Principal Cast : Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Kumail Nanjiani, Lia McHugh, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Ridloff, Barry Keoghan, Don Lee, Harish Patel, Kit Harington, Salma Hayek, Angelina Jolie, Bill Skarsgard, David Kaye.
Synopsis: The saga of the Eternals, a race of immortal beings who lived on Earth and shaped its history and civilizations.
At one point during Eternals’ two-and-a-half hour runtime, one of the side characters asks a member of the titular Eternals why they never got involved with the events of Avengers Infinity War or Endgame. The response is a wet-blanket of disinterest and immortal blasé unconcern, but at least we finally have an answer as to why the all-powerful Eternals, a gaggle of beings sent to our planet at the dawn of civilisation by an entity known as a Celestial, didn’t take it up to Thanos. It kinda sets the tone for Eternals overall, really. Such is the galactic stakes at play here, with so much god-like narrative at work behind the scenes of the regular MCU, viewers may feel very much baffled by the dour tone Zhao’s film evokes, as quietly spoken immortal characters pontificate as to their mission on Earth, their value to humanity, and their surprisingly fateless lives lived forever in the shadows. Whereas James Gunn’s Guardians Of The Galaxy branch of this cosmic MCU tree took kooky characters and crafted comedic, heartfelt humanity within their zany adventures, Zhao’s film treats its spectacle almost the opposite, as a rigidly formulaic and desperately serious take on superheroism that underwhelms.
Earth, several years after the events of Avengers Endgame, and a group of ten superpowered Eternals, led by the wise Ajak (Salma Hayek), live secretly among human beings in order to await further instructions from their Celestial overlord, Arishem (voice of David Kaye), an enormous God-creature who sent the Eternals to Earth millennia ago to defend them from the monstrous Deviants. One Eternal, Sersi (Gemma Chan) encounters a powerful Deviant in London, following a global earthquake event, which leads her to reconnect with one-time love interest Ikaris (Richard Madden), much to the dismay of Sersi’s human partner Dane Whitman (Kit Harington). Sersi, Ikaris and the childlike Sprite (Lia McHugh) travel the globe reuniting with their Eternal brethren, including Bollywood star Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), inventor and technologist Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), the disenchanted mind-controller Druig (Barry Keoghan), and the super-speedster Makkari (Lauren Ridloff). As they discern the reason for the revival of Deviants, Sersi and Ikaris also have to contend with the onset of “mahd wy’ry” in their compatriot Thena (Angelina Jolie), a mental condition though to be caused by her incredibly long life, while her guardian, Gilgamesh (Don Lee), protect her from herself. When they discover Ajak has been killed seemingly by Deviants, Sersi takes up the connection with Arishem to discover an imminent threat to Earth and its inhabitants – the Emergence, a one-in-an-eon destructive event through which a long-dormant Celestial buried inside the Earth will awaken, destroying the planet.
Observant fans of the MCU will know that we’ve seen a Celestial before Eternals, specifically the severed head of one – Knowhere, the ubiquitous spaceport in Guardians Of The Galaxy, is the ancient skull of a Celestial, giving us context to their sheer size. Created by Jack Kirby, both the Eternals and Celestials form the backbone of Marvel Comics’ cosmic mythology, a vaguely biblical Silmarillion-styled history of our Universe that’s as portentous as it is manifestly jaw-dropping. Transitioning these galactic beings to the confines of the MCU feels a touch insular, given the Earthbound scope of Chloe Zhao’s film, but the director, and screenwriters Ryan and Kaz Firpo, manage to bring things down to our level (for the most part), taking a risk that audiences will go with this confusing and at times utterly baffling new-fangled concept to the MCU.
We’re introduced to a virtual football team of new superpowered beings, all with their own specific identities and characteristics, each demanding an arc within the wider story and carving out a niche in the rapidly expanding cinematic roster. I think audiences will allow Kevin Feige and his storytelling teams to tread in new, unique and potentially bananas directions now that the Infinity Saga has come to its conclusion, and Eternals is a sure-fire way of testing the waters of interest in some of the more cerebral corners of Marvel’s storied comics history. Does it work? Not always, but I have to admire the tenacity with which Zhao and Co throw it all up on the screen, showcasing the absurd and the nonsensical and the near superhuman, hoping to find something that sticks.
Crucial to Eternals‘ success is the relationship between each of the major characters, led by Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Lia McHugh and Kumail Nanjiani, and backed up by the likes of a largely silent Angelina Jolie (I’m sorry, but Jolie looks utterly bored by this pavlava, a far cry from the mythological Athena her character is modelled on), a bewildered Kit Harington (playing a character with far more implications to the MCU than what this film specifies), and the sour-grapes Barry Keoghan. That these character are essentially immortal inhibits their humanity somewhat, playing with powers far beyond our understanding with the nonchalance and arrogance of characters unable to grasp our humanity, or weaknesses. I found Gemma Chan’s Sersi, the film’s chief link between the Eternals and humanity, to be one of the strongest elements of the story, but Chan seemed incapable of relaying this sense of care and love back at the screen. Richard Madden, as the often belligerent Ikaris, plays the part supremely well – it’s no surprise that his character’s mid-film about-face is given to an actor capable of wringing the pathos and Thanos-like motivational conviction with such prescience, and he carries it off perfectly. Lia McHugh has a chance to shine as Sprite, eternally stuck in the form of a child and unable to have “adult” experiences simply because of her physical look – something that the film treats with awkward potential and ultimately fails to land properly; the dynamic between Sprite, Sersi and Ikaris is the triptych of the film and overall it plays well enough, but Chan is the obvious weak link performance-wise.
