Marvel Studios has a habit of handing the reins for its latest comic-book franchises to accomplished filmmakers whose previous work is mostly in indie film or TV. From James Gunn with Guardians of the Galaxy to Joss Whedon with The Avengers to Joe and Anthony Russo with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, this approach has worked surprisingly well, and these directors have made the jump to mega-budget franchise movies with ease. Now comes the curious case of Eternals, helmed by 2021 Best Director Oscar winner Chloé Zhao.
The twenty-sixth entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Eternals introduces a new group of superheroes, and as usual, their story involves big action and larger-than-life characters (also: uninspiring villains, a frequent MCU weakness). Yet, it’s the most inert, least involving launch of new Marvel movie characters since The Incredible Hulk. Given how many people are involved in making one of these movies, this can’t be blamed solely on Zhao, who also co-wrote the script from a story by Ryan Firpo and Kaz Firpo. However, Zhao, whose previous features were quiet, character-driven pieces, always seemed like a strange fit for the MCU. Perhaps that’s why Eternals doesn’t feel quite like any other film in the franchise.
The Eternals, based on the comics by Jack Kirby, are a group of 10 immortal alien beings who were created by the Celestials. After coming to Earth in ancient times and eradicating a monstrous threat to humanity called the Deviants, they disbanded and were directed not to intervene in human affairs. As a result, they’ve spent thousands of years biding their time on the planet in whatever way they chose. When the movie begins, a new Deviant pops up in modern-day London right in front of two of the members of the team: Gemma Chan’s Sersi, whose power involves turning one material into another, and Lia McHugh’s Sprite, who can create illusions and has spent millennia in the body of a pre-teen.
This starts them on a quest to get the band back together so they can take on the Deviants as a unit once more. But of course, as they gather their fellow Eternals – including leader Ajak (Salma Hayek), Superman-like Ikaris (Richard Madden), ace fighter Thena (Angelina Jolie), super-strong Gilgamesh (Don Lee), mind-controlling Druig (Barry Keoghan), cosmic-energy shooting Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), tech-master Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), and speedster Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) – secrets are revealed and new information about their true purpose is uncovered.
The diversity of the characters is one of the best parts of Eternals, and it’s refreshing to see such a representative cast in the MCU, especially one that includes the franchise’s first deaf character. That doesn’t make us care about them more, however, and honestly, most of the characters are an over-serious bore. The relationship between sick Thena and her jovial caretaker Gilgamesh brings some levity and emotional heft to the proceedings, as does Phastos’ dedication to his human husband and son, yet that doesn’t help the group feel more interesting as a whole.
The movie seems to be trying to evoke something of a dysfunctional family dynamic. But unlike July’s Black Widow where the best part was Natasha Romanoff’s interactions with her family of Russian spies, the Eternals feel more like a group of friends from high school at an awkward class reunion. We’re frequently told they have strong feelings for one another, but the depths of their attachments never come across emotionally.
This is especially true of the central romance between Sersi and Ikaris who were married for thousands of years before Ikaris abruptly left. Yet Chan and Madden have minimal chemistry, making it hard to invest in them as a couple. Given the pair are the film’s de facto leads and their push and pull is what much of the plot ultimately hinges on, this creates a void at the center of the movie.
Zhao creates some beautiful visuals with cinematographer Ben Davis, particularly when she’s detailing the Eternals arrival and involvement in the early history of humankind, but that doesn’t extend to the action sequences, which are lengthy and uninspired. Meanwhile, the story is built on a series of plot elements that have already been used to greater effect in other, better films. Consequently, Eternals is predictable, and at over two and a half hours, much too long. There are a pair of post-credit scenes that offer some intriguing hints about what’s coming next for the MCU, but when the credits end and the promise is made that “The Eternals Will Return” it’s the first time in franchise history that it feels more like a threat than an assurance.