“We have helped them progress, and seen them accomplish wonders.”
(This review is mostly spoiler-free, but as always, if you want to go in completely blind, do not read this.)
The seventh MCU property (we still somehow have two more coming) this year, but the most unique among them, and the entirety of the MCU, Eternals is a sweeping, character-driven epic that, in spite of undoubtedly being divisive, is ACTUALLY a breath of fresh air to the MCU, despite what critics might say about many other MCU movies.
In my Shang-Chi review, I said that Shang-Chi was as close to a standalone MCU movie that there could be. I’m very happy to have to retract that statement only two months later, as Eternals does something that only one other MCU movie’s ever done (Iron Man), and that’s to not have a single pre-existing MCU character at any point in the film. DC characters are even referenced more often than the rest of the MCU (relegated to mentions of Thanos, Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor), helping to give Eternals the incredibly rare opportunity almost exclusively afforded to the occasional DC film: not worry about any interconnected universe. With this rare opportunity, writer-director Chloe Zhao takes on the tough task of introducing ten extremely distinct characters within one movie, as well as deliver an incredibly ambitious undertaking involving some of the biggest questions about the human condition, all through the eyes of those who might as well be godly beings compared to mere mortals.
Eternals features the titular characters created by Jack Kirby, a group of aliens with superhuman abilities sent to Earth by the Celestials (pictured above, basically like gods) to protect humanity from the Deviants, monstrous beings whose only purpose is to establish themselves as the apex predators of an entire world. Arriving on Earth 7000 years before the present day, the Eternals dispatch the Deviants by the 1500s, and split up to live separate lives while awaiting the day they’re called back by the Celestials. If this sounds extremely vague, it is, because it’s incredibly hard to talk about the plot of Eternals without spoiling important events, with much of the first and second acts being presented in a non-linear fashion and through flashbacks akin to Watchmen (both the book and the film), another thing that makes Eternals incredibly unique among superhero/comic book cinema. While this approach is certainly ambitious and well-executed by Zhao, Eternals does suffer from some first half pacing issues as a result of this, with some crucial characters not being reintroduced until much later than they should have been and character-driven moments that slow the film down to a crawl.
As far as Eternals‘ issues with pacing goes, that’s about the extent of glaringly obvious flaws that the film has. I’ll get into how perfect Eternals is on a technical level later on, but from a story standpoint, a writing standpoint, and a thematic standpoint, Eternals is leaps and bounds above almost every other MCU film. It was always an uphill battle for any director to have to introduce and juggle this many characters (obscure ones at that), as well as give them all arcs benefiting of their standing within the film, but Zhao pulls it off with aplomb. Eternals dives into morally gray situations and dilemmas for its heroes to face, and that only reinforces its uniqueness among MCU films, with compelling arguments for both sides all throughout the film where other MCU properties would be much more cut and dry. Even the inconsistent pacing of Eternals helps it succeed in a way, as the film slows down to let characters create and strengthen connections with each other, or have moments that help reveal more about these incredibly powerful immortal creatures who have grown to be just as human as anyone.
Although Ikaris (Richard Madden) and Sersi (Gemma Chan) are billed as the two leads of Eternals‘ massive ensemble cast, it’s really Chan’s Sersi who deftly carries the film’s millennia-spanning journey, while Madden’s Ikaris takes a stoic backseat to his co-star’s understated charm. Seemingly destined from birth to be eternal lovers, Sersi and Ikaris are the very epitome of “opposites” attract, with Sersi being the caring and shy presence to Ikaris’ cool swagger and detachment from humanity, as well as how they fit in with the rest of the Eternals. Chan, who’s been relegated to almost exclusively supporting roles until now (Crazy Rich Asians, Transformers: The Last Knight, Raya and the Last Dragon), is quietly excellent as the reserved and timid Sersi, who’s thrust into a leadership role when tragedy befalls the group. In contrast, Madden’s movie star looks and brooding magnetism serve him well in the calm and collected “Superman” role that the rest of the Eternals look to time and time again for guidance. However, despite Sersi and Ikaris being supposed “eternal lovers”, neither Chan nor Madden have much chemistry with each other, with Chan’s Sersi hitting it off much better with her “present-day” boyfriend, Dane Whitman (Kit Harington, popping in for about ten total minutes).
This being an ensemble film with an ensemble cast, none of the other Eternals get the screentime or depth that Sersi or Ikaris do, but Brian Tyree Henry’s Phastos and Lia McHugh’s Sprite get their fair share, with Phastos being the most pragmatic and grounded of the Eternals and Sprite taking up the mantle of “obligatory snarky character who actually has immense tragedy behind their actions”. Much attention was given to Phastos being the first openly LGBTQ+ character in a MCU film, with many countries banning Eternals due to this, and I’m happy to report that this status is presented as it should be, with Phastos simply having a loving husband and (presumably) adopted son without the film tokenizing or doing anything that wouldn’t be done with a straight couple and their kid. Beyond that, Henry imbues his usual mixture of deadpan humor and dry wit into Phastos, who has a simple yet easily accessible arc in his short time onscreen. As for McHugh’s Sprite, she hovers on that precipice of being “the annoying kid character” and being unintentionally sympathetic, to the point where audiences will undoubtedly be split (without spoiling her central conflict).
