Film

Review: Oscar-Winner Chloé Zhao Breathes New Life, Style Into Eternals, an Intriguing, Promising New Chapter for Marvel

In creator/artist Jack Kirby’s original “Eternals” comic books, these immortal heroes have been living on Earth, steering, guiding, helping humans evolve for thousands of years and protecting us from mankind’s oldest enemy, The Deviants. And although they were able to blend in with earthlings, there was no mistaking these beings for what they are: gods. Now that Marvel has finally brought the Eternals to the big screen, under the direction of recent Oscar winner Chloé Zhao (Nomadland, The Rider), they call themselves gods but, for the most part, the reason they blend in so well with humans is that they’re just like us, with all the same flaws, egos, and foibles of those that they’ve sworn to protect. It may seem like a subtle change from comic to film, but it makes Eternals the movie seem slightly smaller and less-than than it should, despite it being one of the longest Marvel movies ever made.

Eternals

Image courtesy of Disney/Marvel Studios

And this isn’t entirely a criticism of the movie, either. Part of the reason Zhao and co-writers Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo, and Kaz Firpo have made these ancient beings seem so relatable is because, in a movie, having a story filled with nearly a dozen gods would feel so overstuffed with gravitas as to be unbearable. In this version of the Eternals, they are kind protectors, following the lead of their benevolent overlords, the Celestials (yes, even gods answer to someone), who have instructed them not to interfere in human business unless it involves the Deviants. That’s why they didn’t step in when Thanos or Ultron made their intentions known, or when various wars and genocides happened, or when the Kardashians first got their own reality show. It’s a decent explainer as to how these super-powered beings could have been all around us yet never made their presence as heroes known.

Eternals is as long as it is because there’s a lot of story to tell and a great many characters to follow, and I love that Zhao and her team aren’t in any hurry to rush to the next action sequence or overtly link this film with the bigger MCU (in fact, other than a few name drops of other Marvel characters, Eternals might be the least connected of these films to the bigger universe since the first Guardians of the Galaxy). So when the Deviants show up on Earth again after hundreds of years of them seeming to be extinct (and causing a major tragedy in the world of the Eternals), the troops are rallied, and the group must not only find these invaders but also figure out why this particular attack feels different and more targeted at them rather than humans.

The mostly memorable cast of Eternals includes Richard Madden as the generally powerful Ikaris, who at first stands out as team leader, until his long-lost love Sersi (Gemma Chan) is given the mantle of leader by Ajak (Salma Hayek), the group’s direct link to the Celestials. Also on hand are the cosmic-powered Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), who has become a Bollywood star during his downtime, complete with an assistant, Karun (Harish Patel), who documents his every move; Sprite (Lia McHugh), the young-looking old soul; super-strong Gilgamesh (Don Lee), who acts as something of a protector to the warrior goddess Thena (Angelina Jolie), who is slowly losing control of her mind due to a unique ailment; inventor extraordinaire Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), one of the few Eternals who has settled down in a marriage, which can be tough for an immortal; speedster Makkari (deaf performer Lauren Ridloff); and Druig (Barry Keoghan), who controls minds and is something of a black sheep in the group. Together they roam the world looking for pockets of Deviants, at least one of whom seems to have the ability to suck the lifeforce out of Eternals, making himself stronger, smarter, and less monstrous in the process. Also hovering around the periphery of the story is Kit Harrington as Sersi’s love interest Dane Whitman, who will likely be far more prominent in future Marvel movies (look him up).

Eternals also jumps around a bit in time, not just between world events that shaped human history where the Eternals were involved, but more recent history in which secrets about these new Deviants are revealed. More is uncovered about the internal dynamics among the group: who is more or less trustworthy than others; who is more or less devoted to the letter of the law set up by the Celestials; and ultimately, who wants to save the Earth from a pretty wild fate. Allegiances shift and then shift again, factions are formed, and lives are lost in the process. But very little of this film feels like a traditional Marvel film (a truth that may really bug some people), from Zhao’s emphasis on picturesque visuals to the way the battle sequences are handled. There are probably too many characters to give everyone their due in terms of character development, but that didn’t stop me from still falling for a great number of the Eternals team members.

While Eternals does feel like it’s opening up possibilities in future Marvel movies, with its cliffhanger ending it feels like like the first part of something far more self-contained (again, not unlike the Guardians movies). I can’t say I appreciated every choice Zhao and her team make in terms of the presentation of the Deviants, and considering she’s meant to be the primary protagonist of this story, Sersi is probably the least interesting character here. But this one captured my eye as well as my intrigue for this continuing storyline in ways I had not anticipated, and based on the film’s two credits sequences, I’m exceedingly curious to see where these stories go from here. No filmmaker can please everyone, and I especially appreciate that Zhao made her style of film for herself; she’s breathed a new, lived-in spirit into superhero movies while still keeping things entertaining and creative. I hope Marvel takes more chances like this in their future storytelling or at least lets Zhao direct the promised sequel.

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