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‘Eternals’ is Marvel’s big-brained attempt to diversify a brand new universe

Chloé Zhao's Marvel debut is big, bold, and thoroughly lacking.

The following is an edited transcription of the video above. It’s been shortened for length and adjusted for clarity.

Eternals is the 26th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, though it was supposed to be the 24th but was delayed a year because you know why. And that’s perfectly all right because as we’ve seen with the other recent Marvel movies and shows — the “Phase 4” as they call it, so all the Marvel canon we’ve gotten since Spider-Man: Far From Home — has been practically interchangeable when it comes to timelines and what goes where and why. So on that note, Eternals is very much its own thing, and that has a lot to do with its Academy award-winning director, Chloé Zhao.

Zhao, of course, has been on a terrific winning streak as a director of independent films, culminating in last year’s Best Picture Winner, Nomadland, which again, should have technically come out after this one, Eternals (if you don’t count festival releases). Nevertheless, she’s back with that same independent spirit of presenting engaging, heartfelt characters in massive, heart-opening locations.

It fits, in a way, to give her these Marvel superheroes who are set up to exist in the background of all the other movies, because that’s really been Zhao’s wheelhouse as a director and screenwriter since Songs My Brother Taught Me, where this “new” story examines the hidden lives of extraordinary people who might not seem all that special at first glance.

So who are the Eternals of Eternals? That’s the driving narrative of the film, to be honest, not just a set up for my own exposition. The Eternals are a group of powerful beings from a planet called Olympia — you can pretty much compare them to Asgardians from the Thor movies, at least in terms of sturdiness and capability — who were sent to Earth 7,000 years ago on behalf of the Celestials, who are essentially Marvel-branded, all-powerful space gods.

We learn from a jargony opening text crawl that the Celestials have been around since the very beginning of the MCU. And they employ the Eternals to protect life-inhabited worlds from a race of predatory creatures called Deviants, which are essentially skinless, tentacle-clad cerberus dogs. Sort of. The Eternals themselves don’t age, and they’re also gifted with their own unique, magical attributes. One of them can move super fast, another can possess people, and one is basically Superman because he can fly and shoot laser beams.

The movie even points this out in a very meta way, and that’s not the only time. This is a Marvel movie, so the filmmakers inserted a few offhand pieces of dialogue to lampshade the obvious question: If there are powerful beings like the Eternals just hanging around the planet, why didn’t they intervene with all of the major events we’ve seen in the movies? They didn’t try to stop Loki, Ultron, Thanos, and so on.

The characters do address this a handful of times, and mileage will vary on how well the movie succeeds or doesn’t in putting that issue to bed, as there are even plenty of moments when it’s hinted they did do things behind the scenes throughout history. Though most of the historical revisionism, usually played for laughs, isn’t all that clever. It does boost some character chemistry and lighten the usually dour mood at times, but it’s nothing we haven’t already seen done better and more interesting in other films.

So even though the Eternals have been waiting around all this time, they’re only called to action once they discover that the Deviants have returned, centuries after their supposed eradication. And they’re more powerful than ever, so we essentially embark on a “getting the band back together” plot, where we start with Gemma Chan as Sersi, the true heart of the group who can change the properties of matter.

She’s been living with Sprite, played by Lia McHugh, who can create illusions but has always looked like a child despite her old age. Richard Madden plays Ikaris, the aforementioned Superman who everyone considers the strongest. He also has some romantic history with Sersi, but she’s moved on and started dating someone else, a museum curator played by Kit Harington.

There are a lot of other Eternals (and characters), so I’d be here eternally trying to discuss all of them in detail — you can probably see why the runtime is a mammoth 2 hours and 37 minutes. There’s a large sum of lore, mythology, and character outlining in this movie, as well as a lot of philosophy, existentialism, and conflict driven by the clashing of these ideas.

It takes time for the full stakes of the story to come into focus, and when it does, Eternals becomes Marvel’s Iliad, an ambitious, sprawling, globetrotting epic that is more about the characters and how they interact when having to make decisions that will impact countless people. There’s also a good bit in here that could resemble some Biblical stories, at least when it comes to themes about heavenly judgement and utilitarianism, but also what it means to be a human and to love a human. Even if you are supposedly “above” or outside the typically understood concept of humanity.