The film’s serious tone is balanced out be several comedic (or comedic adjacent) performances, notably Kumail Nanjiani as the roguish, wisecracking member of the team, Kingo. Kingo is arguably the standout character from the film, easily the funniest and by far the most attractive to regular human viewers, for his attitude to “hiding” within our society is the cleverest and least pretentious of the lot. Nanjiani delivers some nice little asides and turns of wit, although it should be noted that he isn’t really suited to being an action hero despite bulking up considerably for the part. Barry Keoghan embittered Druig is the dark horse of the film, tonally matching Zhao’s dour pacing and the film’s drab, often desaturated cinematography, and while I understood both character and actor worked well in concert together, I’m disinclined to suggest he had adequate development within the main story to warrant any real payoff. Brian Tyree Henry’s overtly gay Phastos, who spends his time living with partner Ben (Haaz Sleiman) and son Jack (Esai Daniel Cross), is the Q to Sersi’s Bond in Eternals, offering mechanisms to propel human history forward but forever haunted by the atrocities committed in his wake – a moving sequence has Phastos standing amidst the carnage of Hiroshima, lamenting his involvement in giving humankind technological leaps, and again I wish this had been explored a lot more than Zhao is able to do even within the confines of this lengthy spectacle movie.
As alluded to earlier, I found Angelina Jolie’s portrayal of warrior-princess Thena to be the most problematic of the film’s ensemble, not because the character was poorly written or underserved but because Jolie herself seemed too aloof to deliver a memorable performance. The actress sported the physicality well enough but I didn’t buy her as the progenitor of the Greek mythological Athena, a kickass Wonder Woman-styled warrior who would have slayed entire legions to get her way. Instead, saddled with a poorly executed narrative plot device leaving her consistently attacking her fellow Eternals, Jolie gilds the lily by being silent-but-deadly far too much in this movie, and I thought the part deserved somebody more, I don’t know, interested. Don Lee tries his hardest as Gilgamesh, Thena’s protector, but despite a Hulk-like brutality to his character and a formidable on-screen presence with Jolie in quieter moments, not even he could drag the Oscar-winning actress out of her trance-like portrayal.
I admit to some bias coming into Eternals, only because I really didn’t like Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland, which won Best Picture at the Oscars in 2021 and saw Zhao herself pick up a Best Director gong. I didn’t like the documentarian feel of that film, although I understand why Zhao used that particular style to enhance the viewpoint of a struggling American underclass. Could she , though, transition from that format to a more straightforward cinematic venture like an MCU film? Biased or not, I contend that Eternals is beautifully photographed, but at no point was I awed by what was transpiring. Okay, maybe once, when Arishem shows up the first time, but otherwise… nada. Zhao is unable to connect the beautiful people on the screen with the average viewers beyond it, and a lot of that has to do with the sour, melancholy tone Eternals seemed to revel in, as well as several globetrotting sidebar adventures mired in wretched “romance” and awkward, ill-fitting clashes of personality, none of which felt organic to the story.
Maybe Chloe Zhao is another filmmaker (like Terrence Malick) that I just don’t get, whose films I just don’t like. I hope not, because I’ve no doubt Feige and her will be reteaming for the sequel to this one (its a given, with the trumpeteous “Eternals will return” title card backing up the far more intriguing mid and end credit sequences). I hope upon rewatching this film I can find a kernel of interest or wonder within its continent-shattering central plot device; I have no prior knowledge of the Eternals and Celestials as comic characters, so I went into this film completely cold on them – I get the feeling that had I done some homework beforehand, I’d have gleaned a lot more fun from this quintessentially Kirby-esque ensemble group, but I’m not here to do homework. Whilst momentarily diverting and offering up some truly spectacular concepts and a mind-blowing climax (seriously, what chance have the Avengers got when God literally shows up hovering over the planet!), Eternals’ stop-start pace, jumbled ensemble and limited time with ancillary characters, as well as Zhao’s penchant for weird camera-angles and shot selections, make for a discombobulating, frustrating viewing experience. I’ll give it a chance in future viewings, but at first blush it’s a significant misstep for the MCU’s Phase 4.
[Editor’s Note] – Eternals is available in both IMAX Enhanced and standard Theatrical Scope viewing on Disney+, and I would suggest watching in the theatrical format first – the shifting aspect ratios of the IMAX version are aggravating and nonsensical and I think this is what went a fair way to ruining the movie’s experiential enjoyment for me.