Marvel’s recent output has been mixed, and who knows if their Disney+ shows are even penetrating the consciousness of casual filmgoers who don’t want another streamer adding to their monthly expenses. Eternals arrives with a familiar business model, in the sense Chloé Zhao (Nomadland) has been plucked from the indie world to mastermind another $200M movie where her vision will either flourish or wilt under the constraints of what the 26th movie in an interconnected universe needs to achieve.
It seems that Zhao was given more creative control than is typical with Marvel, even being allowed to rewrite the original screenplay by Ryan and Kaz Firpo — with contributions from Patrick Burleigh. The Firpo brothers are themselves up-and-coming writers and documentarians, with a number of other scripts in development, so the creative bedrock of Eternals is nicely skewed towards finding fresh talent and developing new voices.
Eternals adapts a 19-issue Jack Kirby comic-book series that even Marvel stans either haven’t heard of, or don’t like. Essentially, immortal beings (‘Eternals’) created by galaxy-creating “gods” known as Celestials, have been sent to live on Earth for thousands of years —sworn to protect mankind from monstrous Deviant creatures, but never interfere in the course of civilisation. (One wonders why one of them has the ability to control people’s minds, if that’s the case, but never mind!) Having successfully exterminated all the nasty Deviants, during which time they’ve become the basis for many ancient myths, the Eternals go their separate ways to live amongst ordinary people — turning a blind eye to wars and tragedies which are the byproduct of human affairs. (In other words, that’s the tenuous reason these benevolent gods didn’t lift a finger to stop Thanos erase half the universe’s population in Avengers: Infinity War.)
The Eternals are comprised of their maternal leader Ajak (Salma Hayek), who has the ability to heal herself and psychically contact her group’s Celestial controller Arishem (David Kaye); empathetic Sersi (Gemma Chan), who can transform matter into different states with her touch; handsome Ikaris (Richard Madden), who’s essentially the MCU’s Superman and was in a relationship with Sersi for millennia; wise-cracking Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), who can shoot energy bolts from his hands; master illusionist Sprite (Lia McHugh), whose cursed with appearing to be a child and thus struggles to form adult relationships; genius engineer Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), who can manipulate energy; aloof Druig (Barry Keoghan), who can control people’s minds; super-fast Makkari (Lauren Ridloff); super-strong Gilgamesh (Don Lee); and athletic warrior Thena (Angelina Jolie), who can create a multitude of weapons using cosmic energy.
It’s certainly a huge challenge to introduce 10 new superheroes, whose individual backstories span aeons, and whose group origins dig deeper into the cosmic side of Marvel only touched on during Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) and Captain Marvel (2019). For the most part, Eternals does an effective job in explaining the setup using flashbacks, then deploying that trick sparingly as the story focuses on their present-day concerns. It certainly helps that we’re now accustomed to movies with multiple super-beings, and the cast assembled are fun to watch and learn more about. Eternals also isn’t doing anything too extraordinary or unique for the genre, when you boil things down to its basics, so seeing Sersi and Ikaris essentially travel the globe to recruit their old friends and stop a resurgence of Deviants (who appear to be evolving) is a simple enough adventure on which to hang some CGI set-pieces and mix in luscious flashbacks.
One thing that’s notable with Eternals is that Chloé Zhao convinced Marvel to let her shoot as much of the film on location as possible, and it’s frankly a shame we have to praise a director for making a blockbuster where actors are present on real city streets, clifftops, forests, deserts, and beaches. It sounds easier to do it for real instead of use VFX to fake it, but logistically and pragmatically it’s become more difficult than relying on greenscreen on a sound stage. The aesthetic of MCU films therefore always feel slightly untethered from reality, which admittedly passes my notice more often as the technology improves, but in Eternals you can sense people are in real places, breathing actual fresh air, with genuine sunlight on their faces. It gives it a feeling of naturalism and tactility. And while almost every MCU film seems to cost $200M nowadays, Eternals one feels like you’re getting to experience that sort of mega-budget because, as with a James Bond movie, you intuit the expensiveness of going somewhere to film a perfect sunrise at the optimal time. I can only hope this starts a trend for the MCU, where movies do still have a tendency to look like a video game.
