Directed by Chloe Zhao.
Starring Salma Hayek, Richard Madden, Gemma Chan, Angelina Jolie, Kumail Nanjiani, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Ridloff, Barry Keoghan, Ma Dong-seok, Kit Harington, and Lia McHugh.
The saga of the Eternals, a race of immortal beings who lived on Earth and shaped its history and civilizations.
There are at least two scenes in Eternals (from Nomadland Best Director Chloe Zhao, who, if nothing else, has made something wildly different from what’s expected of MCU offerings) that undercut intended heavy drama. One of them is a response to the romance/sexless criticisms of the franchise that fails to generate intimate chemistry (being comprised of only a kiss doesn’t help much either, and worse, makes it seem only half-committed to rectifying that often lobbed complaint about a series spanning 25 entries where everyone is ripped to shreds and impossibly attractive yet seemingly incapable of lust and love). Another starts as a heartbreaking monologue expressing centuries of inner pain, eliciting an emotional response. That is until this character is knocked over the head unconscious, which is played for a laugh (at least I hope, considering the contrived silliness of it all and motions of the action itself).
The latter is more annoying (the romantic chemistry has far more significant problems beyond a sex scene so tame it’s laughable people are even calling it that) and genuinely irritating. It’s not that the studio interference is invisible or that Eternals is 100% free from formulaic Marvel trappings, more so sealing the deal the experience prioritizes spectacle over a complex analysis of godlike humanity stretching from Mesopotamia BC to a post-Snap world. Chloe Zhao is one of the greatest filmmakers working today; it’s not her fault (she also co-writes alongside Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo, and Kaz Firpo). The story she clearly wants to tell and gets to tell sometimes is infinitely more compelling than what the narrative ultimately boils down to (the same as every other Marvel movie).
With that said, I would rewatch Eternals again over lesser MCU installments and some of the good ones. It doesn’t always work, but it is undeniably the most ambitious Marvel movie (and it didn’t need 25 other movies as stepping stones to a colossal-length grand finale), pitting religious and familial duties against one another. The team members themselves are each distinctly drawn with Barry Keoghan’s Druig, an omnipotent and brooding presence with mind control powers conflicted over whether or not to interfere in civilizations slaughtering themselves over and over, standing out among the pack.
There’s also Sprite (Lia McHugh), ageless like the others, eternally a teenager, and understandably at a breaking point when it comes to being left out of what life has to offer, regardless of the time period. The fact that she doesn’t age scares people off and also forces her to relocate. Complicating matters in a richly human way, she has also fallen for Richard Madden’s Ikaris (essentially, Marvel’s version of Superman, acknowledged with a few clever jokes, but emotionally emotionless and dull performance to behold) who is still deeply in love with Sersi (a terrific Gemma Chan also trying to live an everyday life while getting serious with her human partner as played by Kit Harrington) after a 5000-year relationship hiatus.
A case could be made that pre-AD (and even slightly after) Eternals is deserving of its own movie. Led by Salma Hayek’s Ajak, the titular deity soldiers are tasked with ridding the world of the Deviants (feral beasts that glimmer and glow), so there’s also plenty of room for action (as evident during the early goings here). The drama here is also much riper for boldness and originality, not to mention several fundamental character dynamics that could have been fleshed out to greater service what’s to come. It’s hard to say if Eternals needs its own Snyder Cut, so to speak, or if it should have been split up into multiple movies. Regardless, there’s an unshakable sensation that the story is flying past plenty of the plot points that provide and amplify the movie’s humanity.
Nevertheless, once the job is done, they are ordered (by a higher being that only Ajak can communicate with) to sit back and watch society evolve, only to destroy itself time and time again, rising with more and more medical and technological advancements. As previously mentioned, for some this hellish cycle becomes a cross too heavy to bear, whereas others stick by their faith. In the case of Angelina Jolie’s Thena (the goddess of war, complete with the most acrobatic and sickest melee combat moves of the group, wielding a variety of blades), her mind is fracturing, causing her to enter a state of entranced confusion that physically turns her against her allies. The engineer of the group Phastos (an evocative Brian Tyree Henry) also harbors guilt seeing his inventions used to fuel wars and genocides further.
Rounding out the team is the ASL-speaking Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), the beefed-up Kumail Nanjiana as a fireball blasting source of comedic relief in Kingo, and powerhouse bruiser with a soft interior Gilgamesh (Ma Dong-seok). Once the Deviants are eliminated, they do go their separate ways (I won’t spoil what they all get up to, but some are given more intriguing material than others) and live out their lives however they feel fit, immortal, and never to interfere in human affairs (yes, not even helping out against Thanos). Naturally, they do have to come together once more as a unit, but disappointingly following in the footsteps of the Marvel template.
Wonky drama aside, Eternals does have a unique visual style going for it (even without her regular cinematographer, Chloe Zhao and Ben Davis have captured a variety of stunning landscapes as the film globe-trots around the world and time) in addition to the usual competently crafted action set pieces, this time set to a phenomenally soaring soundtrack from one of the greatest in the industry right now, Game of Thrones’ Ramin Djawadi. It’s also a bonus that there is a great deal of human conflict within the high-stakes final battle. Again, Eternals is nowhere near as fully realized or satisfying as it could have been. Still, maybe if enough moviegoers embrace the admirable attempts at adult human drama (that is powerful when it does work), Marvel executives will take bigger creative swings so that we don’t have to watch the same superhero movie on loop for all eternity.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com