Eternals – Review

It has been a rocky road to bring Marvel’s new film Eternals to the silver screen.  One thing that it had working against it was the fact that the Eternals are not very well known outside of a dedicated fan base of comic book readers.  It would appear from the outside that making a movie based on a relatively obscure title in the Marvel canon was a foolish risk to undertake.  But, given the run of success that Marvel has had, they understandably now have the confidence to bring something like the Eternals to the big screen, and they have precedent on their side.  Only seven years ago, nobody outside comic book aficionados knew of the Guardians of the Galaxy, but James Gunn changed that forever when he released his popular 2014 film based on the series and suddenly propelled the Guardians into the Marvel A-list.  Since then, Marvel has since dug deep into their catalog to find more characters in their stable worthy of a cinematic treatment; even ones the ones that borderline on the weird and almost un-filmable.   One could say that’s where the Eternals lie, because of the incredibly dense mythology behind their story.  Still, Marvel moved forward with Eternals as a part of their Phase 4 plans, tapping indie film director Chloe Zhao with the honors of bringing the movie to reality.  But, circumstances changed pretty quickly, just as Eternals entered it’s home stretch.  Marvel had to delay the movie by a whole year after the outbreak of the Covid pandemic.  While many projects suffered setbacks because of the pandemic, Eternals oddly benefited from the delay.  While Eternals was pushed back, Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland (2020), which she filmmed after working on Eternals, made it to theaters without delay, and ended up the big winner at that year’s Academy Awards, including a historic Best Director win for Zhao.  So, not only are we getting the first Marvel movie by an Oscar winning director, it’s also one from the reigning champ; a fortuitous stroke of fortune.  But, it’s a question of whether or not her voice as a filmmaker translates well enough between a small film like Nomadland and a big film like Eternals.

So, the question for most audiences will be, what are the Eternals?  The Eternals were the brain child of one of the most celebrated comic book artists of all time; Jack Kirby.  Kirby was a unique voice in the comic book world, known for his dynamic art style that emphasized bold colors and often pyschadelic imagery.  He rose prominently through the ranks at Marvel, where he developed a strong collaboration with writer Stan Lee.  Together Kirby and Lee shaped the Golden Age of Marvel comics, developing popular storylines for the Fantastic Four, the Mighty Thor, and many others.  In those years, Kirby showed a particular interest in the cosmic side of the Marvel Universe, which led to the development of the Eternals and the Celestials as major players within the mythology of the comics.  The Celestials became the god like figures that governed the universe in which the Marvel characters exist, and the Eternals became the angelic super beings sent down to Earth to bring their master plans to fruition.  The Eternals comics were really where Jack Kirby managed to showcase his full power as an artist, because he was able to display his interest in the meta-physical properties of the universe, and also play around with the sense of scale on an epic level never seen before on the comics page.  In his later years, Kirby would cross over into Marvel’s rival DC Comics, where he helped to co-create the New Gods, another collection of cosmological super-beings that share much in common with the Eternals.  If there were ever a Mount Rushmore for comic book icons, Kirby easily would be on it.  Given his very distinctive style, it’s been rather difficult to translate his art into something that would work in the movies.  Director Taika Waititi made a valiant attempt at capturing the Jack Kirby style in Thor: Ragnarok (2017).  But, undertaking Jack Kirby’s pet project of Eternals would require delving further into the odd and meta-physical than anything Marvel has done before.  The question is, did Chloe Zhao manage to successfully bring Jack Kirby’s vision to life or was it best left for the page.

The world is still recovering from the event known as the Blip in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  The Avengers managed to successfully undo the curse made by Thanos which resulted in half of life in the universe disappearing with the snap of a finger.  But, unbeknownst to humanity, the sudden return of the population has awakened another sleeping threat within the Earth itself.  The Celestials have planned for thousands of years an event called “The Emergence” to take place on Earth, and that time has now come.  To ensure that Earth was ready, the Celestials sent down 10 super-beings known as the Eternals to protect humanity from a parasitic race of alien predators known as the Deviants.  The Eternals have ensured the safety of humanity to grow and evolve without the Deviants wiping them out, but they’ve been instructed by the Prime Celestial, Arishem the Judge, to not interfere in any other human conflict.  Through the millennia and centuries after, the Eternals continue to live anonymously among the humans, waiting for the Celestials to order them home.  After the Blip, the Prime Eternal Ajak (Selma Hayek) has been told that the Emergence is imminent, and it’s time for the Eternals to reconvene, despite having grown apart over the years.  Sersei (Gemma Chan) has enjoyed a happy life in London as a science teacher, with her boyfriend Dane Whitman (Kit Harrington) by her side.  Her only other Eternal contact has been Sprite (Lia McHugh), who has been isolated primarily because she still appears as a child after thousands of years.  One night, they are suddenly attacked by a rogue Deviant, only to be saved by Ikaris (Richard Madden), who has been called to assemble the Eternals together by Ajak.  The remaining Eternals are scattered across the globe, with Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) living it up as a Bollywood star, Druig (Barry Keoghan) living in exile in the Amazon rain forest, Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) staying hidden collecting artifacts from around the world, Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) living a simple life with his husband and son, and Gilgamesh (Don Lee) helping to protect Thena (Angelina Jolie), who has suffered memory loss.  But, a mystery remains for them all, which is why the Deviants have returned and questions rise over whether or not they should stay to help save humanity from the Emergence.

