‘Eternals’ Is a Bold Departure for the MCU, and It Mostly Works

Marvel Studios

Everyone is telling me Eternals is the first objectively bad MCU movie, and I would have no hesitancy to agree with this if it were true, but Eternals is not a bad movie at all. It only suffers when it remembers it has to be a Marvel movie.

The Eternals are a group of superheroes sent to Earth thousands of years ago by the all-powerful Arishem to exist in the shadows, and protect humanity from the evil, ultra-powerful Deviants, which have all been killed over 500 years ago. Since then, the Eternals have been living separate lives in different parts of the world, waiting for the message they can go home. But once they discover the Deviants are back, leading to a potentially apocalyptic event, the Eternals must band together to prevent the apocalypse.

Chloe Zhao clearly wanted to make a movie about gods, and not superheroes. This is stuffed with religious symbolism from the very first frame, a title card reading “In the beginning…”. And this is a slow-paced, thoughtful, and stunningly beautiful movie that has her trademark visual style better utilized in a blockbuster than I expected. Zhao has actually succeeded in making an artsy superhero movie. Her preference for locations, natural light and realism actually adds to the experience here, rather than distracting from it. It’s not a complete home run, and I can see why not everybody is into this, but I hope Marvel asks Zhao back for a future installment.

Marvel Studios

Considering Eternals introduces a giant group of new characters we’ve never seen before and has to introduce everyone, and not just that, but explaining all of their powers and how they could be useful in the MCU later on, I think the exposition dump could feel more clunky and less natural. I will say the characters could be more developed considering the film’s extensive running time, but as the movie stands, you still understand who everyone is and why they matter and why the stakes will matter moving forward.

Gemma Chan is a star, and I’ll fight anyone who says otherwise. She holds this thing together beautifully, the closest thing the film has to a lead, as Sersi, who has been living in London as a professor when the film begins. She’s involved in a romantic relationship with Ikaris (Richard Madden), who suggests they bring the team back together to fight the Deviants again, after an interaction with Ajak (Salma Hayek) tells them what needs to be done. Sersi’s also good friends with Sprite (Lia McHugh), who has been stuck with the physical appearance of a 12-year-old child for centuries, and she’s always got a sarcastic response to whatever’s going on.

We later meet Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), who has been living as a Bollywood actor in India, and decides to bring along his valet (Harish Patel), who will film his journey as a documentary. We then meet Thena (Angelina Jolie) and Gilgamesh (Don Lee), who have been living off the grid while Thena copes with a difficult psychological disorder. We then meet Druig (Barry Keoghan), who can manipulate the minds of others. We also meet Makaari (Lauren Ridloff), a deaf Eternal who has been living her best life ever since leaving the group. We then meet Phastos (Bryan Tyree Henry), who has been living a quiet life in suburbia with his husband and child, and doesn’t have any interest in using his superpowers again. None of the Eternals are particularly enthusiastic about re-joining the team. They’ve all got personal baggage and so much backstory, which is almost too much for a two-and-a-half-hour long feature.

I’m thinking maybe a large amount of the Marvel fanboys are reacting to this with vitriol because it’s easily the most inclusive movie Marvel Studios has made so far. With plenty of powerful female lead characters, as well as lots of POC characters, as well as Marvel’s first openly gay superhero, there’s a lot of progress here for a superhero movie. And it feels great that none of this is depicted in a self-congratulatory way, it’s all just very matter of fact and natural. And to certain audiences, this is infuriating. Even Angelina Jolie, who is undoubtedly the biggest star in this movie, is never stealing focus from anything going on, She could have easily gotten Marvel to make this film all about her, and instead, she’s a great team player. Between this and Those Who Wish Me Dead, Jolie’s transitioning very nicely into featured character actress for her career’s second act. However, in Eternals, nobody’s journey is more important than anyone else’s.

Ben Davis shot this, who was the cinematographer on several Marvel movies previously, like Captain Marvel, Guardians of the Galaxy and Doctor Strange. I’m only learning this now, actually since I was under the impression Chloe Zhao brought along her usual DP, Joshua James Richards. This is a stunningly beautiful film from beginning to end. It has a unique visual and emotional style that really feels unlike anything we’ve seen from Marvel before. And because of that, Eternals feels like an indisputable success because of what a bold departure it is for the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole. However, it doesn’t really stick the landing.

The third act really falls apart after a stupid reveal leads us into the CGI-heavy climactic battle, where the fate of the world is at stake. Everything becomes more dramatic, less nuanced, and a lot louder for no reason. Characters reveal their true selves, alliances are broken and a lot of CGI fighting happens. The third act of this movie is a total mess, which is a disappointment after a stunningly beautiful and fascinating first two-thirds. Having said that, I am interested in where these stories will go and what significance they’ll take in the MCU moving forward. Eternals works most of the time, so well that I’m willing to forgive when it drops the ball.

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