Marvel has created an awe-inspiring universe over 26 films in the MCU, with dozens of superheroes that all fit into one big picture, and in all of those films, there’s nothing else like Eternals.
If I’m being kind, about half of the MCU films to date have been okay, or good, and the other half have been great and even excellent (hello there, Thor: Ragnarok). Eternals doesn’t fit into that ranking easily, though, and that’s really a compliment. I’m still wrestling a little with how I feel about the film, and I’m going to need to see it again to really decide.
Up until now, MCU films have felt exactly like MCU films. Iron Man set that tone and style, and the films after it followed a familiar style, so you pretty much knew what to expect each time. Even Spider-Man: Homecoming and Shang-Chi, two of my favourite films in the MCU, fit into that Marvel mould.
Director Chloé Zhao’s Eternals is the first Marvel film that feels like we’re stepping into a different reality, and that’s fitting given the story, the scale, and the fact that the MCU was really overdue for a new style.
Gemma Chan stars as Sersi, an Eternal who has literally been on Earth for thousands of years. When we meet her, she’s working as a teacher and dating the charming Dane Whitman, played by Kit Harington, and that all changes when a Deviant shows up.
Deviants are creatures that have come to destroy humanity, while the Eternals are powerful heroes who were sent to Earth in 5,000 BC to protect us; all part of a plan created by the Celestial being known as Arishem.
The film takes time to explain these details, without grinding to a halt, but the scale is the biggest we’ve seen yet. Celestials are literally the size of planets, and they help create everything in the universe, including beings like the Eternals.
While Dane is somehow exceedingly cool with the idea that these beings exist, Sersi leaves with her Eternal friend, Sprite, played by the talented Lia McHugh, to find the rest of the team. It turns out that everyone went their separate ways years and years ago when they thought the Deviant problem had been solved. They’ve just been waiting around for Arishem to tell them what to do next.
Sersi reconnects with Ikaris, played by Richard Madden, during the Deviant fight in London, and it turns out they’re former lovers. They head off together to find the rest of the Eternals family, and that leads to flashbacks of the group’s time on Earth that fills in some of the big story arcs and details about who and what they are before one big showdown at the end.
There’s so many main characters, it’s hard to give them all the space they deserve in this review, but the film also stars Kumail Nanjiani as Kingo, Brian Tyree Henry as Phastos, Angelina Jolie as Thena, Don Lee as Gilgamesh, Salma Hayek as Ajak, Lauren Ridloff as Makkari, and Barry Keoghan as Druig.
The cast is fantastic, and they’re totally charming together, with a chemistry that sells the whole story. This feels like a team that has spent lifetimes together. There’s love and pain between the heroes; heartache and joy, and everything in between.
The hero journey in Eternals is really all about Sersi. She’s the standout star of the film, and her relationship with Ikaris gets the most screen time. It’s a compelling story arc, too, and Chan and Madden smoulder together.
Nanjiani, as the finger-gun blasting Kingo, steals every scene he’s in, and really, the entire cast is mesmerizing. If I had a complaint it’s simply that there’s not enough time for Druig or Makkari amidst everything else that’s going on.
Most importantly, Zhao gives Eternals weight, gravity, magic, and her signature style that is so bold and moody, both visually and thematically. The cinematography by Ben Davis (who also did Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and Captain Marvel) is also beautiful, even if it can be a bit dark, at times.
Eternals won me over in the way it handles this huge story, without getting lost or confused. It’s refreshing for the MCU, to have this kind of drama unfolding, and it was time for a different tone. However it’s not a perfect film, and it’s also going to be divisive for fans.
The film has a great sense of tone and texture, mood, and atmosphere, but at 2 hours and 37 minutes, the runtime is a bit crushing. Avengers: Endgame was 3 hours long, but that film handled felt brisk by comparison.
Eternals has so much history, it could have trimmed a little out. That run time does make the thousands of years represented in the film feel more realistic, it just comes at the cost of making the film feel too slow.
I’m also bitterly against films that feel like they need to explain human ingenuity away. Phastos grieves at the way humanity used his invention of atomic power to destroy Hiroshima, in a scene that felt just plain ridiculous. Henry is excellent in the scene, but it felt a bit odd, and I couldn’t accept that this character has been giving humanity every major advancement in technology since 5,000 BC.
Despite the flaws and issues, Eternals is a great film, and it’s an overdue addition to the MCU. It’s going to challenge viewers and MCU fans out for pure adrenaline, who likely aren’t going to be as thrilled, but the film is smart, sincere, and the story is fascinating, complex, and nuanced, with vivid characters.
There’s not even one crumbling building in the whole film, at least that I can remember. That may be a first for Marvel.
It also requires zero Marvel knowledge, so for newcomers, it’s a welcome way to try a superhero movie, without going down any rabbit holes. As a lead-in to the next wave of Marvel films, it also will likely become a increasingly important part of the puzzle.
Eternals is in theatres now.
Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios.
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