by Erik Amaya
If Eternals stood by itself, it would be hailed as a revolutionary science fiction film. But as another episode of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it gets somewhat drowned out in the attendant noise of multiverses, post-credit stingers, and where Spider-Man will land in six weeks time.
The film, directed by Chloe Zhao from a script by Zhao & Patrick Burleigh, and Ryan Firpo & Kaz Firpo, tells the tale of a small group of immortal aliens tasked with defending the Earth from another alien breed known as the Deviants. There mission comes from a super-advanced race of aliens known as Celestials. But all of that is background to the real plot of the film: hundreds of years after abandoning their mission and their bond, the Eternals must regroup when the long-dormant Deviants return.
That “getting the band back together” vibe fuels a lot of the film’s momentum, and via Zhao’s eye for beautiful vistas at sunset, it is also easily the most visually arresting journeys within the MCU so far. But we freely admit the pace of the quest may make some uncomfortable. It’s deliberate and less of the ride one might expect from a studio process more accustomed to making films like Guardians of the Galaxy or even the recent Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Where those films are easy crowd pleasers, Eternals attempts to be more contemplative. The success of that tone is completely dependent on the viewers willingness for a slower Marvel film filmed to the brim with thoughts about free will and some of truly Kirby-esque concepts.
Indeed, the original Eternals comic book is Jack Kirby at his wildest, with a multicultural band of demigods who seem to owe as much to the mid-1970s fascination with the Ancient Astronaut Theory as they do Kirby’s own interest in battling with mythology in a pop culture arena. To an extent, the film continues this thread thanks to copious flashbacks set hundreds and even thousands of years prior to the main plot. They tend to reveal character and the overall effect may feel like the better-realized parts of a Ridley Scott or Terrence Malick film, but it will also create the same sort of dissonance as Kirby’s Eternals and New Gods comics. The parts are subject to tectonic pressure as they never quite do what you expect a Big Event Film (or comic book) to do.
Nevertheless, the whole thing is anchored by the strong presence of Gemma Chan. Though often soft-spoken, she proves to be an able MCU star with grace and tons of presence. It’s easy to see why she won the lead role as the Eternal Sersi despite already appearing in Captain Marvel as Minn-Erva. She’s the sort of actor you want in the Marvel stable for years to come. Backing her up is an eclectic cast including Lia McHugh, Kumail Nanjiani, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Ridloff, Don Lee, and Barry Keoghan. Though all supporting, they do a pretty good job establishing the Eternals as people you want to follow. They also quickly establish a sense of family when reunited. Angelina Joile stands the troubled Eternal Thena — it may not be a demonstrative or quippy role, but Jolie’s dedication to it reminds you why she became a star. Keoghan and Ridloff also make the most of their limited screen time, but by emphasizing different things than Joile. In fact, each of the characters get a moment to emphasize something unique, from Nanjiani’s fame-driven Kingo to the ever-evolving tension in McHugh’s Sprite.
And we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Salma Hayek as Ajak — although we’re disinclined to go into too much detail as her part is more spoilery than trailers might suggest. Suffice to say, her position in the Eternals will make absolute sense by the movie’s end.
Oh, also, Richard Madden and Kit Harrington appear as romantic rivals for Sersi’s affections. Both are winningly charming, though Madden gets a lot more time to shine as Eternal Ikaris — a part which may rub some fans of the comics the wrong way as it skews a bit differently from established lore.
The mention of Malick-level ideas and the emphasis on performances shouldn’t give you the impression that the film strives to be Dune in terms of seriousness or importance. It’s still a Marvel movie and there are quips, they’re just not as key in generating the audience’s empathy for this new group of characters. Nevertheless, there are still laughs to be found and some genuinely great action scenes; particularly during the final act.
At the same time, it’s hard to ignore that Eternals is a different film for Marvel. By taking the Celestials seriously, it feels like it’s in the adjacent batting cage to Kirby. In introducing all these characters at once, it is also trying for an added depth as their 7,000 years of personal history matters in the final conflict. But it is also doing all of these things in a less colorful and admittedly less Kirby way. As we said up top, the approach would feel revolutionary had there never been a MCU and Zhao had somehow secured the rights to this as a standalone concept. As a part of the ongoing Marvel Studios story, it’s easy to think these characters will disperse among the other film series — much like their comic book counterparts — and reconvene at even a slower pace than the Avengers. No matter their future, Eternals does a great job introducing this group and their mythology to the wider audience. And, we think, it is a movie people will ruminate on for some time to come.
Eternals is in theaters now.