Chloé Zhao’s much-anticipated Eternals is star-studded, action-packed and most importantly—a breath of fresh air for the MCU.
Eternals, Marvel’s latest cinematic outing written and directed by Academy Award-winner Chloé Zhao, is a welcome breath of fresh air for the MCU. Featuring a huge ensemble cast (which boasts Angelina Jolie, Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Barry Keoghan, Kumail Nanjiani, and Lauren Ridloff) Eternals follows the titular ancient beings who were sent to earth 7,000 years ago to protect it from the deviants—a race of beasts hell-bent on destroying the population.
The timeline of Eternals jumps around as we follow the group over the whole course of human history through a non-linear narrative that weaves present-day events, with the historical events the Eternals witnessed. This helps keep the narrative engaging and it is a great way to deliver 7,000 years worth of development and exposition throughout the film. Across those 7,000 years, we see the Eternals finally defeat the last deviants, meaning they no longer have to stay together and can live lives of their own. However, in the present day, Gemma Chan’s Sersi, Lia McHugh’s Sprite, and Richard Madden’s Ikaris have an encounter with a deviant leading them to assemble the Eternals once again.
Eternals is a refreshing take on the MCU. Perhaps more than other entries, this feels like a director-driven film, as opposed to a studio-driven film for Marvel, though not entirely. Marvel has often been criticised for having a formula to which they stick a little too faithfully, but if there is one thing you can say about Eternals, it’s that it’s certainly something different. And for those who have been becoming a little bored with this blueprint, Eternals provides something refreshing and new. It deals excellently with the morality of the Eternals not being allowed to intervene with human affairs.
Zhao is known for her films that focus on everyday humanity in marginalised peoples and in that way, Eternals is very much hers—focussing on the emotions of these characters in a way most unlike other superhero films. The main characters are fleshed out well and their decisions feel natural. It isn’t all good, unfortunately. The film does have a huge ensemble cast of totally new characters we all need to get to know, meaning that the film is a little bloated at times. It wouldn’t have suffered if a few of the background Eternals had their roles drastically reduced or even cut entirely.
Zhao is known for her films that focus on everyday humanity in marginalised peoples and in that way, Eternals is very much hers
The characters we do get to know, though, are magnificent. Sersi makes a wonderful lead with the devout soldier, Ikaris. Jolie’s warrior Thena and Ma Dong-seok’s Gilgamesh are two surprise hits who really have the most emotional scenes. It’s these two characters who really emphasise that the Eternals are a family. They have a bond, unlike anything we’ve seen thus far from the MCU. Barry Keoghan’s Druig and Lauren Ridloff’s Mikarri have palpable chemistry and they are really the standouts. Mikarri also breaks a boundary as the MCU’s first deaf superhero. According to Preply, after the film’s release, searches for how to learn sign language have increased by 250%, proving that representation matters.
Another great addition to the team is Brian Tyree-Henry’s Phastos. It is clear that Phastos’ development suffered due to the sheer size of the cast. However, as Marvel’s first gay superhero his inclusion, including the MCU’s first same-sex kiss, is a big step in the right direction for LGBT+ representation in the MCU, albeit one that should have been taken a long time ago. It’s also worth noting that Phastos and his queerness have not been edited out of international cuts of the film.
The visuals are stunning and the scenes where Zhao was able to flex her skills behind the camera are beautiful. With sequences shot in 1.9:1 IMAX and some shot on 16mm film, this is the most visually interesting MCU film. Especially if you catch it in the full 1.43:1 IMAX aspect ratio—the only way to truly appreciate the scale of the gargantuan Celestials.
However, as you’re watching it, you can’t help but get the feeling that Eternals has so much more potential. It could be a sci-fi epic that rivals the likes of Star Wars or Dune, but it never does. You can’t help but have the feeling that Marvel held Chloé Zhao back and didn’t trust her implicitly to make whatever she wanted to.
Zhao normally writes her films solo, but Eternals has four other screenwriters who have worked on several Marvel projects. Zhao did not edit Eternals, which she normally does. Her go-to Oscar-nominated cinematographer has been replaced with Marvel’s go-to cinematographer. Zhao won an Academy Award earlier this year for producing Best Picture winner Nomadland, but Eternals is produced by Marvel’s Kevin Fiege and co. Ultimately, it’s clear that this is a Marvel film before it is a Chloé Zhao film, which is fine. But ‘fine’ is such a low bar to have. Eternals could have been so much more special than what we got.
Overall Zhao was able to lift Marvel’s ‘formula’ up and deliver something truly unique, but Marvel is always there as this looming presence that really holds back Zhao’s vision. Eternals is far from perfect, but it is, above all else, what many fans have been craving— something different.
Eternals is ambitious and at times it soars above anything else in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but ultimately, it tries to do a little too much and ends up feeling rushed, even with its mammoth runtime.
Words By Lewis Royle
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