Premise: The saga of the Eternals, a race of immortal beings who lived on Earth and shaped its history and civilizations.
Who are the Eternals? And why did Marvel recruit Chloe Zhao, director of the film that won 3 Oscars earlier this year – including Best Picture – to direct a film about them? Fans of Zhao’s work know her penchant for methodically finding the humanity in stories that have often been told before. And those sensibilities stand at a stark contrast to the bulk of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s modus operandi. We love Tony Stark and Captain America because of their charisma and their duty to serve, but what would happen if they ever questioned that duty? This is the question that lies at the heart of Zhao’s Eternals, and while this may stir an interesting debate, the answers likely will turn off mainstream MCU fans.
Since the Eternals had never been mentioned – even in Easter Egg fashion – in the 25 previous films throughout the MCU catalog, Zhao not only has the enormous task of establishing who these characters are, but what they’ve been up to during those previous films, all while confronting larger ideas like fate and a superhero’s role in helping humanity. Also working against Zhao is the balancing act of the biggest cast in any MCU film to date: Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek, Kumail Nanjiani, Lia McHugh, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Ridloff, Barry Keoghan, and Ma Don-seok (and that’s just the primary cast!) all vie for screen time and valuable character arcs, all with varying degrees of success.
So who are the Eternals? Essentially, they’re immortal beings, each with a unique power, that were created by Celestials, gigantic robotic beings who are responsible for the creation of all life in all the known universes. One Celestial sent the Eternals to Earth in 5,000 BC to protect humans from Deviants, bear-like beasts that look a bit like the infected creatures from Princess Mononoke. Ajak (Hayek) was chosen as the “prime Eternal,” the only one who could communicate with the Celestials. The religious allegory is one of the film’s primary themes, especially when the Eternals begin to question the Celestials’ motives. The MCU has almost exclusively dealt in absolutes, of good versus evil, and the film deals with the various members’ struggles to accept the Celestials’ grand plan for the universe. This makes Eternals probably the most dialogue-heavy MCU film and, at 157 minutes, the second-longest after Avengers: Endgame.
The imbalance between dialogue and action scenes is likely to turn off viewers, but thankfully Zhao’s screenplay (which she wrote alongside Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo, and Kaz Firpo) presents its ideas thoughtfully. The first act in particular, which bounces back and forth between centuries and locations, feels difficult to keep track of, with shifting character dynamics and situations. But Zhao picks it up by the end, delivering a thrilling confrontation to determine the fate of the world. That she’s able to do so without devolving Eternals into a massive CGI-fest with hordes of disposable aliens – a welcome change from the Jack Kirby comic that the film is based on – marks another way in which the film deviates from the MCU formula. And did I mention there’s a brief, implied-nudity sex scene (the MCU’s first) that prompted Russia to give the film their equivalent of an NC-17 rating?
Though Eternals is a true ensemble film, we spend the most time with Gemma Chan and Richard Madden. Chan’s Sersi can alter the matter of non-living things – like turning a metallic bus to rose petals – and Madden’s Ikaris is like a mix of Superman and the X-Men’s Cyclops. Performances across the board are good-to-great (Angelina Jolie provides a welcome reminder of why she’s been sorely missed in the film industry lately) but with such a sprawling cast, it’s hard to get too attached to anyone outside of Chan and Madden. Zhao & Co. do an admirable job of establishing each character and their abilities but not enough to make us too attached to them. It’s also strange that Zhao is completely uninterested in addressing the crushing weight that comes with eternal life, seeing all your friends and loved ones dying in one way or another. Instead, the film offers a tossed-off joke involving Nanjiani’s endless reign as the king of Bollywood. Another revolutionary element at play: Eternals is a film in which the villain doesn’t reveal his or herself until the final act, but when he/she does, it’s an intriguing surprise that pulls Zhao’s themes together ingeniously.
Zhao represents Marvel’s biggest acquisition yet, an olive branch to the arthouse nerds that have grown tired of the MCU’s closely-protected image. For so long, almost every MCU film has succumbed to the Marvel formula in one way or another. The film doesn’t even shoe-horn in references to previous films – color me surprised that at least one flashback didn’t butt up against a scene or plot point or cameo from the MCU-at-large – which gives off the impression that Zhao was given the freedom to make the film she truly wanted to make. Eternals likely won’t go down smoothly with MCU die-hards, especially when compared to this year’s Black Widow and Shang-Chi, but Zhao & Co. at least deserve credit for delivering a Marvel film unlike anything we’ve seen before.
Eternals premieres in theaters everywhere on November 5.
About the Writer: Ben Sears is a life-long Indianapolis resident, husband, and father of two boys, as well as a contributing writer on ObsessiveViewer.com and a recurring co-host on The Obsessive Viewer Podcast, and a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. Aside from watching movies and television, Ben enjoys photography and running marathons, but never at the same time. That would be difficult.