The Eternals is showing in cinemas nationwide from November 5th.
Chloé Zhao was an unexpected choice to helm Marvel Studios Eternals. Coming off the back of the success of her contemporary western, The Rider, she was beginning to make a name for herself within the indie film and Sundance circuit. However, suddenly, she was balancing her nomadic neo-western Nomadland and the cosmic epic Eternals. So when Zhaó took home Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actress, expectations for Eternals were duly elevated from another MCU film to a Chloé Zhao superhero epic. The only question on people’s minds was: how does a director whose style is grounded in reality create a story that hinges on fictional characters, worlds, and struggles?
Zhao brings to this MCU super ensemble the reanimation of humanity in god-like beings, ensuring they are flesh-and-blood individuals rather than emotionless icons of the MCU. What drives her story is love, embodied not only by the enchanting Gemma Chan’s Sersi and her clueless lover-boy Dane Whitman (Kit Harington) but also by the aeon-old flame she shares with Richard Madden’s Ikaris. Their connection feels palpable on-screen, like a burning hot flame – from the sensual stroking of a lover’s hand to a surprisingly intimate sex scene. Here the love feels authentic as Zhao announces, “These people have feelings; let me show you them!”
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For once, our superhero beings are free to feel attraction and embrace their sexuality in an MCU milestone. Zhao compels you to care about these deep-cut heroes by grounding them emotionally and developing a maturity that’s rarely if ever seen in the Marvel Studios formula. At the same time, Zhao brings intimacy as she embraces real-world production through her distinctive on-location filming, shedding the artificial studio atmosphere. Cinematographer Ben Davis plays with the light beams and golden hours of Mesopotamia, creating an emotional beauty to locations, something ironically missing in mythical lands like Asgard. But, when this dovetails with scenes in the iconic Camden High Street and the gorgeously-primaeval Canary Islands, Eternals achieves a deep sense of authenticity.
Zhao’s story unfurls over an epic runtime as we come to understand the Eternals are not your typical heroes, each possessing a moral ambiguity. For example, the narrative tension between their love for humanity and their duty to their original mission is evident throughout.
(L-R): Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), Thena (Angelina Jolie), Gilgamesh (Don Lee), Ikaris (Richard Madden) and Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) in Marvel Studios’ ETERNALS. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.
However, there are several characters for whom this undermines the narrative journey rather than uplifts it. For example, Angelina Jolie’s Thena is relegated to a Super-Girl-Esque role. This battle of narrative tension and emotional core is ultimately where the issues in Eternals begin to show, its over-stuffed suitcase of mythology unzipping as the lore and story packed into it overwhelms the narrative arc.
However, despite this weakness, the Eternals themselves all make a strong impression, particularly Lauren Ridloff’s Makkari and Barry Keoghan’s Druig, not only due to the relationship hinted to exist between them but also due to their superpowered potential. Both Makkari and Ridloff are deaf, and this becomes a superpower by detecting microscopic vibrations, allowing for super-speed and super-senses. Likewise, Druig is easily one of the most ambiguous Eternals and one of the first to speak out against their original mission.
Eternals feels like an entire saga wrapped up in a single runtime, which ultimately works against it. There’s a whole trilogy of stories to unpack that perhaps would’ve worked far better as pieces of a greater puzzle. For example, in the middle of the second act, we have a five-minute exposition dump by the nebulous overlord Arishem. The result of which will have even the most infatuated comic-book fans sighing due to its heavy-handed nature. The result is a film that feels compelled to answer as many questions as possible, a symptom of the established cinematic universe surrounding it. I can not help but wonder if, given some breathing room and faith in the audience, Eternals would have been better received.
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That said, Eternals does not reveal its full hand, saving some of its tricks and surprises, each one a delight as the story progresses. While it may not fully commit to the potential consequences of the events at play, it does set up an endgame of surprisingly tense stakes that leaves you unsure of how Eternals will end, and let’s face it, that’s not easy to do in a superhero blockbuster.
Ultimately, Chloé Zhao has created an emotionally mature superhero epic by tapping into the internal struggles of the cosmic beings at its heart. And when coupled with an on-location aesthetic, Eternals finds solid creative ground. Zhao’s film feels like a different interpretation of what a superhero film can and perhaps should be. After all, fewer quips and more passion are never a bad thing.