Eternals – Directed by Chloe Zhao. Written by Chloe Zhao, Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo, Kaz Firpo. Starring Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Salma Hayek, Angelina Jolie, Kit Harrington, Kumail Nanjiani, Brian Tyree Henry, Lia McHugh, Lauren Ridloff, Barry Keoghan, Don Lee, Harish Patel, and the voices of Bill Skarsgard and David Kaye
**1/2 out of ****
When Eternals was announced as the next film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there was one question on everyone’s mind – what the heck is an Eternal? The franchise has worked with some pretty obscure characters before, but Shang-Chi, Ant-Man, and the Guardians of the Galaxy had easy-to-explain concepts and easy POV characters for audiences to grab on to. Eternals has neither, being based on a later Jack Kirby mythology that veered away from relatable superheroes and towards hard sci-fi cosmic storytelling. And for a challenging property, Marvel chose an equally challenging director – Chloe Zhao, the Oscar-winning director of Nomadland known for her character-driven scripts and her sweeping outdoor shots. So how does this wildly ambitious film turn out?
Eternals is both one of the most creative and unique films the MCU has ever put out – and unfortunately, one of the weakest.
The first thing to know is that this is a movie with a lot of characters and a lot of narratives competing for attention. It centers on the Eternals, a group of ancient immortals sent to Earth at the dawn of man by the Celestials, an even more ancient group of immortals (although while the Celestials look like kaiju-sized space robots, the Eternals look like…attractive humans). They’re on Earth to battle the deviants, a group of vicious shape-shifting dinosaur-like beasts that seem to want to eat anything in sight. But when the Eternals save the first civilization at Mesopotamia, they wind up being greeted by humanity and ping-pong through the biggest civilizations with pit stops at Babylon and the Aztec empire – all the way to the present day, where they’ve scattered after supposedly defeating the last Deviants.
The best way to describe the cast of Eternals is “sprawling”. You can’t look away for a minute without a new character being introduced. Their leader, Ajak (Salma Hayek) is a wise and regal warrior woman and healer. Her right hand, Ikaris, is a superman-like titan with the durability of marble and the same emotional range. Sprite (Lia McHugh) is a master illusionist permanently trapped at the age of a middle schooler. Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) tosses fireballs and has used that to become a Bollywood superstar in the present day. Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) is the Eternals’ technology master. Druig (Barry Keoghan) is a grim telepath who can control minds, and his only soft spot seems to be Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), a rogueish deaf speedster. Thena (Angelina Jolie) can summon weapons out of energy and may be their best warrior, but is haunted by a strange plague of madness and is looked after by gentle bruiser Gilgamesh (Don Lee). Unfortunately, with all of these new players, few of them get a satisfying storyarc.
And in the center of all this is Sersi (Gemma Chan), the closest thing this film has to a lead. Now working as a researcher and living with Sprite in London, the matter-transmuter is in a relationship with Dane Whitman (Kit Harrington), a mild-mannered professor with a name with a big destiny. He’s not in this movie much, just the opening segment, a few phone calls, and a post-credit segment, but he’s around long enough for a Deviant to show up and terrorize the trio. They’re saved by the arrival of Ikaris, but not before the Deviant shows some abilities it shouldn’t have and makes clear that it’s time to get the band back together.
And that’s where this movie’s biggest problem comes in. Eternals doesn’t have a format even close to any other MCU movie, and that’s its biggest problem. Most of the cast isn’t even together for 75% of the movie. We follow Sersi and Sprite as they track down the others one by one, combining reunions with exposition-heavy flashbacks that reveal the stunning visuals of the Eternals’ master, Arishem. It looks amazing, but it drags – a lot in places. Some of the segments are a lot of fun, particularly Kingo’s Bollywood dance number and our introduction to his excitable valet Karun (Harish Patel), who is in some ways the only relatable character in this movie. Others, like everything involving Jolie’s Thena and her ill-defined madness that makes her attack her friends, are just dull. And other characters like Phastos and Makkari just get introduced more than 2/3rds of the way through the movie.
One area where Eternals gets things very right is in the realm of representation. This is definitely the most diverse MCU movie, and while some characters like Sersi and Gilgamesh don’t really get a chance to explore any of their identity, others are surprising. While Makkari is distinctly underused in the film, it’s great to see consistent use of subtitled sign language in a major Disney motion picture. Likewise, the decision to make Phastos a gay man who is happily married with a (I assume adopted) son doesn’t actually influence the plot in any way, which is why it’s surprising Disney made it so clear. It’s a central portrayal of a happy, functioning same-sex family complete with a kiss between husbands. Much like the decision to make a Disney Channel lead bisexual, it’s a major sign that Disney has realized diversity offers more opportunity than risk at the box office.
Like many Chloe Zhao movies, Eternals can feel almost leisurely at points – which is why the massive tone shift it takes in the back half is all the more jarring. With a cast this large, it’s not surprising that this isn’t a movie where everyone makes it out intact. Who doesn’t survive may surprise some people, though – including one major name who dies fairly early on. What’s at the root of this film is a massive secret and a terrible lie that upends the entire concept of these characters. There is also a completely random change to what the Eternals actually are that comes out of nowhere and adds many unanswered questions. What starts as a family reunion turns into a literal battle for the fate of the world by the end, with spectacular visuals and a surreal tone that’s really never been seen in the MCU.
The problem is, I still had a really hard time caring. Gemma Chan’s Sersi is a decent character, but she suffers from what I call “protagonist syndrome”. She doesn’t get to be as colorful or unique as many of the characters surround her because she has to be the hero, and I feel like we know less about her than many of the characters with less screen time. Certain elements, like the mental toll Druig’s powers take on him or the desperation Sprite feels to grow up, lead to dramatic moments and little follow-up. The film also lacks a strong antagonist, with the Deviants mostly being physical threats and some shocking betrayals towards the end of the film not holding the emotional context they should.
Ultimately, Eternals looks great and has some fascinating ideas, but it doesn’t feel like an MCU film. It feels like a strange sci-fi film like Jupiter Ascending or Dark City that exists in its own little world. It has a lot of interesting ideas, but the MCU format seems to hold them back rather than support them. It’s hard to see how these characters fit into the MCU, and the two post-credit scenes feel so disconnected from the film before them that I honestly doubt they were directed by Zhao. I think the cameo in the first one is going to be what most people remember from the movie. Eternals was a hit at the box office, but it doesn’t feel like a new franchise. It feels like an experiment in how different an MCU film can be. It doesn’t always land, but maybe it’ll lead to more projects that stick the landing.