Written by Anna Harrison
“In the beginning…”
Thus Eternals, the latest offering from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, opens. It’s not very shy about its Biblical inspirations, as the opening scroll revamps the Book of Genesis by recasting God the Celestial Arishem (voiced by David Kaye) as God, and the Eternals as his angelic children; its grand ambitions become clear from the first, though whether it lives up to them will be another question.
As we learn through extensive flashbacks, the titular Eternals were there to guide and shape mankind as they progressed, showing them smithing and plowing techniques but ordered by Arishem never to interfere too much (hence their lack of presence in the first three phases of the MCU); now in the 21st century, they have disbanded and scattered across the universe until the threat of the Deviants, a malevolent group of quadruped aliens, forces them to gather together again. It’s the age old “gang getting back together again” story, except we barely know the gang, and the reunion process is laborious at best. Where The Avengers built up its cast of characters over the course of four years, giving them their own solo movies, here the Eternals are all thrust together with zero prior establishment, and even the many flashbacks don’t quite provide enough information about these characters’, well, characters.
As everyone comes together, we are fed information on their backstories and powers through heavy-handed exposition and stilted dialogue that even Eternals’ game cast stumbles with. Sersi (Gemma Chan) and Ikaris (Richard Madden), the two ostensible leads, supposedly have an epic love story for the ages (one which involves Marvel’s first sex scene), yet Chan and Madden, despite being talented performers in their own right, have little chemistry here as they tell rather than show the beginnings of their relationship; when Ajak (Salma Hayek), the Eternals’ leader, discusses the psychological break Thena (Angelina Jolie) experiences (called “Mahd Wy’ry” and pronounced, um, “mad weary”), it feels clinical rather than personal, despite the thousands of years the two have shared together. Even in a film series that relies on awkward exposition more often than not, Eternals stands out, as the characters speak only to advance the plot or explain a concept, never to further their own personalities.
This is where recent Best Director winner and Eternals helmer Chloé Zhao comes in. Her first three films—Songs My Brothers Taught Me, The Rider, and Nomadland—all received praise (and rightfully so) for their intimacy and for the way the camera and composition conveyed complex internal processes while the characters themselves stayed silent. When Zhao is allowed to do the same thing in Eternals, and lets the camera do the talking, the movie is utterly unlike any Marvel film before it: the sweeping vistas of South Dakota and Australia, the soft, natural lighting, and the wordless moments where we simply sit and watch the actors do their job create some of the most interesting and beautiful scenes in the MCU, marked by a level of directorial prowess rarely (if ever) seen with Marvel Studios.
Yet as the Eternals slowly make their way towards a conflict with the Deviants and grapple with their role in Arishem’s intelligent design, it becomes apparent the biggest conflict in Eternals is between its director and the studio behind it.
Marvel has, by now, figured out a very specific formula, and it usually works. Variations are needed here and there, such as with Thor: Ragnarok, but even while Taika Waititi’s Kiwi sensibilities shone in that film, there was still the requisite Marvel fast-paced plot, big action scenes, and ill-timed quips. Zhao’s subtler humanist tendencies become muddied in Eternals’ need to over-explain everything, and while Eternal-cum-Bollywood-star Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) and his valet Karun (Harish Patel) give some excellent comedy, it feels out of place within Zhao’s more serious take on the MCU, as if they only exist to fulfill Marvel’s comedy quota. Zhao is at her best when she lets her camera take charge, but here her characters are forced to explain everything about themselves for the sake of the audience, relying too heavily on clumsy dialogue; where Zhao excels at coaxing out real and naturalistic performances from non-actors, the MCU’s bombastic nature requires its performers to ham it up a bit when the scope is so large, and as a result there are no true standouts, aside from perhaps Barry Keoghan as Druig, despite an extraordinarily talented (and wonderfully diverse) cast.
This isn’t to say Zhao is the wrong choice for the MCU—far from it. There is an excellent, sweeping epic hidden underneath all the clunky lines, and there are deep philosophical ideas waiting to be pondered more deeply: What happens when your belief system gets turned upside down? Who do you become? What does “the greater good” mean? Zhao has gracefully examined all the intricacies and contradictions of humanity in all her other films, and here and there are glimmers of that same complexity in Eternals, but they remain only glimmers amidst the mandated Marvel beats. The problem is less that the cast is too big, or the story is too large and sprawling, and more that the script feels the need to explain all of these things, rather than respect that its viewers can, with Zhao’s help, infer information on their own. The delicacy with which Zhao handles her stories and characters seems incongruous with the in-your-face, Marvel-y script of Eternals, which keeps viewers at arm’s length even while Zhao’s strengths lie in holding them close; with four credited writers (including Zhao herself), it’s hard not to see conflicting aims in the finished screenplay.
Eternals is certainly, definitely, positively not—though its recent press would suggest otherwise—Marvel’s worst film. It has more emotional heft and a stronger directorial voice than most MCU films, and the fact that it even tries to differentiate itself at all shows a huge step in the right direction if Marvel wishes to stay artistically relevant post-Avengers: Endgame; Eternals’ third act, which succeeds at being both intimate and operatic at the same time, is one of Marvel’s strongest and certainly its most unique, and shows the enormous potential of this Zhao/Marvel team-up. But that’s all it is: potential. Eternals could have been great, and indeed it has tantalizing moments of sublimity, but if you’re going to go to the trouble of hiring someone like Zhao, the least you could do is trust her.
Eternals is currently playing in wide theatrical release.