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 simultaneously. 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 human realness create a story that hinges on fictional characters, worlds, and struggles?
Zhao brings to this MCU super ensemble the reanimation of humanity in these 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 through grounding them emotionally, developing a maturity that’s rarely if ever seen in the Marvel Studios formula.
While Zhao brings an intimacy to the characters themselves, she expands the actual world of the production through her distinctive on-location filming. And here, the shedding of the artificial studio atmosphere works tremendously. 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 gorgeously-primaeval Canary Island’s, Eternals carries a deep authenticity.
Understanding the Eternals through their learned humanity and shared emotions and feelings toward one another is integral to Zhao’s design as it reveals their flaws. Here Zhao’s story unfurls over an epic runtime, as we come to understand the Eternals are not your typical heroes – they possess a moral ambiguity to them. 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 where this undermines rather than uplifts. 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. Here its over-stuffed suitcase of mythology begins to unzip itself as the lore and story packed into it overwhelm the narrative arc.
However, despite this weakness, The Eternals themselves all make a strong impression. This is particularly the case with 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. And 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. And 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 is never a bad thing.