From a certain point of view, Marvel Studios’ Eternals has something for everyone. It’s a cosmic-fused superhero film featuring a diverse cast, lots of action, interesting dramatic stakes, and enough humor to keep it from feeling too self-serious. It’s even directed by indie-darling and recent Oscar recipient Chloe Zhao to bridge the gap between the comic book geeks and the arthouse freaks. Is this the best Marvel has to offer? Not quite. However, I’m curious how the mainstream audiences will react to a film that’s both patient and packed with entertainment value. Setting aside whatever faults I found, Eternals is decidedly different and more conceptually interesting than most MCU entries.
Eternals are an immortal alien race created by the Celestials (we met one of them before in the form of Kurt Russell in Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2). These immortal beings have secretly lived on earth for over 7,000 years, with the sole goal of protecting humanity from Deviants. These threatening monsters are depicted are tentacle-covered, four-legged beasts that can absorb the energy of those they encounter. The Deviants are also seemingly no match for the Eternals. They were quickly disposed of long ago, leaving the Eternals to continue living among humans. So, what does an immortal being do with that time?
I found the exploration of humanity to be fascinating. Anyone looking to understand what Zhao is bringing to the MCU can see it’s more than characters scenes primarily set during twilight hours. Based on the script she co-wrote with Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo, and Kaz Firpo, Zhao took this Jack Kirby comic book and found ways to have the characters fixate on their purpose, their connection to humans, and what it means to live one’s best life. This is a story about individuals trying to comprehend a race of insignificant beings compared to the ever-expanding universe they have full knowledge of.
How does one begin to provide all of the perspectives required to show that level of thought? Eternals features a large ensemble cast, each of whom possesses a superpower and distinct personality. Gemma Chan is the film’s ostensible lead. She stars as Sersi, an empathetic character who can manipulate matter. She was once in a relationship with Richard Madden’s Ikaris, the most powerful of the Eternals, with the ability to fly and project laser beams from his eyes. His weariness contrasts with Sersi, despite how drawn they still may be to each other.
Lia McHugh is Sprite, an Eternal who can project illusions and has the body of a 12-year-old child. A common concept is an inherent drama of being forever young and how that influences one’s decisions. Similarly, Barry Keoghan is Druig, an Eternal who can manipulate minds. He finds many faults with being instructed not to interfere with humanity, despite all he could accomplish if given a chance.
Angelina Jolie and Don Lee portray Thena and Gilgamesh, two powerful Eternals (one has cosmic weapons, the other has cosmic muscles). The two share a deep bond. Also powerful is Lauren Ridloff’s Makkari, the first deaf superhero in the MCU. She possesses super-speed, which once again manages to be a visually inventive superpower to see in action.
Brian Tyree Henry portrays Phastos, an inventor, while Kumail Nanjiani is Kingo, an Eternal who can project cosmic energy from his hands. These two provide a tremendous amount of comic relief. However, they are also surprisingly tasked with some of the more emotional heavy lifting. Compared to the others, these two managed to develop independent lives on earth, reflecting in their perceptions of what matters most.
Phastos has a husband and a child (for once, Disney features a gay character that doesn’t feel like pandering), while Kingo has developed a career as a Bollywood superstar. Once the world-ending stakes of the film are established, both characters provide plenty of reasons for why the choices they make are justified. It speaks to these characters’ effectiveness that the impact of their decisions makes a real difference in how the film continues to develop.
Leading all of these characters is Salma Hayek as Ajak, an eternal with the ability to heal. She’s also the bridge between the Eternals and the Celestials, who lay out the tasks and have instructions on how to proceed. Thanks to her mothering qualities, Ajak allows the film to open up its warmth and spiritual side as the audience comes to learn more about what it means to be a planet’s protector. The interesting side effect is noting how these Eternals inspired various myths, icons, and other heroes throughout history.
Of course, there is drama to shift the plot in specific directions, but the approach is a fresh one. While the film features a variety of flashbacks to show hundreds if not thousands of years ago, the present narrative finds Sersi, Sprite, and Ikaris “getting the band back together” to understand how the Deviants have seemingly returned. This allows us to get to know the characters while also seeing how their opinions contrast between each other and their past selves.
At over two and a half hours, this is one of the longest MCU films. At times, it does find issues with knowing how to balance the aspects an audience has come to expect with an MCU film and Zhao’s instincts. Namely, with a requirement to either add action or humor every so often, it has a tendency to get in the way of the film’s more cerebral elements. Whether or not one likes all of the action comes down to appreciating the visuals.
Watching superpowered immortals go at it with powerful monsters or even each other only provides so much in terms of stakes. The visual effects are impressive at times, as it’s fun to see these different powers utilized in different ways. DP Ben Davis, who has worked on several MCU films, equipped himself well to balance Zhao’s sensibilities with a familiar (albeit flatter) presentation found in Marvel’s features.
One thing I certainly appreciated was the effort to utilize real locations. While it’s still a balance between places such as the Canary Islands and sets at Pinewood Studios in England, this feels like another feature where the filmmaker was making clear choices instead of feeling like part of a machine. Serving this aspect well was seeing the actors providing strength through their performances without being inhibited by the world around them. It’s hard to say this Marvel movie is a naturalistic take, but I feel confident enough in saying Zhao’s efforts didn’t’ simply fade into the background.
Getting back to the core themes being explored, Eternals has a lot on its mind that I would have been happy to see discussed even more. Without detailing where this film goes, the idea of God-like beings assessing the necessity of the human population and what cost specific actions could have on the rest of the universe is the sort of cosmic comic book craziness that could keep readers up at night. For a film to harness that kind of storyline for the sake of an adventure film made for the masses, well, I can only hope we see more MCU entries daring to ask existential questions about existence that don’t have easy answers.
Were it to all come together stronger on a structural level, I could see Eternals landing in the highest tier of MCU movies. As it stands, this is one of the more ambitious entries that I’ll continue to think about as we see more of whatever Phase Four has to offer. The film has all of the goods in terms of casting, humor, action, visuals, and more. With little left to prove, I’m happy enough to see strange, insightful swings in new directions. Eternals has proven it doesn’t have to be perfect to be good, and it doesn’t necessarily need to shy away from the stuff people like about the MCU to be unique.