Movies

‘Eternals’ is a Tense Cosmic Battle Over Franchise Filmmaking

Despite her best efforts, Chloe Zhao's grounded emotional storytelling is largely incompatible with the Marvel formula.

There is a universe where Eternals would mark a new age – not only for Marvel but for the superhero film genre as a whole. Sadly, we don’t currently live in it.

Eternals is a massive collection of compromises negotiated by Oscar-winning director Chloe Zhao and Marvel mega-producer Kevin Feige. Zhao wants to tell an emotionally grounded story about cosmic superheroes from a relatively obscure comic book series. Feige wants further expand his sprawling Marvel Cinematic Universe, keeping an ironclad grip on how individual stories interact within it. The film is a cold war theatre (albeit with better media training), with Marvel Studios’ future at stake after a decade of cultural dominance.

That doesn’t mean Eternals is a failure or even a significant disappointment. However, there is a tension that is difficult to ignore.

The cast of Eternals (courtesy: Marvel Studios)

Eternals follows the lives of a titular group of cosmic beings sent to Earth by mega-deities named Celestials to stop predatory monsters called Deviants from feasting on humans. The Celestials instruct the Eternals only to fight Deviants and not interfere with humanity in any other way (yes, that conveniently includes Thanos and the “Blip”). Eventually, the group, having dispatched with the Deviants, choose to spend the next few millennia living amongst humanity, separate from each other. The Deviants’ re-emergence force the group to interrupt their lives to band together and save Earth from another new threat.

Eternals, or the Eternals that Zhao wanted to make, is about how human connection clashes with duty and responsibility. It’s not a novel concept by any means, but it’s rarely rendered with as much beauty and empathy as Zhao does. She directs with a keen eye for emotion, not only her characters’ but our own, and captures moments of both gentle intimacy and immense grandeur with an equal sense of awe. The film is most successful in capturing intimacy, as the Eternals build and break their relationships to discover what it means to love and protect. The emotional, weighty stakes behind Zhao’s approach to these characters feel fresh in realism and care. Other Marvel films had meaningful relationships, sure, but they frequently came behind other priorities. Who has time to show two superheroes making love on a beach when you have to fit in high-octane action scenes, complex world-building, and set-up for future films?

Richard Madden in Eternals (courtesy: Marvel Studios)

Therein lies the rub of Eternals: there is a lot to set up and not enough time or narrative space to do it. The film boils down to a globe-spanning road trip to collect each Eternal that offers glimpses of their past and present. Because there are ten of them, the short-changing of some is inevitable and unfortunate. There were several points where a high-budget Disney+ miniseries made more sense than shoe-horning ten unique identities into one relatively generic “save the world” film. 

It seems like a waste, given how many high-profile actors are in Eternals. The one given the most substantive screen estate is Gemma Chan as Sersi, who has more than enough charismatic grace to carry as much as she does. Playing her romantic counterpart Ikaris, Richard Madden proves his leading man mettle, even though his meaty material is pretty limited. There is nowhere near enough Kumail Nanjiani or Barry Keoghan, both of whom deserve multiple episodes of my imagined miniseries based on how easily they steal scenes. And then there’s Angelina Jolie. Her name towards the end of the credits feels inherently wrong; the amount of movie-star caliber work she puts in over a scant amount of screen time confirms that feeling.

Gemma Chan in Eternals (courtesy: Marvel Studios)

Besides introducing its leading ensemble, Eternals must also detail the Celestials, the Deviants, and their backstory spanning galaxies and millennia. Zhao tries her best to service her Marvel-sanctioned world-building duties while preserving her vision of the characters, but she struggles. The amount of explanation and exposition is immense, even for Marvel, and it clashes with her vivid character work. The introduction of the inevitable second-act twist is a startlingly soulless exposition dump that is difficult to comprehend fully despite Chan’s best efforts.

Unfortunately, the final third of Eternals hinges on that twist and Zhao’s character-driven storytelling pretty much takes a back seat. When she does get to lean on the Eternals’ complicated dynamics, there are enjoyable moments. However, the film devolves into a textbook, CGI-driven cataclysm trope that feels hollow and confusing given the purported stakes. 

Kumail Nanjiani in Eternals (courtesy: Marvel Studios)

Eternals could’ve jettisoned that cataclysm and lasered in on the group’s dynamic for its final act, and I get the inkling that Zhao would’ve done that if given the free reign. It would’ve been a better film, but it’s likely not the film Marvel wanted. Zhao’s grounded emotional storytelling sounds terrific in theory, but Marvel cares more about massive clashes underpinned with witticisms. There are some notable riffs – Taika Waititi’s technicolor absurdity with Thor: Ragnarok, Ryan Coogler’s exploration of the duties of Blackness in Black Panther – but the films don’t deviate much from the Marvel formula. Despite her best efforts, Zhao’s filmmaking style may not be compatible with Feige’s overall MCU vision. No one side is right or wrong. Zhao is an accomplished filmmaker with a promising career ahead of her. Feige’s strategy has been astronomically successful with no equal or impediment. Still, Eternals can’t help but feel like a missed opportunity, even if you enjoy it.

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