What makes Chloé Zhao such a special filmmaker is her ability to bring real life to a sense of poetic cinematic wonder, making the small seem grand and moving. When it was announced that she would take the helm for Marvel’s Eternals, I was excited to get to see her bring her style to the MCU and possibly make the most cinematic film not only that Marvel ever made – but one that could rank up there with the greats such as Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.
Sadly, that was a pipe dream as Eternals doesn’t even flirt with the idea. Although Zhao gets a writing credit shared with Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo, and Kaz Firpo, Eternals is nearly completely void of the elements that make her films click, instead of suffering from hours of exposition – delivering a film that tells instead of shows. This hurts even more so considering that her strength is her ability to show in such a naturalistic beautiful way.
With the characters of Eternals being such a new and unknown property to all those non-comic book diehard obsessives, the script has the unthankable task of having to inundate us into this universe and the nearly dozen or so new characters that make up this new band of characters.
The Eternals are powerful superheroes from planet Olympia sent to earth by giant cosmic creatures known as Celestials, to protect the humans of earth from alien-shaped monsters known as Deviants. Their job is only to defend against any nefarious Deviant activity – they are not allowed to step in for any other reason, allowing humans to endure war, genocide, and even fend for themselves when it comes to other MCU manners such as Thanos.
The boss of Eternals is Ajak (Salma Hayek) who leads a most welcome diverse cast that includes Sersi (Gemma Chan), Ikaris (Richard Madden), Thene (Angelina Jolie), Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), Gilgamesh (Don Lee), Druig (Barry Keoghan), Sprite (Lisa McHugh), and Makkari (Lauren Ridloff).
The first nearly two hours is spent getting to know these characters and seeing them go through the mechanics of their mission, their purpose in life, and the conflicts they have sitting back and watching the people of earth kill one another or suffer through war, when they have the power to step in and help. There are some interesting themes that the screenplay barely scratches the surface on, rather spending the time with some more bland exposition of Celestials and Deviants, all of which is broken up with the generic action sequences that show off their powers and try to reel the audience back in from their exposition-induced slumbers.
The problem is, none of these characters are particularly interesting and there are far too many of them to divide time up fairly in a way that provides any meaningful insight. Chan and Madden get the most screentime of the Eternals and while both performances are “fine” they aren’t up to the task of carrying the film – not that the screenplay does them any favors. Nanjiani is indeed well-suited for the sort of gags that he’s assigned with, but it’s nothing that you haven’t seen done better in countless MCU films before. Jolie, Henry, and Lee all get their fair share of moments to shine, but the only one who seems to bring any sense of dramatic heft to it all is the rising talent that is Barry Keoghan.
Once we get all the clunky explaining out of the way, Eternals nearly finds some mojo during the final act and battle which does seem to move with a better verve and sense of purpose and confidence that was sorely lacking during the two hours that came before.
Ultimately it’s too little too late and I don’t really know what was accomplished except a waste of so much of the talent involved – mainly Zhao. There are some intimate moments of insight and pathos sprinkled in-between it all but it felt as if Marvel never really allowed the filmmaker to truly leave her mark on Eternals. What could’ve and should’ve felt like a distinct impression from a great director ends up being one of Marvel’s dullest efforts to date.