Synopsis – The saga of the Eternals, a race of immortal beings who lived on Earth and shaped its history and civilizations.
My Take – Acting as the 26th feature entry of the ever growing Marvel Cinematic Universe, right from its first look, this latest installment felt vastly different. Based on comics created by the legend Jack Kirby in 1974, these characters like other Marvel heroes/heroines never earned wide spread recognizability on pages despite various relaunch attempts, however a dedicated cult following over the years somehow guaranteed that they became a part of the overarching narrative of Phase 4.
However, other than their large stable of unique characters, the distinct look of the feature comes courtesy of director Chloé Zhao, the most recent Best Director winner (for Nomadland), who especially brings her prestige and critical credentials to this visual affair.
With the film meant to expand the frontiers of the MCU, providing hints about what its future may hold, here, director Zhao is given the ambitious opportunity to break from the well-established Marvel formula to tell a more sweeping and mature story, the sort of stories she is known for, and reveal new events in the MCU that no one knew took place over thousands of years.
And while it still contains familiar issues like a bland villain, the film is without a doubt a still an MCU film at its heart, as massively conceived as they come, and unquestionably director Zhao’s version of one.
It sure is a complicated task, to juggle multiple zigzags through time, a huge diverse cast and one of the densest premises in Marvel Comics history, at the same time, nevertheless, director Zhao manages to do that quite well, delving in spectacle, but never losing sight of the characters. In simpler words, despite a few issues like pacing and massive info dump, as far as the Marvel success ratio goes, it’s still pretty much business as usual, just with a few interesting new elements this time round.
The story follows the Eternals, ten immortal beings, namely Ajak (Salma Hayek), Sersi (Gemma Chan), Ikaris (Richard Madden), Thena (Angelina Jolie), Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), Sprite (Lia McHugh), Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), Druig (Barry Keoghan) and Gilgamesh (Ma Dong-seok aka Don Lee), who were sent by by the Celestial Arishem, centuries ago, to use their unique power set, to defend Earth from the monstrous Deviants.
Throughout history, the Eternals have been helping humanity by exterminating the Deviants and slowly providing technological advancement, but always sticking to their mandate, to never interfere in any Earthly conflicts that don’t involve the Deviants. And when the Deviants were finally wiped out, the group separated, awaiting Arishem to return with new instructions.
Five hundred years later, in the present day, Sersi and Sprite live together in London, having mysterious left by her partner Ikarus years ago, Sersi is now in a relationship with a human, Dane Whitman (Kit Harington), is contemplating to take their relationship to the next level.
However, her perfect life is shattered when the trio are surprisingly attacked by a Deviant named Kro (Bill Skarsgård), who seems strong enough to kill an Eternal. With Ikaris arriving just in time to help them, the arrival of a new Deviant also means that it’s time for the group to reunite and understand what lead to this sudden reemergence.
To go into any more plot details would risk entering spoiler territory as even though MCU fans have never met these characters, there are still some major surprises in store across the film’s epic 157-minute runtime, as director Zhao takes us back-and-forth across the history of the Eternals to both fill in their past and set up their future, meaning that even though it’s long, there’s a lot going on at any one time.
Director Zhao’s trademark realism and documentary approach is also gone, substituted by stiff fantasy exposition and blockbuster conventions. Playing on such a colossal stage, it’s inevitably challenging to keep the focus at an individual level and director Zhao takes her time introducing everyone properly, devoting much of the runtime to getting the team of ten back together, after centuries apart.
These heroes discuss their own backstories early and often, from a failed romantic relationship between two characters that lasted 5,000 years, to a medical condition that might require a memory-wiping procedure.
But with a story zipping around the globe and sporting a handful of languages, including sign, courtesy of the first deaf MCU character, speedster Makkari, there are still plenty of narrative vectors to keep things pacey alongside the usual action sequences and team-dynamic humor. It’s also arguably the MCU‘s most mature and character-driven film to date. It has themes of sacrifice, unconditional love, and teamwork, but also far more romance than usual.
Yes, the non-linear storytelling can be confusing as we’re whisked back and forth in time, across constantly changing international settings. One minute the Eternals are with humans in the Stone Age, the next they’re back in the present day, then we flash back to an event 2,000 years in the past, then forward again. It might be a natural journey for the characters, but I felt whiplash.
It might have helped if the characters wore outfits that reflected the society they were visiting, instead of sticking to superhero suits in the past and casual jackets and jeans in the present.
Director Zhao‘s visual style is also evident in the special-effects work, which is beautiful and detailed, whether it’s the way the tentacles of the Deviants snap and curl or whether its Athena’s glowing weaponry or the rings of light that give Gilgamesh his power-punch, the effect are quite pleasing. She also ensures the landscapes, look otherworldly.
The performances are also on point. Gemma Chan gets a part worthy of her talents (after being wasted as Minn-Erva in 2019’s Captain Marvel), though her chemistry with a mostly stiff Richard Madden is never convincing, Sersi is the heart and soul of the film. Kumail Nanjiani is an excellent comic relief, while Don Lee and Angelina Jolie prove to be the story’s most affecting duo. Lauren Ridloff and Barry Keoghan are hardly effected by a shorter screen time, and manage to be standouts.
Salma Hayek is efficient, while Brian Tyree Henry and Lia McHugh bring in sincere turns. Harish Patel often steals the show as Kingo’s valet Karun, who is effortlessly funny, yet also adds some much-needed poignancy to the film’s more emotionally urgent moments. Kit Harington is charming as always in a small role, while Bill Skarsgård is wasted. On the whole, ‘Eternals’ is a unique elongated Marvel entry that is both lavish and ambitious.
Directed – Chloé Zhao
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 157 minutes