Many will have unrealistic expectations regarding Chloé Zhao’s involvement in this newest Marvel film, expecting the most recent winner of the Best Director and Best Picture Oscars to reinvent the blockbuster template while putting her unique stamp on the MCU. In many ways, she does: the indie-auteur of Nomadland manages to take Jack Kirby’s expansive comic source material and adapt it to her humanistic sensibilities, with the accent firmly on a more personal emotional core and more soulful textures inherent to a group of superhumans that have known each other for millennia.
The snag is that the epic and sprawling canvas of Eternals often feels overwhelmingly dense, with so much mythology to take in that the storytelling ends up feeling bitty, leaving audiences desperately scrambling for CliffsNotes in order to properly keep up. The Star Wars-esque opening crawl at the beginning introduces us to cosmic deities who created a race of immortal beings known as the Eternals, who are tasked to protect Earth from the Deviants. An event known as “The Emergence” will bring the band of protectors back together, whilst dealing with the Lovecraftian “Arishem”, “Prime Eternals”, “Mahd Wy’ry” and the “Unimind”.
Dizzy yet? You will be.
While Eternals is miles ahead of this year’s Black Widow and many older MCU entries, there’s no denying that it’s the most massively overstuffed story yet. Unlike Denis Villeneuve’s recently-released and equally epic Dune, this hasn’t managed to streamline its knotty worldbuilding into something truly compelling. And when you add mid-and-post-credits stingers that only add further layers of mythology – both in quite cringey ways through two new hunky heartthrobs – you wish that they’d cut back and sorted out their sizeable pacing issues.
Another major issue that Eternals wrestles with is the narrative’s primary focus on Gemma Chan’s Sersi and Richard Madden’s Ikaris: Chan is great in the role and the frequently wooden Madden still manages to charm the birds out of the equally ligneous trees. However, the other comparatively-sidelined set of esoteric characters are much more fascinating: Angelina Jolie’s tortured Thena, Brian Tyree Henry’s technology buff Phastos, Barry Keoghan’s embittered mind-manipulator Druig, the wonderful Lauren Ridloff’s speedy Makkari… All are highlights and you can’t help but wish more screentime had been dedicated to them.
Leaving the debit column behind, there’s so much to admire about Eternals. It’s a definite change of pace for Marvel, benefitting from some enthralling thematic material: the Eternals are the key to human evolution, and Erich von Däniken’s ‘Chariot of the Gods?’ is a major touchstone for the way the characters are positioned as trigger points for civilisation’s progression and the source of many of humanity’s myths. Our protagonists are also shackled by a Star Trek-ish Prime Directive, revealing an interesting moral tension between their non-interventionist stance and the toll it takes to witness humanity’s dark proclivity for genocide. This means that nothing here is reduced to binary “good” and “bad” standpoints, and the film is stronger for it.
Eternals is also a film of firsts for Marvel: a wonderfully diverse cast, an actual sex scene (even if it’s hardly lingered upon), and a matter-of-fact onscreen gay kiss. These elements don’t make a good film in and of themselves, but what’s best is that these inclusions never feel tokenistic or there for simply for diversity’s sake. So, as convoluted and messy as it often is, Eternals, like WandaVision before it, is a firm indicator that Marvel is keen on taking some overdue risks, thematically, visually and in terms of representation. It may be a hot mess, but it’s a wonderfully vibrant and ambitious hot mess that distances itself from the average assembly-line MCU adventure. And that can only be a source of celebration.
Eternals / D: Chloé Zhao (US, 2021), with Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek, Kumail Nanjiani, Lauren Ridloff. Starts: November 04.