The Eternals Synopsis: The Eternals are a team of ancient aliens who have been living on Earth in secret for thousands of years. When an unexpected tragedy forces them out of the shadows, they reunite against their most ancient enemy, the Deviants.
Disney’s fruitful partnership with Marvel has sprouted an unprecedented train of success. With their own cinematic universe totaling 20+ features, the two beloved properties have reinvented the niche appeals of spandex heroes into the Hollywood market’s core draw. It seemed the MCU was impervious to financial and critical struggles…until now.
Featuring Nomadland Best Director winner Chole Zhao behind the camera, Marvel’s latest, The Eternals, has drawn surprisingly divisive reactions considering the talent involved. Critics and fans alike have cried foul about the film’s unsuccessful departure from the brand’s traditional blockbuster formula, showing a rare sign of stagnation for Marvel’s ever-growing universe.
As someone with lukewarm sentiments about recent Marvel outings (Black Widow and Shang-Chi had their intriguing ideals suffocated by MCU formula), Eternals resonated with me as a much-needed breath of fresh air. Under Zhao’s restrained tutelage, the film elicits a clunky yet wildly sincere depiction of eternal beings grappling with their human vulnerabilities.
I didn’t know what to expect going into Zhao’s first foray into blockbuster filmmaking, as several MCU directors have sacrificed their auteur identity to step into the brand’s homogenized universe. While Eternals still packs the usual array of bombastic setpieces and hit-or-miss one-liners, Zhao thoughtfully balances superheroes’ grand allures with her eye for meditative, character-driven beats.
With a team that includes a Superman-esque juggernaut (Ikaris, played by Richard Madden), a titan warrior triggered by painful memories (Thena, played by Angelina Jolie), a quick-witted Bollywood movie star Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), a deaf super speedster (Makkari, played by Lauren Ridloff), Druig (played by Barry Keoghan), a mind-controlling man who wants to prevent humanity’s penchant for violence and discord, and Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), a technological mastermind regretting his world-changing advancements among others, Etenerals has a lot on its plate. Zhao intelligently blends her eclectic cast into a united unit reckoning with the consequences of their powers and hard-wired responsibilities to their celestial guardian.
Similar to what Zack Snyder accomplished with DC, Zhao digs beneath the armor of their grandiose superpowers to tap into emotionally expressive sentiments. Her screenplay with Ryan and Kaz Firpo finds a comfortable balance between the team’s shared angst with their eternal lifestyle while also developing character-specific nuances upon that foundation. Elements like Thena’s emotional outburst and Druig’s desire to control human cruelty help establish emotive textures rarely present in MCU films – with Zhao and company capturing a dysfunctional yet sincere family dynamic from her immortal beings.
Even with my praise, I can still see why Eternals hasn’t connected with audiences. The film gets tripped up by the familiar early 2000’s X-Man trap – boasting far too many characters to invest in for an origin story experience. In hindsight, perhaps this material would have worked better in the patient format of a streaming show, allowing the characters more time to stew with their insecurities without choppy interruptions.
Certain elements never really overcome the lack of development. Gemma Chan gives a commanding performance as newly-inducted team leader Sersi – but her new role and eternal relationship with Ikaris are largely brushed over despite their significance to the narrative.
Messiness aside, Eternals represents the kind of grand, open-hearted home run swings that Hollywood should be more willing to embrace. I left an MCU film for the first time in a while with encouragement about the brand’s potential to grow past its well-worn formula.