Director: Chloé Zhao
Starring: Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Kumail Nunjiani, Lia McHugh, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Ridloff, Barry Keoghan, Don Lee, Harish Patel, Kit Harington, Salma Hayek, Angelina Jolie
Run Time: 157 mins
Eternals is the third entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe this year and the twenty sixth in the overall canon. It is a particularly interesting entry in that it is the first film to depict these C-level superheroes on screen and secondly, that it is directed by Chloe Zhao, her follow-up effort to her Best Picture and Best Director win for Nomadland earlier this year. The Eternals are a group of ten immortal humanoids who are sent to Earth in 5000 BC to supervise and allow humans to develop, whilst protecting them from Deviants, depicted as vicious reptilian aliens. The Eternals consist of Ajak (Salma Hayek), the leader of the group who has the ability to heal, Ikaris (Richard Madden) who can project cosmic rays from his eyes in the vein of Superman (who Zhao makes reference to at one point in the film) and Sersi (Captain Marvel’s Gemma Chan) who is the empathetic member of the group who is the audience’s eye into the world. Other prominent Eternals include Sprite (Lia McHugh), who can project realistic illusions, Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), who is technologically minded, Druig (Barry Keoghan), who can manipulate the minds of others and Thena (Angelina Jolie), who can form any weapon through cosmic energy but struggles with a psychological condition where she has forgetful episodes and attacks her teammates.
The Eternals defeat the last of the Deviants in 1521 and then go their separate ways as they await to be recalled by the Celestial Arishem. In the present day (conveniently to allow the film to catch up to the events following Avengers: Endgame), the Deviants surprisingly return, forcing the Eternals to regroup. Despite the seemingly unwieldy narrative, Zhao has an unenviable task of establishing this comic lore and large roster of characters, whilst making audiences care for them in the space of a feature-length film.
Eternals represents a refreshing change of pace for the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Zhao lends an intimate and delicate hand to the material. The complex cosmic narrative is well-handled and each of the Eternals is well introduced and possess identifiable character traits. The relationship between them all is admirably tackled, which is no mean feat as there is always a high risk of sidelining characters, especially when you have ten personalities to juggle.
What allows Eternals to succeed (and perhaps why the film has received a decidedly mixed critical reception) is that it distances itself away from the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe formula and tone. This is a key problem with many entries, which silences the director’s vision and some of the films fall into the trap as feeling they are directed by committee. Other than some moments of light humour which are characteristic of most entries, Eternals boasts a heavier weight in that it asks some difficult questions of its characters and portrays them as god-like, reminiscent of Zack Snyder’s treatment in his DCEU entries Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and the director’s cut of Justice League. The film’s at its best in its quieter moments when characters weigh up some tough decisions, for example Druig is uncomfortable watching conflict between humans and finds it hard to resist using his powers to break fights up. Thena is a particularly touching character in that she has episodes where she forgets who and where she is and the interplay between her and the team trying to coax her out of an episode is authentic, invoking that superheroes can also face human problems.
Of the performances, Gemma Chan makes for a sympathetic but slightly shallow lead. Richard Madden gives a measured performance as Ikaris and his character arc has quite a lot of meat to the bone. Salma Hayek makes for a formidable team leader and Angelina Jolie shows range in her complex role. Barry Keoghan’s performance is typically mystical and his fellow teammates can never be quite sure if they are on the same wavelength as him. Kumail Nunjiani is clearly having fun as the wisecracking Kingo, an Eternal who can project cosmic energy projectiles from his hands and becomes a Bollywood star to blend in on Earth in the present day. The underrated Harish Patel has some fitting comedic moments as his valet, Karun.
Eternals has quite a lengthy run time of 157 minutes but it earns the right to take its time through the sheer amount of material it has to get through and the film is never boring. It is well-shot by Ben Davis (this is the first time Zhao has not reteamed with partner Joshua James Richards as her cinematographer) and it’s refreshing to see the camera linger a little longer than necessary generally to give the film a more intimate feel. There are some stunning vistas that are beautifully captured, such as in the Canary Islands which act as the location for the climactic action sequence and the various Western and Aztec landscapes.
Zhao is a little out of her depth with the action sequences, which are infrequent as this is more of a character piece. On the one hand, it is always a plus that the film isn’t very reliant on green screen, Zhao preferring to stick to practical effects and shots. However, they’re uninvolving at times and lack a sense of pace. Zhao can be commended though for not falling into the trap of an overlong final action sequence that is a CGI-fest. Whilst there is a climactic action sequence, it serves the narrative well and doesn’t outstay its welcome.
Ultimately, Eternals represents a refreshing change of pace for the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the result is reassuring in what a director-driven vision can achieve. Many superhero films that are have a distinctive director at the helm dilute their authorship and it is always a grappling act of what decisions are the directors and what are mandated by the studio. It’s a shame that Eternals hasn’t received the typically positive reception that Marvel efforts have garnered to date, as it takes some bold risks. If audiences want Marvel films to diversify and not to follow a tiring formula, then more films like Eternals need to exist and it is to be commended for this.