Whether you’re considering timeframe scope, narrative density, or character origins, Marvel’s Eternals is the cinematic universe’s most ambitious single-film swing. Try introducing ten-plus major characters while simultaneously explaining why interstellar super-duper-heroes ignored all Marvel atrocities and telling a contained central conflict. Chloé Zhao’s more humanistic approach to immortal protectors does its best to personify these mighty warriors who thus far stayed away from Avenger initiatives, and yet there’s just so much movie still to digest. Zhao achieves a thematic tenderness and vulnerability that seems fresh within the MCU, all before a third act that rushes through cumulative payoffs like it’s closing time at the pub and you’re still sober.
From Babylon to Hiroshima, London to South Dakota, Ajak (Salma Hayek) and her Eternals squadron have influenced the evolution of humankind on Earth. Their initial mission is simple — protect mortals from cosmic predators known as “Deviants” until complete enemy eradication. Then the team’s floating Celestial overlord asks them to stay hidden until further notice, for roughly seven thousand years after their 5000 BC arrival. Sersi (Gemma Chan) gravitates towards museum artifact studies, Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) becomes a generational Bollywood icon, and so on as the Eternals pursue separate passions. That’s until a rogue Deviant attacks Sersi, illusionist Sprite (Lia McHugh), and pretty-much-Superman Ikaris (Richard Madden), which sparks a reunion to finish their mission once and for all.
It’s difficult because Eternals strives to fulfill three narrative purposes. Introduce Ajak’s god-beings who erected civilization, seamlessly incorporate Eternals mythology into ongoing MCU canon, and pose a doomsday threat that only the Eternals can defeat — three heads that need to feed. Timelines collide as scenes jump between something comparatively insignificant like Sersi’s struggles with human boyfriend Dane Whitman (Kit Harington) to engineer Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) standing amidst Japan’s nuclear wasteland while sobbing because his technological blessings became man’s atomic weaponry. Zhao’s interest in the Eternals’ conscious dilemmas as superheroes restricted from human interference is immense, nestled amidst exposition with the authenticity of Nomadland’s intimate existentialism — but feels outweighed.
Eternals is a more mature, representative slice-of-life Marvel film that challenges important preconceptions. These Disney superheroes f#&k, in the words of Silicon Valley’s Russ Hanneman — for real, they’re allowed to explore sexual pleasures of the flesh. Phastos shares a same-sex kiss with his husband on camera as Zhao imbues this welcoming fearlessness about the characters who promote inclusiveness beyond a throwaway group-session line. Don’t expect another smash-and-dash S.H.I.E.L.D. battler — Zhao’s collaborative screenplay remains fixed on how humankind’s advancement through strife and wars weighs on the idle Eternals who can do nothing but watch. Some embrace love’s complications and communal goodwill; others question their sacrifice and embody their Greek tragedy inspirations. These fractures in the armor of gods are always when Eternals shines like an Infinity Stone.
Alternately, Zhao struggles to empower the personal journeys of most Eternals guards. Mind controller Druig (Barry Keoghan) defies Celestial obedience knowing he could prevent horridness like mass genocide, yet his defiant identity shifts into a later-act romance with deaf speedster Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) — who just waits on their Domo spacecraft for the inevitable “band’s back together” highlight. Gilgamesh (Don Lee) and Thena (Angelina Jolie) share a special bond since soldier Thena succumbs to a berserker illness that plunges her into a confused, violent rage — Gilgamesh and his fists of fury conclude that arc with slightness thanks to the plot’s circumstantial nature. Characters vanish from relevance only to return like nothing’s changed, subplots fall out of importance at random, and the entire quest throttles through another digitally enhanced culmination of action teases that lack the concreteness of a fully realized ending. Other Marvel titles have built franchise appeal on standalone stories — Eternals feels like it’s rushing the assignment a period before class, crossing t’s and dotting i’s with reckless abandon.
Yes, I state this about a movie that’s most likely the longest blockbuster mainstream audiences will sit through in 2021.
All stated, there’s still wonder to behold, such as cinematographer Ben Davis’s mix of outstanding planetarium stargazing and Zhao’s signature golden hour sunbursts that caress Mother Nature’s natural landscapes. Zhao sneaks so much essence from Nomadland and The Rider into fights where CGI canine hellspawns endanger Eternals until Sersi’s elemental manipulation atomizes one into a tree. We’re also gifted gags where bulgy bruiser Gilgamesh bakes berry pies in an adorable apron, or finger-gunner Kingo hires a valet (Harish Patel as superfan Karun) to film an unsolicited behind-the-scenes Eternals documentary. There’s humor present as Don Lee plays a huggable teddy bear and ripped-as-hell Kumail Nanjiani uses his comedic background to accentuate Karun’s out-of-place but humble presence. Zhao seems more comfortable than expected working within jokier frameworks while still grasping onto those broken shards of hope for our messy, imperfect species.
Inarguably, Eternals is a whole lotta movie. Chloé Zhao does her best with a Marvel experience that’s closer to the three-hour mark — there’s luxury and fondness within photography and relationships. When characters like Phastos enter their spotlight superhero solos, the result is economical and enjoyable as special abilities draw similarities to DC icons — a recurring joke thanks to rights approvals. Eternals is visually elegant thanks to Zhao’s creative sensibilities, but such an exposition-heavy undertaking does get the better of the filmmaker more than a handful of instances. What else can you expect from an adaptation whose text is bulkier than your entire franchise to date, which Zhao indulges in the narrative’s infinite grandness for better and worse.