The brawn of the Eternals, Thena (Angelina Jolie) and Gilgamesh (Ma Dong-seok, credited as Don Lee) are mostly relegated to fight sequences, but share an all-too-real connection, with Lee’s Gilgamesh having spent much of his time on Earth caring for the dementia-addled Thena, developed after centuries of mindlessly slaughtering the Deviants. It’s a subject that’s uncomfortably close to home for anyone who’s had grandparents or parents afflicted with dementia, but Jolie brings it in her limited screentime, proving that she’s still more than capable of helping to carry a movie’s heartfelt moments.
Perhaps the most under-the-radar Eternals before the film was released, Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) and Druig (Barry Keoghan) are actually some of the best characters in the entire film, helping to deliver some of the most heartwarming moments and craziest action sequences alike. With Druig, who was barely in any marketing for the film, Keoghan crushes the role, making Druig one of the most sympathetic characters as a person who’s cursed to repeatedly listen to the staggering amount of death that we humans have wrought upon each other (he’s a telepath) and be forced to refrain from stopping it. As for Makkari, the group’s speedster, Ridloff provides an endless supply of optimism and energy, as well as the absolute best onscreen interpretation of a character with super speed (see above GIF). Another note: Druig and Makkari have easily the best chemistry in the movie, to the point where it’s maddening that they’re never officially a thing. What’s even more impressive is the fact that they communicate almost exclusively in ASL (Ridloff is deaf in real life), simply another wonderful (and simple) example of inclusivity that Eternals possesses.
Rounding out the Eternals are Kumail Nanjiani’s Kingo and Salma Hayek’s Ajak, neither of whom have nearly as much impact as the other Eternals, although that’s no fault of either actor. Kingo is mainly used for comic relief, which is a shame because the few somber moments that he gets could have easily been drawn out into meaningful development for him. As for Hayek’s Ajak, the regal leader of the Eternals, she is perhaps the most impacted of all the Eternals by the film’s unconventional story structure, with much of the time we get to spend with her coming in the flashbacks.
I mentioned earlier about how Eternals is almost perfect on a technical level, and while it won’t quite match up to anything shot by Roger Deakins, Zhao and director of photography Ben Davis combine to make Eternals easily the best-looking MCU movie, and one of the best-looking comic book movies by everyone besides Zack Snyder or Christopher Nolan. Frequently utilizing Zhao’s trademark wide landscape shots and also incorporating matching color grading for each time period the film goes to (ancient Babylon, for example, is warm and golden, while the fall of Tenochtitlan in 1521 is harsh and shrouded in red), Eternals is a gorgeous movie where its visuals only help to strengthen the sweeping and ambitious journey it takes the audience on. Perhaps most importantly, Eternals FINALLY breaks from the MCU tradition of having a bland gray CGI final fight, with Zhao choosing to have only the core cast involved in a much more intimate finale.
With as much that Eternals has on its plate, one might forgive Zhao for skimping on the action sequences, but she delivers, with Eternals having some of the best action in any comic book film, especially with how each Eternal uses their individual abilities in combat. Makkari in particular puts Zack Snyder’s depiction of the Flash to shame, with her super speed actually feeling like a brutal and unstoppable force instead of simply a complement to other heroes’ powers. Even just the way each Eternal’s abilities are shown is impeccably and clearly presented to us, with many an awe-inspiring moment. Zhao’s direction in general is flawless, and even as Eternals begins to slightly sag under the weight of her complex and admittedly lengthy narrative, her steady hand prevents any of the flashbacks or emotionally heavy scenes from standing out.
Eternals is an incredibly vast and sprawling film, covering thousands of years, and yet, the questions it poses about the human condition and morality are perhaps some of the most “real” dilemmas and intricacies in any comic book property not named Watchmen. It’s both an allegory for what heroes can and should do, as well as a cautionary note about how a god complex can prevent people from seeing a forest for trees, to say without spoiling anything. As trailers and marketing materials have gone to great lengths to establish, the titular Eternals could have intervened any time they wanted in any of the MCU’s vast history of world-threatening events, but were strictly instructed not to. Or did they simply not have it in them to help after witnessing over 7 millennia worth of humans destroying each other and the planet?
Zhao taps into these questions intensely, and they form the backbone of the dilemma that these godlike aliens face, aliens that could probably take down 99% of the Avengers if they pleased. Eternals doesn’t feature a singular “good” or “bad” force like almost all MCU films, instead choosing to allow its audience to decide for themselves who’s doing the “right” thing, and what form that may take. It’s an incredibly mature comic book film that’s bound to be immensely divisive for this very reason (keep in mind that the overwhelming majority of superhero film audiences are kids or people who’ve grown accustomed to more thematically simple MCU fare), but one that will undoubtedly be remembered for a long time to come.
Verdict: Eternals‘ marketing did it absolutely no favors, positioning it as a stereotypical MCU romp a la Guardians of the Galaxy when the finished product is nothing like that group of ragtag space pirates. A rich exploration into the human condition is nothing like what anyone expected from Eternals, but it’s what super-producer and MCU mastermind Kevin Feige likely envisioned when he tapped Academy Award-winning director Chloe Zhao to take the reigns of the newest Marvel franchise. A sprawling and sweeping epic in every sense of the word, Eternals is a bold, beautiful, and character-driven tale packed with powerhouse performances and masterfully helmed by director Chloe Zhao, even if it’s bound to be the most divisive MCU film yet.
Let me know what you thought of the film in the comments below!
Disclaimer: I do not own any of these photos, GIFs, or posters. Disney and Marvel Studios own all of these photos, GIFs, and posters.