It’s also the most diverse MCU movie ever, with a cast of actors from many different ethnic background and countries (even Ireland and Scotland, ahem). But, even better, it never feels like the film is hitting you over the head with how inclusive it’s being, as the characters are all “alien” so their apparent heritage is there without being referenced too overtly. The only exception is Kingo, who creates a life for himself as a Bollywood superstar in India, but that’s not a negative for the film, and I wholeheartedly enjoyed how the Eternals reflect the range of people across the planet they were sent to protect. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021) was more overtly intended to appeal to Chinese audiences with its Asian characters, but I much preferred the subtler approach of Eternals. There’s even a sex scene (pass the smelling salts), an unequivocally gay character (kissing no less), and a genuinely deaf actress is playing Makkari.
Even people who dislike Eternals will note such positives, so I’m surprised my reaction to everything else was also mostly upbeat. It’s not doing anything vastly different to other MCU offerings, but there are less cynical zingers in the dialogue and the comedy comes out a touch more naturally—except, perhaps, for a running joke where Kingo’s assistant Karun (Harish Patel) is forever hovering around on the edge of scenes with a camera to get footage for a documentary. This does mean Eternals feels less like an MCU movie than usual, and perhaps skews a little closer to a DC one, but in a good way. It still has the fun and imagination one expects from Marvel Studios, only without the dourness and violence most DC adaptations lean into.
There are references and connections to wider MCU concerns (which can feel a little shoehorned in by committee), but for the most part this is another welcome standalone adventure. And while it may not be the perfect “jumping on” point for newcomers, you could watch this in total isolation and get something out of it. The events are even kept separate from humanity, except for Sersi’s boyfriend Dane (Kit Harington), so nothing here beyond a global earthquake truly impacts the other MCU characters hereon in. You’ll either appreciate that, or not, but if not there’s Spider-Man: No Way Home just around the corner that seems to be entirely built around other MCU characters and even non-MCU nostalgia.
Another benefit of Eternals is how the lack of knowledge about these characters means it’s able to surprise you easier. There are a number of developments and betrayals I certainly didn’t expect, often because the most obvious rotten apple proves to be a red herring. I was surprised by how much shifts in terms of the alliances and people’s morality. Eternals felt like half tits rutime was intended to make you care for this “super family” (even if you don’t have time to connect to everyone as individuals) before they have an almost literal divorce. One character even “takes the kid”, you might say!
It would be a shame not to mention the more superficial joy of seeing Angelina Jolie work on something people may actually go see. She’s probably at that age where she needs to impress her teenage kids, and she totally belies her 46 years in the role of Thena. Jolie’s always looked otherworldly because of her extraordinary beauty, so she perfectly fits roles where she’s playing women that aren’t from this planet. Gemma Chan is also likeable as the more “human” of the Eternals, living a quiet life in London after splitting from Ikaris, and comedian Kumail Nanjiana’s amazing body transformation finally gets revealed after what’s been years of social media peeks. Kit Harington (Game of Thrones) is seemingly dealt a bad hand as a down-to-earth “boyfriend” character, but he plays the limitations well, and clearly signed on because of where role could take him in the sequels…
Overall, Eternals isn’t likely to be anyone’s favourite MCU movie, and it suffers from perhaps having too much to explain and introduce, but it’s entertaining and offers a lot of new information and likeable characters. It broadens the universe further than any other MCU film since Guardians of the Galaxy first took us off-world. I also appreciated the lack of a conventional supervillain, and the fact it takes seriously big swings and makes this universe even stranger and weirder than we knew going in.
UK • USA | 2021 | 157 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Cast & Crew
director: Chloé Zhao.
writers: Chloé Zhao, Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo & Kaz Firpo (story by Ryan Firpo & Kaz Firpo; based on ‘Eternals’ by Jack Kirby).
starring: Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek, Kit Harington, Kumail Nanjiani, Lia McHugh, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Ridloff, Barry Keoghan, Don Lee & Harish Patel.