“Ambitious” has been a key word to describe the work and operations of Marvel Studios from the very beginning. There was no guarantee that their plan to organize a multi-series, single-canon franchise was going to work – especially without the rights to key characters like Spider-Man, the X-Men, and the Fantastic Four. When it turned out not only to work, but become a global phenomenon, however, the creative push continued, and inspired gambles on obscure superheroes and up-and-coming filmmakers. Marvel’s moves run counter to what is traditionally expected out of great success in Hollywood, where it so often results in the sole production of echoes and copies. Instead, the company has looked at its popularity as a license to try and experiment with new things, having faith that that the audience will follow.
Chloe Zhao’s Eternals is what could be called the most obvious result of this philosophy that we have seen since James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014. The titular group is held in high esteem by comic book fans as creations of the legendary Jack Kirby, but there is little awareness of them in the grander scheme of pop culture; and while Zhao may now be one of only two women to ever win Best Director at the Academy Awards, she was hired to make the blockbuster nearly half-a-year before Nomadland entered pre-production. Those elements combined don’t look great on paper, but Marvel respected her vision, and committed to it.
More than three years after Chloe Zhao’s hiring, “ambitious” remains an appropriate adjective to apply to Eternals, albeit with a caveat. The film has impressive scope, compelling characters, and some fascinating driving philosophies, but it’s an adventure that also attempts to bite off a bit more than it can chew. On top of a “getting the band back together” narrative with 10 main characters and world-ending stakes, it also dabbles in epic romance and non-linear storytelling – which is a hell of a lot for one movie to take on. It’s mostly successful in keeping all of the balls in the air, but the actual juggling itself is also too apparent as you watch, taking away from total engagement with everything it tries to do.
Reaching further back in history than any Marvel Cinematic Universe film before it, Eternals introduces its eponymous group as cosmic beings who arrived on Earth 7,000 years ago to do the bidding of the god-like Celestials. Their job is to guide the development of human evolution without direct interference – helping the species make progress and slowly grow without overtly taking control or specifically influencing big choices. Simultaneously, they are also responsible for the culling of the Deviants, which are monstrous and exceptionally dangerous creatures whose viciousness threatens humanity in its nascency.
Having successfully shepherded Homo sapiens through their infancy over thousands of years, the Eternals in the modern world are given freedom by their leader, Ajak (Salma Hayek), to essentially live traditional human lives until the Celestial Aramesh tells them otherwise. The group – including the matter-manipulating Sersi (Gemma Chan), the illusion-generating Sprite (Lia McHugh), the speedy Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), the mind-controlling Druig (Barry Keoghan), the flying Ikaris (Richard Madden), the inventive Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), the energy-firing Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), the formidable Gilgamesh (Don Lee), and the weapon-generating Thena (Angelina Jolie) – spread out across the globe.
In the wake of Thanos killing half of all life in the universe and the Avengers bringing everyone back, Sersei and Sprite live together in London, the former dating a charming and sweet man named Dane Whitman (Kit Harington), but their existence changes within an instant. While it is believed that all of the Deviants are extinct and have been for centuries, a surprisingly powerful one attacks the two heroes during a night out, and effectively changes their world view. Understanding the danger that the monsters represent, a journey is undertaken to bring all of the Eternals back together – and over the course of the adventure deeper and darker secrets are uncovered that could threaten life around the planet.
Simply put, Eternals tries to do too much.
With Sersei, Sprite, and Ikaris uniting in the first act, and Thena and Gilgamesh still being together in the 2020s, the heroes have to travel to six different locations around Earth to assemble their whole group, and while that would be plenty of narrative meat for any other movie to sink its teeth into, Eternals goes for more. In addition to its present day story, the film frequently flashes back in time to flesh out the long history of the central characters and their mission on Earth – not to mention also works to maintain a thread chronicling the conflict-laden romance between Sersei and Ikaris. It’s a lot for any blockbuster to take on, even with a 150-plus minute runtime.
At its best, all of these operations serve to add greater depth to the characters and not shortchange their backstories and personalities; at its worst it can be throttling to the point where you’re not wholly sure where you are in the story. It’s never boring, as it regularly spices things up with the Marvel staples of humor and action, but it does feel convoluted, and that convolution does hamper its ability to properly drive home its larger themes.
Eternals takes aim at some cool ideas and concepts, and it mostly delivers.
This is particularly unfortunate because the material that the film broaches is legitimately impressive to see coming from a mainstream blockbuster. There is a tremendous amount of religious commentary that comes out of the story, primarily extending from the relationship between the Eternals and Aramesh, who, for all practical purposes in the context, is god. While humans grapple with existential questions about existence, the heroes are fully aware of their purpose, and that by itself is a exciting perspective to see examined. It’s the strongest aspect of the film, and the ideas within it are manipulated in interesting ways, but it is ultimately obfuscated by plot.
Chloe Zhao prepares a wonderful feast, and the Eternals cast is wonderful.
Where Eternals best succeeds is in the arenas where you wholly expect to succeed. The size of the ensemble proves to be unwieldy narratively speaking, but it’s also a great collection of personalities, and each of the characters is cast genuinely well. Kumail Nanjiani is given prime position as a scene-stealer, with the movie taking full advantage of the actor’s wonderful comedic gifts without undercutting the emotional conflict Kingo experiences, but Gemma Chan is also charismatic and dynamic in what’s essentially the prime protagonist position, and each of the other members of the team adds interesting colors to the drama.
Eternals also has the distinction of being visually gorgeous and unlike anything we’ve seen before in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There is an important and distinct appreciation for natural beauty, and the production’s extensive use of on-location shooting allows for gorgeous cinematography that stunningly captures the grandeur of our world in a way that is both thrilling and on-theme. And even when there is a great deal of visual effects in play, be it in various fight sequences or the epic face-to-face meetings with Aramesh, Chloe Zhao is still able to ground it in a way that adds terrific weight.
In terms of overall quality, Eternals is a mixed bag, but it’s also a film that is easy to appreciate for what it is. While still maintaining some familiar DNA, it takes some bold swings at new ideas, and even when it doesn’t fully connect you can appreciate the effort and are still left with something to chew on. It’s not among the best releases we’ve seen come out of Marvel Studios, but still manages to be interesting and exciting blockbuster filmmaking.