Is This Even a Marvel Movie?
DIRECTOR: Chloé Zhao/2021
By now, you know the deal with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Good guys discover their powers, fight bad guys, and deal with their daddy issues. Jokes are made, romances are hinted at, and we stick around for a post-credits scene to tease our next adventure. The cast is full of superstars (or makes new ones), the bad guys are (usually) underdeveloped, and the fights are CGI spectacles (sometimes to a fault). We’ve been doing this for 13 years and have got it down pat—and then Eternals comes along.
In an opening scroll, we get a rundown of what happened “in the beginning,” and we learn so much about the complicated relationships of these obscure characters we almost forget the Biblical reference the text is making. This team—with mythologically-inspired names like Gilgamesh, Thena, and Ikaris—holds a diverse collection of super powers, including (but not limited to) mind control, healing, transforming matter, flight, laser vision, super strength, and super speed. They are immortals created to fight creatures called Deviants at the behest of the gods called Celestials. (Kurt Russell appeared as a Celestial in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, though his character does not get a mention.) The Eternals intervene at key moments in history (including in ancient Mesopotamia and at the Hanging Gardens of Babylon) and in 1521 at the fall of the Aztec Empire, it appears all Deviants have been destroyed. But when one appears in London in the present day, the team must reunite to defeat them.
Pretty much anyone who wasn’t busy with Dune or The French Dispatch is part of this team. Salma Hayek leads the crew, and Angelina Jolie is the goddess of war. Brian Tyree Henry and Kumail Nanjiani make jokes, and Gemma Chan is caught in a love triangle with Kit Harington and Richard Madden. Add Barry Keoghan, Don Lee, relative newcomer Lia McHugh, and Lauren Ridloff, and then you’ve got the whole team. When preparing to fight, they stand in V-shapes in shiny costumes looking cool; between battles, they cozy up in flannels and turtlenecks as they wade through a millennia-long soap opera.
Eternals is constructed with many of the same elements as the MCU films (and now TV shows) before it. While this isn’t a traditional superhero origin story—these heroes have always known how to use their gifts—we do flash back to learn how they came to the present day. They’re dedicated to protecting humans from alien monsters, they are working through their issues as a found family, and you’ve probably already heard about the soon-to-be-superhero in the post-credits scene. But even with all that, Eternals doesn’t feel like just another chapter in this almost 30-film series.
Eternals feels more like what the messy Justice League aspired to be, even referencing Superman by name. (Don’t @ me—I’ve never found a reason watch the four-hour Snyder Cut, so maybe those DC superheroes did achieve their vision on HBO Max.) This script is filled with mythological references, and while all of our MCU heroes feel the burden of their powers, the Eternals are tortured by them. An even better comparison would be the second half of the 2008 Will Smith-starring Hancock, which was advertised as a drunk superhero action spoof and turned out to be musings on the loneliness of exceptionalism and a tragic love story, both of which are features of Eternals. Yes, there are action movie motifs like explosions and globetrotting from London to Mumbai to Iraq to the Amazon to South Dakota, but this hero’s journey takes a somber tone. We don’t get any cameos from familiar MCU faces, and there are few laughs for the last 45 minutes.
Testing new directions for superhero stories in 2021 is not a bad idea—goodness knows sameness could be the MCU’s fatal flaw. Reigning Best Director Chloé Zhao is not a conventional author of this kind of story, but her stamp is clear here. Visually this is the most beautiful Marvel movie yet, and its color palette and sunlight-focused aesthetic feels kindred to her Best Picture winning/Best Cinematography-nominated Nomadland. And since the interpersonal conflict and heroic archetypes feel just as important as the action (and certainly more important than the humor), Eternals is also the closest to a traditional character drama this franchise has ever had, though juggling so many personalities means little development for most of them. They are chewing on crunchy philosophical ideas like purpose, free will, loyalty to a belief system, and fatalism. Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, and Captain Marvel have all touched on colonialism and reframing history through another lens, but none have done it in the context of real world history.
While I admire the ambition to expand this universe into new territory, I’m not sure how audiences will receive its bleak outlook. Its humanist take on history is clear, but I can’t parse its theology because when you’re playing with very fictional, very lower-case-g gods, the real world ramifications become confusing. (Mild spoiler alert: And are we to believe Deviants are misunderstood victims? This is a morally messy idea brought up and then abandoned with no resolution.) Endgame, Loki, WandaVision, Shang-Chi, and the upcoming Spider-man: No Way Home deal with the multiverse. Black Widow and Falcon and the Winter Soldier both feature a cameo appearance by a high-heeled woman hinting at a new kind of team-up. Eternals doesn’t extend either of those threads but begins new strands we likely won’t see knotted up for years, and its story steers toward so much gravitas I’m not sure how the heck they’ll ever find room for the charisma king Harry Styles.
Like Wonder Woman 1984, Eternals is exciting for most of the ride, but upon reflection, I’m not sure how it all fits together. Perhaps it’s because of the mood I was in when I entered the theater, but I’m not sure this Greek tragedy-style film is meant to leave you feeling good. Perhaps for the first time in MCU history, this movie needs the star power of people like Jolie and Nanjiani more than they need this movie. (Heaven help me, please don’t waste the fire cracker casting of Harry Styles—goodness knows that could be another fatal flaw for the MCU.) Perhaps in a few years we’ll look back and understand how these 157 minutes of beautiful photography with a winning cast fit into the umpteen hours of the MCU, but like the Eternals, we’ll have to wait some time for answers.