Dir: Chloé Zhao
On its face, Eternals is a big swing for Marvel Studios as the MCU begins the first phase of setup that will assuredly culminate in another Endgame style mega teamup. It’s based on a more obscure comic, with cosmic considerations and heroes with godlike lifespans (the story begins in 5000 BCE and covers periods all the way up to the present day) and powers. It also marks the entry of the MCU’s most identifiably auteurist filmmaker to date. Getting Chloé Zhao was always quite a coup, but it’s even more so given that her third film, Nomadland, swept up several major awards, including Best Director and Best Picture, at last year’s Oscars. Unfortunately, the most it does with the MCU formula is to tinker round the edges.
The Eternals of the title are presented as a group of ten human looking aliens sent to earth by the celestial being Arishem to protect humans from another race of aliens, the deviants. Wiping the deviants out in the 16th century, the group are nonetheless left on Earth. After centuries simply living as a human, Sersi (Gemma Chan) is attacked by a deviant, resulting in her bringing the Eternals back together, only to discover they are facing a different and larger threat.
The first major problem with Eternals announces itself from the poster. There are eleven names listed on it. All of these are characters we haven’t previously met in the MCU, and at least eight of them can essentially be considered co-leads. Even with a 155 minute running time to play with, that is quite simply too many characters. To their credit, Zhao and her co-writers (oddly, the director is credited twice as a writer, both solo and with Patrick Burleigh) largely dump the relentlessly quippy style that makes so much MCU dialogue entirely interchangeable between characters. Unfortunately, what replaces it is largely flat and lacking in personality. There’s a lot of world building to get through, and that means there’s little time for shading the characters before the middle of act two. Even then, there’s not a lot to choose between many of the characters and, criminally, the blandest of them all is Sersi, the closest thing the film has to a true protagonist.
The biggest problem with this lack of character is that it means that even as it’s heavily explained, the world of Eternals feels very bland and anonymous. Of all the Marvel films, given the way the story develops, this is the one that needs to make Earth and its people feel the richest, the most intriguing. We need to understand and appreciate why these godlike beings would be drawn into life on this planet and Kit Harrington, boring as ever as Sersi’s human boyfriend, doesn’t make a great argument for that. We do get a glimpse, much later, of something more meaningful, thanks to the MCU’s most fully depicted queer relationship to date (involving Brian Tyree Henry, who gives easily the film’s best performance), but the film needs something about Earth that has that kind of pull for most of its characters. On that level, it utterly fails, and that hollows out any attempt at raising the stakes because the characters investment in the outcome simply isn’t credible.
The MCU is hardly renowned for allowing directors to stamp their personalities on a film. In this respect, Zhao, outside of the action scenes, arguably gets away with more than most, but again, this doesn’t amount to much. Every ten minutes or so, a shot or two—often a landscape, sometimes with one or more of the characters seen in the distance—will remind us this director also did Nomadland and The Rider. It’s not much, but the film’s few memorable images are all among these moments.
On the whole, Eternals starts badly. The first act is pure MCU by numbers, from the exposition to the dull first deviant attack in London. The depiction of the various powers is also underwhelming, as we’re left to mentally tick off the familiar elements. There’s Richard Madden’s Ikaris with his Cyclops-like eye beams, Angelina Jolie’s Thena comes across as a cross between Wonder Woman and Green Lantern, with her ability to conjure weapons. The Green Lantern aspect also comes across with Brian Tyree Henry’s Phastos, as, later on, do visuals that recall the MCU’s previous film, Shang Chi. Don Lee’s Gilgamesh and Lauren Ridloff’s Makkari have the staggeringly original abilities of super strength and super speed respectively.
For as interesting a filmmaker as Zhao can be and for as big a swing as it might look at first glance, Eternals does nothing to shake up what we see in superhero battles. One in particular, a visually murky fight in a forest in the middle of the film, is an example of the very worst tendencies of the MCU. It also demonstrates that even with a respected arthouse signing, Marvel is going to heavily impose its house style.
Eternals ought to be better than it is. It might have been had it been developed as a TV show. In this form it feels both overlong and undercooked. In a TV show, each flashback could be expanded to give time for character beats that would build on the exposition. There might also have been room for an episode to focus on how each character developed their relationship with Earth and humans in between the 16th century and now. As it is, we only really get that with Phastos, in one of several scenes that make Henry the cast’s MVP. In some ways, it’s curious that Zhao doesn’t hit the character beats better, but for me what Nomadland demonstrated is that she’s at her best working loosely, and draws the most real feeling work from non-actors. I’m amazed that she was interested in this, and the awkward fit of filmmaker to material is evident throughout, especially in the action, which is uninspired even when it’s more visible than in that forest scene. There are glimpses, a few moments in which you can see what Eternals wants to be, but it misses the mark on the grand themes it’s reaching for, and even by the end there’s little sense of who these characters are and why we should care to follow them into another adventure.