These are all profoundly refreshing ideas and directions for a movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. They’re also far more adult and mature. Eternals can be enjoyed by younger viewers, absolutely, but it’s one of the first and maybe only of these to be primarily geared toward an older, smarter audience. Especially because it really drags the audience along many extended segments that can be quite demanding if you’re not all in with this story and these characters.

When the movie ended, I had this prickling thought in my head while waiting for the inevitable post credits sequences, which are neither here nor there. I wondered, “What was this all for?” If I ask this question after most Marvel movies, I won’t find a satisfying answer beyond having a good time with an exciting movie. But Eternals has much higher aspirations. It doesn’t want to just be good, exciting, and a precursor to some new cosmic journeys in Marvel’s amusement factory. Zhao and the other screenwriters want us to feel something while watching this. They want us to have discussions about it. Yet coming out of Eternals, I found myself disappointed with most of the fine details.

The main issue is the climax, which pays off an entire movie of doom, gloom, and inevitability with half-explained convenience and bizarre character choices and actions that have almost nothing to do, really, with the meaty debates these characters were having along the way. Part of the problem might lie in how Sersi, again played quite well by Gemma Chan, becomes less and less interesting as the movie progresses. In the beginning, she is actually quite fascinating as this eternal being who manages to love someone in a circumstance where she knows they can’t be together forever. She’s the heart and soul of this group, as well as the main character of the movie, but as we see more and more characters come into play, the script tightens Sersi up into a stiff, reactionary observer until she isn’t at the very last minute.

I’m more than happy to see Chan return to the MCU after her small role in Captain Marvel, and she’s not a weak link in this ensemble, far from it. There just seems to be a lot missing from her and others in this movie because they had to cram so much else in. We have Kumail Nanjiani, for example, who makes a massive choice in the movie at one point, which might’ve made much more sense if there had been more time spent with him setting this decision up. Same goes with the leader of the Eternals, played by Salma Hayek, who we don’t get nearly as much time with as we probably need to establish her driving motivation in the present day.

Many people might wonder, in fact, if Eternals might’ve been better served as a limited series with room to breathe. The effects are certainly polished for the big screen, though the line between cinematic and at-home viewing continue to dwindle in terms of what audiences expect from everything they watch, no matter the format. The soundscape and overall score is perfectly fine, on that note, but not remarkable or memorable.

The action choreography is usually decent, though it’s really hard to believe anything happening onscreen is real within the parameters of what’s real in this world. The art direction is a bit desaturated and bland, particularly when it comes to the design of the Deviants and the costumes. It’s the same issue I had with Shang-Chi, where the green screen quality of the magical mayhem just doesn’t quite connect with what the director is trying to accomplish in terms of tone and function. That’s not to say Eternals is an eyesore, it’s actually quite nice to look at about half the time, especially when you consider the scope of what had to be shot and where to pull off all these locations and time periods and even the cosmic details thrown in as well.

Considering how long I’ve went on about Eternals at this point, it can’t be said the film is dull, or there isn’t much to get into. As you can (maybe painfully) see, the movie sparks a lot of discussion, good or bad. I firmly believe that if Marvel is to continue its uninterrupted rise to global, pop cultural prosperity at the box office, it has to try new things. It has to take risks like this. That doesn’t mean the risks will pay off for absolutely everyone in the same way, and it’s probably not best if we get many more Marvel movies trying exactly this.

But who could really replicate Chloé Zhao? There’s a small comfort knowing that there probably never will be a Marvel film like this one, even if you end up hating it or finding it completely forgettable. It’s a unicorn, or pegasus, or pick your mythological creature.

I’m about half and half with the movie, and as much as I’d like to lean slightly positive, I can’t avoid the fact that by the end of Eternals, I felt nothing. And that’s odd considering how with the film I was up until that point. The pacing isn’t fantastic, but I was there, in this story, the whole way through waiting to see what would happen next. It’s a testament to the characters and how well they’re realized, more than anything else, which means the way the story resolves these arcs has a lot to do with how I leave the film and reflect back on it. Was the journey worth the destination? At this point, I’d say no, but it’s not as if the journey was unbearable or irredeemable. It just simply was, and that’s about it.

Eternals will be available to watch exclusively in theaters starting November 5th in the United States.

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