Suffice to say, Eternals is not an easy pill to swallow.  Coming in with a lot of pre-studied knowledge of Jack Kirby’s dense mythology of the Eternals and their place within the larger Marvel Universe probably helps, but a lot of audiences may be left scratching their heads while watching this movie.  There is no doubt that Eternals is a gamble for Marvel, and thus far it’s been a bumpy road for them.  Critics have not been kind to the movie, making Eternals the first ever rotten scored MCU film on Rotten Tomatoes.  It will be interesting to see how that will translate into the audience response.  One of the things that people have pointed out so far is that Eternals is a very different Marvel movie, both in style and narrative.  For some, this is a detriment, because it makes the story uneven and un-moored, but for someone like me, it’s the exact kind of thing I was hoping for with Eternals.  After watching two back to back formulaic entries from Marvel that left me a bit underwhelmed (this summer’s Black Widow and Shang-Chi), I was happy to see a Marvel movie break formula and try something different, even if it is a little messy.  I found myself on the whole actually enjoying Eternals for the most part, and that’s largely due to the fact that it wasn’t going out of it’s way to hit all the right notes, and instead try to be it’s own thing.  At the same time, it’s not too much of a departure for Marvel.  It still felt like it was a part of the MCU, and even had some of the familiar tone as well.  But, what Chloe Zhao managed to do was take the already pre-established Marvel universe aesthetic and tell a whole different kind of story within it.  What I believe drew Chloe Zhao to this movie was the idea of telling a story on both a cosmic and intimate scale all at once.  This movie delves deeper into the mythology of the Marvel Universe than anything we’ve seen before; literally showing us the Gods pulling the strings of the cosmos and establishing the Universe’s creation story within that.  At the same time, it’s also a personal tale about a family of immortal beings, and the focus of the movie is less on the action taking place and more of the internal struggle that the characters are going through.

For a lot of people, these two forces at play in the narrative may not gel together, and I would be lying if I said there was nothing with the movie.  It does feel at times that Zhao is striving a little too hard to reach for a deeper meaning within her story, while at the same time still delivering on the promised expectations of the MCU.  For some people, the disappointment may come from there not being a lot of substance behind the trippier Jack Kirby elements within the movie.  I honestly get the frustration people might feel with this movie, and there were many things that I wish Chloe had devoted more time to.  One of the biggest letdowns are the Deviants.  Conceptually and realized within the movie, these characters are about as bland of a antagonistic force as they come.  Even in the grand scheme of the movie they really don’t serve much of purpose other than being an obstacle for the characters, so why bother including them at all, as well as build them up to be this threatening element within the story.  Another complaint levied at the film is that it is too long, running 157 minutes, making it one of the longest in the whole MCU (only Infinity War and Endgame run longer) and yes, I can attest that you do feel the length of this movie much more than some of the better paced MCU films.  But, at the same the slower moments in Eternals were among my favorite.  I really appreciated that Chloe Zhao devotes a lot more time towards building an atmosphere in her movie and also allowing her characters to talk things through rather than having the movie jump quickly from plot point to plot point.  While many Marvel movies have managed to get away with that formulaic method in the past, it was really starting to feel forced thus far into Phase Four.  My favorite post Endgame stuff from the MCU so far has been the limited series on Disney+, because those too have broken out of formula.  While Eternals is a little choppier in it’s success at breaking formula compared to the Disney+ shows, I am nevertheless happy that it’s trying.  And the fact that it’s doing it’s hardest to expand the universe itself is also another enriching part of the movie experience that I had.  Eternals shows us that we really have only seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the story possibilities of the MCU.

Of all the things that I believe works best in Eternals, it would be the characters themselves.  I really appreciate that most of the runtime of this movie is devoted to character development.  For the most part, the movie is really about a family coming back together and re-discovering the love that they had all left behind once they parted ways.  More so than any other Marvel movie, this is an ensemble, with no character really taking the lead and all of them instead getting a fair amount to shine individually.  The movie also jumps back and forth through time, showing us how these Eternals have managed to live among the humans for centuries.  I really love the fact that they never hid themselves, and instead became the inspiration for legends that have been passed down through various different cultures, all culminating to where they are today.  Angelina Jolie’s Thena for example became the basis for the concept of the Greek goddess of war Athena for example.  It’s a smart way of showing these characters through their humanity rather than their purpose through the story.  The plot is less motivated by the ticking time clock of the Emergence and more by the internal conflicts brought to the surface as the characters come back together.  For all the different Eternals, each actor feels appropriately cast, and I’m surprised how the lesser known actors carry just as much weight within the story as the better known ones.  Angelina Jolie and Selma Hayek both shine in their respective roles, with Hayek’s Ajak displaying graceful maternal authority and Jolie’s Thena showing both inspiring strength as well as tragic vulnerability.  Kumail Nanjiani and Brian Tyree Henry also bring a welcome comical side to the movie, but in different enough ways that help to distinguish themselves from each other.  One particular scene stealer is Barry Keoghan as Druig, a character with a shadowy disposition that could have been portrayed in a more heavy-handed sort of way, but instead he hits just the right tone.  Richard Madden, Lia McHugh, Don Lee and Lauren Ridloff all do well in their roles as well.  And while her performance is still fine, I feel like the weakest link in the cast is Sersei.  She is there to be the audience surrogate as the POV character, and that unfortunately makes her feel like too much of a blank slate with not much substance.  Still, the movie succeeds the most at making us care for the characters at the heart of the story, and that for the most part helps to make it an exceptionally moving story.

