgamesh (Don Lee, Ashfall), warrior Thena (Angelia Jolie, Those Who Wish Me Dead), the super-speedy Makkari (Lauren Ridloff, Sound of Metal), tech wiz Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry, Godzilla vs Kong) and the mind-manipulating Druig (Barry Keoghan, The Green Knight).
If these character names sound familiar, that's because Eternals plays with the past as it broadens the MCU's on-screen history. This is franchise's ultimate origin story, even with the lack of recognisable Marvel figures. And, toying with myths and legends told for millennia, it sports a firmly classic air. Those picturesque visuals that Zhao and cinematographer Ben Davis (a Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Doctor Strange and Captain Marvel veteran) splash across the screen help immensely. Absent the usual plasticky gloss that's now as standard as jokey banter in Marvel fare — and dialling down the latter as well — Eternals anchors its looming end-of-the-world setup with sunset-lit landscapes that feel more grounded than everything that's come before. Zhao has named fellow filmmaker Terrence Malick (A Hidden Life, Song to Song, The Tree of Life) as one of her influences before, and even in this $200-million flick, it shows.
That said, plenty of words that can be used to describe Eternals cut two ways. It's still a movie about ageless cosmic beings-turned-superheroes with heightened abilities, so its naturalism and grounding only go so far. The film's huge budget still spans the usual special effects and reliance upon pixels, too, and that can be as visually dull as ever when it takes over. But when it's a philosophically minded picture about tussling with responsibility and insignificance on an existential scale (and, notably, not just about having powers while trying to be a normal person, a Marvel go-to), Eternals is earthy and resonant. Being exceptionally cast assists as well, as it did in fellow recent Marvel movies Black Widow and Shang-Chi. When Eternals highlights Chan's sincerity, Hayek's calm command, Keoghan's moody vulnerability, Lee's hulking sensitivity, and Henry's passion and resilience — and lets Nanjiani mix swagger and care, and Jolie play fierce but fraying — it's equally graceful and compelling.
Top image: Sophie Mutevelian ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.