A fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Chloe Zhao reportedly approached Marvel herself to contribute to their next phase of films. Having proven her talents with Songs My Brothers Taught Me and The Rider, she was an ideal up and coming choice. Her more recent triumphs with Nomadland certainly added icing to the cake. Now that it’s here, Eternals boasts two extremes – on the one hand it showcases the failings of what happens when one becomes too reliant on world-building and lore. But on the other, more prominent hand, it demonstrates the best of Zhao’s abilities on a colossal scale.
A story that spans literal millennia, we meet the Eternals, a group of immortal humanoid aliens who were sent to Earth thousands of years ago by godlike creatures called Celestials to protect the planet from creatures called Deviants. The only catch is that they do not interfere in human conflicts, hence why they haven’t shown up in prior Avengers films. There are a good dozen or so names among this ensemble cast, but our central character is Sersi (Gemma Chan). When she is attacked by a Deviant that seems capable of evolution, she is reunited with the rest of the Eternals to await an event called The Emergence.
Eternals feels the most disconnected from previous MCU films, something that is both a blessing and a curse. It only makes the occasional reference to prior films, the biggest being the catalyst for the aforementioned Emergence, preferring instead to explore its own world and story. This makes for a nice change, as we get to enjoy the film on its own terms rather than having to tiredly work out how it ties to prior films or which character is the third cousin twice removed to another Marvel superhero.
However, this also means that it has a lot of world-building to set up for its own story. It does this in a full on manner during the film’s first hour or so. Parts of it are somewhat interesting, such as the psychological dilemmas that come with the Eternals’ restriction from human conflicts, but it’s by far the weakest portion of the film from how overstuffed it feels. It’s a lot of information to take in at once, with each character discussing said info having been exposed to it, and living in it, for some time. Consequently, the lack of new perspective makes what should be immersive rather difficult to fully invest in. It’s the kind of background detail that could be more easily spread out in a miniseries, but feels very overwhelming in the restrained runtime of a feature film, something that’s exacerbated by the thousands of years and dozens of locations that the story takes place over. One can be forgiven for checking out of the film or finding themselves exhausted by the material.
Yet, if you can overcome this issue, albeit a pretty large one, there are lots of rich rewards to be gleaned from the rest of Eternals. Once the exposition is out the way, the film stops being a lore-prioritising Marvel film and becomes a big budget Chloe Zhao film. When you add up Eternals to its whole, this is a grand tale on the evolution and development of humanity, celebrating all of its strengths and weaknesses in one visually breathtaking piece. Zhao’s films have always held deeply humanist cores and values. Even though Eternals has a bigger budget than all three of her previous films combined, those values are by no means diluted.
If anything, Zhao uses her new position to explore those values on a universal scale. The film’s spanning of millennia and numerous corners of the world may be a flaw, but it also serves Zhao’s messaging by showcasing how no matter what part of the world you’re in, or feel like you belong to, the love and solidarity that makes humanity unique can be found. The family dynamic of the Eternals and the different relationships found within, be it between Sersi and Richard Madden’s character Ikaris, or Salma Hayek’s mother-like figure to the rest of them, explore this on various levels. Even the eventual twist villain feels worthy of Zhao’s themes in how it portrays humanity’s failings, and how easily we can succumb to darkness when given a hard choice between duty and free will. Plus, the diverse representations of cultures, nationalities, genders and sexualities among the cast and characters alike is not only refreshing, but in a way adds to the film’s themes on humanity.
Speaking of the new scale, the visual splendour is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Zhao has always had a knack for making the world around her look beautiful, and that same touch is here. How mesmerising it feels to know that we’re looking at genuine locations, like beaches and woods and cities, rather than a barrage of blue screens (although they’re inevitably still present at times). The cosmic and the earthly are just as gorgeous as each other, with the natural locations and feel to Ben Davis’s cinematography complementing both the themes and the action. While some of the fight sequences can feel a little slow at times, the majority exhilarates with its grand scale and identifiable characters. There’s much creativity to be found, and the accompanying score from Ramin Djawadi is possibly the best from any MCU film.
Add it all up and we get something that, after a rocky start, eventually dazzles with its visuals, direction, action, and surprising depth. The characters, once reunited and interacting with each other, free of the exposition, do feel dynamic and wholesome. Each one feels important to the overarching story, and each actor gets plenty of opportunity to showcase their abilities through their roles, with the highlights being Kumail Nanjiani, Richard Madden, and Angelina Jolie. The culmination of theme, character and spectacle results in one of the strongest finales of any recent MCU film. It truly is jaw-dropping in size, scale, and even emotional power.
Once Eternals stops prioritising world-building and fully embraces its identity as a Chloe Zhao film it gets infinitely better. This may be a case where the subtext is better than the text surrounding it, but its themes are so quintessentially Zhao that it’s hard not to admire it. That being said, it’s difficult to place this film within the MCU ranking, at least for this reviewer, because its two halves differ in quality so drastically. After a bit of thought, 3.5 stars feels appropriate for, although it certainly has some narrative issues to start with, it’s an incredibly ambitious film when taken as a whole. Given how alike many of the MCU movies feel, and even look, ambition should always be lauded, even if it doesn’t always work.
Eternals hits cinemas November 5th
Director: Chloe Zhao
Writers: Chloe Zhao, Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo & Kaz Firpo
Stars: Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Kumail Nanjiani, Lia McHugh, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Ridloff, Barry Keoghan, Don Lee, Harish Patel, Kit Harington, Salma Hayek, Angelina Jolie
Runtime: 157 minutes