Eternals

Genre: Action, Adventure

Director: Chloé Zhao

Screenplay: Chloé Zhao & Patrick Burleigh and Ryan Firpo & Kaz Firpo, based on the comic book by Jack Kirby

Cast: Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Kumail Nanjiani, Lia McHugh, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Ridloff, Barry Keoghan, Don Lee, with Kit Harington, Salma Hayek and Angelina Jolie

Running Length: 156 minutes

Synopsis: Spanning thousands of years, Marvel Studios’ Eternals is an epic story featuring a group of immortal heroes forced out of the shadows to reunite against mankind’s oldest enemy, The Deviants.

Review: Coming off the high that was Avengers: Endgame, the question that many people had was – what’s next for Marvel? That question has been somewhat reframed by the pandemic, but it seems that we have finally arrived at an inflection point in the MCU, 13 years and 26 movies later. While Eternals isn’t the full answer to the question either, it is at least an interesting (albeit $200 million dollar) gamble, to shift focus – at least for one movie – away from the usual formula that has worked so well for Marvel thus far and throwing the spotlight on the galactic aspect of the MCU. It’s a tougher sell, especially coming off the unbridled success that was Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, a far more conventional Marvel film by most measures.

The director picked for this task is Chloé Zhao, fresh off her Oscar win for Nomadland last year. Known for her intimate storytelling and stunning, expansive cinematography, both are present and accounted for in Eternals, but Zhao’s directorial style sputters a little when it’s writ large. This is especially when there are more than ten new characters with backstories and story arcs spanning thousands of years, and not everyone will have equal weightage due to the realities of running times. As it is, Eternals runs a long 156 minutes, and yet it still feels like there wasn’t enough time to unpack all the millennia-spanning plot threads crammed into the film. That the film liberally jumps between historically and still needs to build to a present-day cosmic-level conflict further complicates the narrative structure of the film, and it very visibly struggles to come together as a coherent whole.

It also feels like somewhat of a missed opportunity that the main protagonists’ storyline – Gemma Chan’s Sersi and Richard Madden’s Ikaris – comes off as being basically a rather generic romantic dalliance, when more attention could have been paid to various other pairings (Don Lee’s Gilgamesh and Angelina Jolie’s Thena in particular feel like it deserved a lot more screen time than it got) or even to the larger philosophical and theological questions posed by the film. And this ironically compounds the issue of the film’s running time, that many audience members would quite likely not be vested enough in the plot threads to feel that it was quite worth the investment of time.

However, this is not to say that there isn’t enough in Eternals to warrant the price of entry. The stunning visuals deserve to be seen on the biggest screens and is worth shelling out the additional money to be experienced in IMAX where possible. While Chloe Zhao is more grounded in her approach to CGI, the CGI in the film is top notch when it is used, especially when it’s to showcase the powers of the Eternals (my personal favourite would be Phastos and his innovative machinations). There are several sequences that will scratch the itch for Marvel’s action fans, as well as a fair bit of fan service thrown in (both post-credit codas are relevant to the larger worldbuilding of the MCU, for example), and some of the trademark Marvel humor can be found in the film as well.

Given that this is such a stark departure from previous Marvel ventures, it’s quite understandable from a financial viewpoint at least that everything needs to take place in a single movie – there’s simply no possibility that the Avengers treatment is given to an untested property, allowing the story to percolate over multiple movies and years when the chance of failure is far higher. While it is very clearly not “half a movie” like the recent Dune was, Eternals can still feel frustratingly shallow and almost incomplete at times, and with the MCU back to its “regular” programming in the next couple of years (at least all the way up to the announced Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3 in 2023), it is currently unclear how the Eternals would next return to the MCU and if there would be another opportunity to further flesh out these characters. However, given its quite stellar track record so far, I am willing to believe that this will all play out well in the new phases of the MCU.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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