While the movie succeeds at capturing the intimate side of the characters story very well, it also does an amazing job of capturing the scope and scale of the cosmic side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  For a director of Chloe Zhao’s pedigree, she actually proves to be very adept at making a movie of this scale.  We know that she has the ability to make a beautifully shot movie, as the Oscar-winning Nomadland showed us.  But, it’s stunning to see that same style done on a massive Marvel-sized budget.  One thing that she brings to the Marvel universe that feels especially fresh is the use of natural lighting.  If there has been one complaint common throughout the MCU movies, it’s that there is a lack of diversity in the way they look, and that’s largely because they are all made the same way; with a lot of green screen and digital matteing.  A lot of the Marvel movies take their final form in post-production, and because of that assembly line approach, they more or less have that same look to them.  Eternals feels refreshingly different, with a lot more of the movie having been shot on real locations and with natural lighting.  Chloe Zhao especially likes her “golden hour” lighting, which at times gives the movie a very Terrence Malick like feel, which I am sure is intentional.  The film, surprisingly, was shot by cinematographer Ben Davis who has worked on a number of Marvel movies already, including Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), Doctor Strange (2016), and Captain Marvel (2019).  This movie marks a departure for him too as a result, and it’s pleasing to see him branch out and rise to the challenge of meeting Chloe Zhao’s vision.  And while the movie does make the most out of it’s use of the natural world, including some truly epic moments captured at the Canary Islands, it also doesn’t disappoint with the more insane visual effects moments.  In particular, whenever the Celestials show up, it is awe-inspiring.  Arishem, the Prime Celestial that we see the most in this movie, is portrayed with a sense of overwhelming colossal scale unlike anything we have seen in the MCU before.  Whenever he appeared on screen, the film fills out to the full IMAX image, making his presence really feel biblical and overwhelming.  It really makes someone like me excited to see what Marvel has planned next if we are headed in this direction with the MCU.  Overall, this may be probably the most visually captivating Marvel movie we have seen yet, and it will hopefully set a new high bar for the franchise to follow in the next several phases.

Granted, this movie will not be to everyone’s taste.  I totally understand the mixed reception that people are getting from this movie so far, and they are not wrong to have those reservations.  For me, however, there was enough there in this movie to make me feel like I had a good time watching it.  The sense of scale is awe-inspiring, and it really shows that Chloe Zhao can deliver a movie on any scale and budget while still retaining her unique voice.  I also really liked the characters we are introduced to here, and I’m excited to see where the characters go as they become more involved in the overall narrative of the MCU.  I also think that this movie succeeds as a love letter to the work of Jack Kirby.  Here, we are seeing his mad imagination brought to full life, with both the Eternals and Celestials hinting at a more expansive universe yet to explore in the years ahead.  The movie also is one that takes risks, and that is something that I refreshingly want to see happen more in the MCU.  I know that the Marvel formula has worked effectively well for them and built them into a cinematic force that is unrivaled right now, but the longer it goes on unchanged, the more we are going to get bored of it.  I’m grateful that a movie like Eternals has come along that slows things down and tries to be a bit more serious while at the same time a little weirder than the average comic book movie.  It’s also a movie that prides itself on it’s diversity; showing us a cast of characters that display cultural identities from across the globe, while also covering different sexualities, disabilities, and age limitations as a part of their characters as well.  There is so much breaking of new ground with this movie that I hope continues into the future with more Eternals films as well as with all the future Marvel films.  Now, is it the best movie Marvel has made?  Of course not.  It has it’s flaws, but none of those overwhelmed my overall good experience watching this movie.  It is certainly far better than Marvel at their worst (Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World) and of the three Marvel movies I have seen thus far this year, it was definitely the best of that bunch.  I actually think this might be a movie that will alienate some people initially, but will get reassessed years later and be viewed as a very pivotal movie in the history of the MCU.  As imperfect as it is, it’s still got enough to warrant a viewing, and on the largest screen possible.  I always respect a major studio taking risks, even if it doesn’t always work out for them, and seeing something that challenged me rather than just delivering the essentials is a cinematic act worth being eternally grateful for.

Rating: 8/10