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Review: Marvel Studios’ ‘Eternals’ (dir. Chloé Zhao)

Broadening the scope of the universe to massive proportion with beautiful visuals and philosophical themes, this superhero story’s character development does well at building up each of the many new stars.

With Marvel Studios’ Eternals, we have yet another film with an absolutely STACKED cast. Salma Hayek, Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Kumail Nanjiani, Don Lee, Lauren Ridloff, Lia McHugh, Barry Keoghan, Brian Tyree Henry, Angelina Jolie, Kit Harington, and Harish Patel. Yeah. Wow.

The team of Eternals, an ancient race of super humans who were created thousands of years ago to protect Earth from The Deviants, which are monsters that invade Earth, live on Earth among mortal Earthlings shaping the way history plays out.

There is such a high volume of characters with such a long runtime and such a broad timeline and such a puzzling scenario… that it almost works? Strangely a movie about eternal beings who were placed here on Earth feels the most human. 

Coming off of such a successful film prior to this with Nomadland, Chloé Zhao’s next project was always going to be extremely highly-anticipated. Add to that the pressure of it being a Marvel film, and the expectations were going to be insurmountable. It was never going to please everyone. And I think people (namely, a lot of critics) went into this with the eagerness that it would be the greatest film of all time.

I felt a constant push and pull between Chloé Zhao’s creative direction and what we’ve all come to know from the MCU. In one sense, it felt like Zhao was dumbing down her methods for this superhero flick. In another, it felt like the MCU was so rigid in sticking with what’s familiar to allow Zhao to change it with her signature flair. The result — a relatively convoluted plot with a flattened aesthetic.

Eternals is very much a departure for Marvel, and that isn’t always a bad thing. With a timeline stretching over the course of 7,000+ years, there was a lot of ground to cover, broadening the scope of the universe to massive proportion. The way the story is laid out makes for a really interesting and “different” way of methodically telling the story. It forgoes a chronological pattern and opts for a strategy that swings back and forth from present day to B.C. back to present day then to A.D. and back to present day. We flash back to see our characters in places like Mesopotamia, Babylon, the Gupta Empire, Tenochtitlan, Mumbai, and Hiroshima. Is it unique? Yeah. Is it also a little confusing at the same time? Yeah.

What does it do best? With such a crowded cast of characters — all of whom have their own detailed backstories and unique talents — it successfully manages to make each and every one feel important and takes the time to flesh out each persona. The character development going on here is really something to appreciate as far as how it builds up each star. That’s no easy task when you’re dealing with over ten main characters whose history traces back thousands of years (they’re called the Eternals for a reason).

When we were slowly introduced to the Avengers, we first came to know them by their powers. Iron Man had the suit, Hulk turned green and smashed things, Thor had the hammer, Captain America had the shield. In Eternals, though, we are introduced to these characters by their personalities in addition to their superpowers. It makes their introductions feel different and almost like an entirely different kind of film than its predecessors.

With so many characters, there were bound to be some characters that got shortchanged. Certain characters — sometimes the “lesser known” actors — get a lot more screen time and have slightly more developed character arcs. Other characters — sometimes the “bigger star” actors — are hardly in the film or seem to barely have any lines. When it’s her time, Angelina Jolie commands the screen, but she is often seen staring off into the distance with puckered lips and incredible hair. At times this very much feels like it’s a Gemma Chan and Richard Madden movie.

Visually, this is all being done on a massive scale. Nothing feels small or intimate. It always feels like it’s performing at the level of grandeur you would expect. Lots of nature, striking sunsets, dusty deserts, use of fog, and beautiful landscape shots make for what is very obviously Chloé Zhao’s style. 

In reference to the plot itself, we are always at odds with who the good guys and bad guys really are, which keeps it interesting. The subject matter is literally an existential dread, and the chaos that ensues is pretty unpredictable to say the least. Themes at play get unexpectedly philosophical, a stark contrast from other superhero movies. The third act really takes its time, and it drags during segments that should have been a breeze to get through.

Lacking the MCU’s definitive sense of humor, Eternals feels comparatively dry and overly serious most of the time. There are laughs here and there, especially in regards to some scenes with Harish Patel, Kumail Nanjiani, Brian Tyree Henry, and Kit Harington, but it feels pretty forced. Harish Patel’s funniest moments reminded me of Awkwafina in Shang-Chi because they are both these outsiders that are let into the inside of something much bigger than them. 

Film Twitter™ has been going wild over the “abysmal” Rotten Tomatoes score Eternals has. Updates are coming in every time it drops a percent. Right now, it’s sitting at 56% on the Tomatometer based on 154 critic reviews. That earns it the lowest RT score in Marvel history (not exactly the kind of record they were trying to break, but we’ll go with it for now). In the grand scheme of things, this number truly doesn’t matter, though. It’s legacy and remembrance will be based on how the audiences react and how much money it makes at the box office over time. Don’t get so caught up in the numbers that you lose sight of the bigger picture. Go see it. See if you like it. Make up your own mind.

One thing that left me feeling very confused from this film is the mentions of Superman and Batman. Are we to assume that those superheroes exist in this universe now, too? Why mention them at all when you have so many Marvel heroes to use instead? It made everyone in the theater turn their head for a minute. One could almost guess this was a DC film if they weren’t paying close enough attention.

There is a level of mythology here that is much more complicated and involved than your average comic book movie. This has a lot of characters with intertwined pasts and adventures that test the realms of time and distance. If it sounds stuffed, that’s because it kind of is. But when you give into the madness that’s at play, it starts to get fun. There really is a method to it all, and by the end it makes a lot of sense. 

The action sequences feel very CGI-reliant, which is unfortunate because there is such a natural light to this film. The Deviants, obviously, have to be CGI because we don’t have monsters quite like that (at least as of right now). I was intrigued by the way Jolie’s character’s CGI armor came into play, as well as how Richard Madden’s character’s eyes looked when he used them. All in all, the powers themselves are pretty simple. Kingo has finger guns, and Gilgamesh has super strong punching power. There isn’t any Vibranium pumping through their suits or anything like that. It’s surprisingly straightforward (although, it might be the only straightforward thing about this movie).

There are a lot of firsts at play here. The first openly gay Marvel superhero. The first sex scene in a Marvel movie. The first deaf character in a Marvel movie. The first same-sex kiss in a Marvel movie. By the end, though, it feels like they were so persistent in trying to check off so many boxes that they got caught up in it all a little bit. I’m all for the representation and think it’s actually quite overdue, but this seemed like the film to just get a lot of those things out of the way very quickly.

Know what you’re getting into, though. As much as I love Marvel movies (heck, everybody does), they can be pretty predictable, so you know what you’re getting for the most part. You’re going to get some all-star talent playing some all-star superheroes. You’re going to get a Marvel third act that builds up to an epic battle sequence. You’re going to get some surprising mid-credits and post-credits scenes.

Honestly, I see this being an extremely divisive film among the masses. That doesn’t make it a pile of garbage or conversely a highbrow piece of art, though. It’s just so different that people are going to have a variety of reactions. I would much rather have a film that tried to do something than a film that played it on the safe side any day. Different and new perspectives don’t have to be seen as a negative thing.

Definitely make sure to stick around for the post-credits scenes. You really won’t want to miss them.

Marvel Studios’ Eternals opens in theaters only this Friday, November 5.

One reply on “Review: Marvel Studios’ ‘Eternals’ (dir. Chloé Zhao)”

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