Eternals might be the first Marvel Studios movie that doesn’t benefit from being a Marvel Studios movie. After over a decade of interconnected films, the company has carefully crafted audience expectations. To us, a Marvel movie has a certain undeniable energy; a blend of action, humour, and heart that’s aimed to please everyone from ages eight to 80. Eternals has some of that, of course, but in the hands of recent Oscar-winning filmmaker Chloé Zhao, it also aspires to be more, and being beholden to the rules of Marvel holds it back.
Zhao, who won the Best Director Oscar earlier this year for Nomadland, also co-wrote Eternals along with Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo, and Kaz Firpo. The basic story is that at the beginning of time, God-like creatures named Celestials created immortal beings called Eternals whose job was to protect the universe from another set of beings called Deviants. The film picks up when the Eternals first arrived on Earth 7,000 years ago, and follows them through history, culminating in a cataclysmic event happening in present day. That sounds like a lot of story, and it is, especially when you realise the film also has to follow 10 of these Eternals in addition to side characters.
The plot is designed to fit all of that in though, and at least at the beginning, it works. Things start, and for the most part stick, with Sersi, played by Gemma Chan. Chan previously appeared in a small role in Captain Marvel, but here she shows humanity and charisma that prove she’s much better suited for the foreground. When she’s reunited with her long-lost love Ikaris (Game of Thrones’ Richard Madden, not to be confused with Sersi’s present-day love, Dane, played by Game of Thrones’ Kit Harrington), the two realise the Deviants they thought they’d exterminated on Earth centuries ago are back. And so the two, along with Sprite (The Lodge’s Lia McHugh), traverse the globe putting the Eternals back together to battle the returning threat.
In its “getting the gang back together” scenes, Eternals feels like the Marvel movie it aspires to be. These 10 immortal beings are a family, after all — they just happen to have known each other for millennia. Over that massive span of time, deep-seated, complex relationships have developed; the film is eager to explore them, but only has a short time to do so. We learn about Sersi and Ikaris’s romance, for one. Ajax (Salma Hayek), the leader of the group, has gone off to a farm in South Dakota. Druig (Dunkirk’s Barry Keoghan) long ago grew apart from the ideals of his fellow Eternals. Thena (Angelina Jolie) has developed an affliction that requires her to be watched over by Gilgamesh (Train to Busan’s Don Lee). Kingo (Silicon Valley’s Kumail Nanjiani) has become a generational Bollywood movie star. Phastos (Atlanta’s Brian Tyree Henry) detached from the group after a tragic realisation. Sprite faces unreturned love. And Makkari (The Walking Dead’s Lauren Ridloff) is just ready to leave Earth.
Of course, since this is a superhero movie, all of the Eternals have a different superpower — some of which are cooler and more helpful than others — but seeing all of them interact, reunite, and reminisce is when Eternals is at its best. The characters are well-defined and each actor does a fine job distinguishing themselves, while also having that spark of knowledge that they’re in a Marvel movie. Because a diverse group of actors was cast, it also makes them feel like true, worthy representatives of the world and the script allows each character to have distinct, dense points of view. We hear conversations about family, religion, war, technology, evolution, and more, resulting in a cornucopia of interesting ideas for the audience to chew upon.
Watching all that unfold, there’s a strong sense those ideas are what Zhao wanted to explore with this film. What does it mean to have existed on Earth and witnessed the entirety of history? How would all of these diverse points of view digest that? It’s a fascinating conceit and one that, if Eternals didn’t have to become a Marvel movie, really might have been interesting — but they have to take time to address why they didn’t fight Thanos and they have to mention the Avengers. So as Eternals goes from a generational exploration of time and space to a zip, pow, wham Marvel movie, all of those ideas and possibilities get pushed into the background. Once we learn why the Deviants are back, the Eternals are forced into action, and though there are a few solid twists and turns in the final act, the movie more or less devolves into superheroes in suits shooting stuff in order to save the world.
That’s all fine and dandy but Eternals was crafted as, and looks more like, a story interested in exploring the flaws of humanity rather than who would win in the big-budget special effects fight. So every time those VFX sequences kick in, they feel somehow less than ones we’ve previously seen in the MCU. The characters have been doing this for so long, and audiences have been watching characters like them do these things for so long, very little in these portions feels new or unique. Heck, even the villains look familiar (though not from Marvel, more like the Wheelers from Return to Oz and even Steppenwolf from Justice League). None of these things are treated as afterthoughts in the plot, they’re just not as rousing or exciting as one would expect them to be because it’s a Marvel movie first, Chloé Zhao movie second.
Eternals is most entertaining and exciting when the heroes are in different time periods, interacting with different cultures and environments. Zhao and her cinematographer Ben Davis shoot the hell out of every lush landscape, from expansive deserts to deep jungles to snow-covered mountains. Plus, the editing, which bounces from the present to different points in history, gives Eternals a decent momentum despite its near three-hour run time.
It’s just that by the end of the journey, all of the characters, all of the history, all of the ideas and exposition only make up some of the film. On top of all that, it has to fit into the Marvel Cinematic Universe and be an exciting action movie. Eternals feels like a balloon that tried to hold it all together but was filled to bursting; it’s too much — and not enough. The result is a very ambitious, very well made, kind of flat, and unfortunately forgettable film. And with the level of talent that made it, that’s a big letdown. But hey, at least the ending and end credit scenes are cool.
Eternals opens in theatres in Australia on November 4.