As the closing credits of Eternals were scrolling by, I couldn't help but feel like critically acclaimed, Academy Award-winning director Chloe Zhao had very nearly pulled off the impossible by turning a Marvel Cinematic Universe motion picture into, first and foremost, a Chloe Zhao motion picture.
Almost. But not quite.
The truth is that despite being overly bloated and downright boring for extended moments of time, Eternals seems to mark the birth of something special in the MCU - a return to thoughtful superheroes and superhero flicks where the people actually matter and the action sequences serve the story rather than the story simply serving as a transition to more action sequences.
Eternals is almost a miraculous film, though I'd dare say Zhao simply couldn't overcome the myriad of obstacles she faced in maintaining her artistic integrity while also keeping the big-wigs at Marvel and Disney happy. Truthfully, Eternals is better than I expected precisely because I thought the Marvel Cinematic Universe would swallow up Zhao and her thoughtful, rhythmic, and often poetic style of filmmaking.
That's unfair, I suppose, because Zhao is a filmmaker and having given us two relatively low-budget critical darlings first, The Rider and the Academy Award-winning Nomadland, we'd never experienced Zhao outside the world of introspective, truly indie filmmaking. While Eternals is not quite upper-tier Marvel, Zhao is doing something special here and this effort here should be the final proof that Zhao is a directorial force to be reckoned with for years to come.
Eternals follows the events that unfolded in Avengers: Endgame. The Eternals are ancient superheroes who've been living on Earth for years living relatively normal lives after their work of centuries ago was completed and they're simply waiting on permission to return home. However, when mankind's most ancient, and thought to be abolished, enemy resurfaces, they're called Deviants, the Eternals are called back into action once again to save a mankind that may not be worth saving.
Eternals benefits from Zhao's presence even if it doesn't quite surrender to it. From opening scenes in 5,000 B.C. Mesopotamia to contemporary scenes introducing us to a London-dwelling Sersi (Gemma Chan) who is now dating the very human Dane (Kit Harington) while fellow Eternal Sprite (Lia McHugh) is her roommate, Eternals is an often mesmerizing motion picture that immerses us in culture and character to degrees seldom seen in the MCU. When the trio is unexpectedly attacked by a Deviant, Sersi's former flame and still Eternal Ikaris (Richard Madden) arrives to join the battle and they realize they must once again reunite the remaining Eternals including longtime leader Ajak (Salma Hayek), the film's comedy centerpoint Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), the heavily burdened goddess of war Thena (Angelina Jolie), the protector (and now movie star) Gilgamesh (Don Lee), the rebellious Druig (Barry Keoghan), now family man Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), and Makkari, who is deaf and played by deaf actress Lauren Ridloff.
Together? Well, you probably know the story. They go to battle.
Eternals wisely carries with it a rather simple and straightforward story, a blessing in many ways given the already daunting task of meaningfully developing ten full-on superheroes. Surprisingly, Eternals is largely successful with this task even if I'd express my own opinion that certain cast members struggle to balance the acting styles of the MCU and Zhao's more introspectful, thoughtful, and nearly meditative artistry.
The relationship between Sersi and Ikaris is central to the emotional core of Eternals, a genuine romance unlike any that has been seen before in the MCU including the Universe's first crystal clear, though certainly discreet, scene of sexuality. It's a nice touch, though not entirely convincing, and here's hoping that Zhao's willingness to dig more deeply into the MCU pays off in future episodes. Each character, actually, is given moments to shine with Lia McHugh's turn as Sprite particularly poignant as the Tinkerbell-like presence struggles with her physical manifestation despite her undeniable super heroics. Unlike a good majority of Marvel flicks where even collective superheroes can shine individually, it's clear in the Eternals that they are all, essentially, one part of the same superhero body. They are all essential for and with one another and it is their collective presence that makes them all superheroes. This is particularly powerful given the diversity of the Eternals including male, female, older, younger, Asian, Black, White, disabled, and LGBTQ superheroes. While they all present with different gifts, they are all superheroes.
For the most part, Zhao balances the film's action and humor nicely. It's refreshing that a good majority of the action sequences are daytime sequences devoid of the usual incoherent CGI. Kingo and Sprite carry much of the film's humor, though a certain companion that shows up with Gilgamesh also offers more than a little bit of joy.
I fell in love with Brian Tyree Henry's family man of a superhero, while Lauren Ridloff's badassery is a joy to behold. At over 2 1/2 hours, Eternals is undeniably bloated partly because of Zhao's insistence on maintaining lingering shots of action and the world in which the action occurs but also because it's clear that Zhao wants us to see these superheroes on a deeper level. Eternals wrestles with big questions and refuses easy answers - like the moral dilemmas of collateral damage and the decision to act on behalf of a humanity that often appears to not deserve it. There are spiritual themes galore here and genuine moments of melancholy, regret, resignation, and surprising vulnerability. While Angelina Jolie at times left me feeling "meh," Thena's struggle with traumatic memories and how they're manifesting in her daily life now is genuinely powerful and emotionally honest.
I struggled with Richard Madden and Kit Harington, both actors tasked with giving the film an emotional resonance that never completely clicks. Madden seems more up for the film's MCU moments and dazzles in battles, but his chemistry with Sersi never really invests us in their conflicts like it should.
Lensing by Ben Davis manages to be both intimate and panoramic and wonderfully captures how vital the little moments are in our big lives and in this big universe. Ramin Djawadi's original score feels closer to epic Philip Glass than an actual Marvel scoreand I'd dare say there are hints of Malick bubbling underneath the surface of this first dip into the world of big budgets by Chloe Zhao.
It definitely should not and better not be the last.
Eternals isn't a perfect film. It's overly bloated, occasionally downright boring, has performances that don't quite always gel, and never quite finds that perfect balance between Zhao meets Marvel. However, amidst all is flaws Eternals has a refreshing heartbeat that lingers long after the closing credits have rolled. Eternals is thrilling and epic and intimate and poignant all in one. It both entertains and dazzles, provokes thought and demands introspection amidst it all.
Eternals isn't a perfect superhero film but, alas, we learn that the Eternals are not perfect superheroes. But, in the end, that is precisely what makes them the superheroes they need to be.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic