It seems as though you can’t mention the MCU word on Twitter anymore without inviting some fervent floods of discourse. There are those convinced it’s the defining cultural force of our generation and those convinced it’s a blight choking cinema and creativity to a slow death. The ubiquity across the zeitgeist that Marvel enjoys automatically invites scrutiny and a slate of divisive opinions. Yet the latest entry in the behemoth franchise, Academy Award-winning auteur Chloé Zhao’s Eternals, is likely to be more divisive than most. And I absolutely loved it!
The movie follows a group of immortal alien superpowered heroes called the Eternals, sent to Earth millennia ago by the godlike Celestials to eradicate monsters known as Deviants from the planet. You can tell just by looking that this is bound to be a very different entry in Marvel’s oeuvre. Kevin Feige’s raptures about Zhao insisting on using actual locations for natural scenery as opposed to sound stages have already become infamous. But the visual distinction is striking.
It’s not that this film is stripped bare of any CGI fare— there’s enough flying, laser eyes/hands, and gigantic alien creatures to satisfy the standard superhero requirements. There is, however, an undeniable ‘spaciousness’ to Eternals. The landscapes are vast and sprawling, with open oceans and arid deserts. Other reviews have described these sites as hollow, but they seem thematically resonant with the boundless potential and possibility that the titular team sees in Earth.
This team is, naturally, where the core of the movie lies. But, naturalistic landscapes aside, what sets Eternals apart from other films in the franchise is its focus on characters and their relationships above and beyond everything else. Helming the film is Gemma Chan’s Sersi, an Eternal with the power to transfigure inanimate objects, and she’s certainly unusual for a Marvel protagonist. At the start of the film, Sersi has been living undercover in London as a science teacher, only to be pulled from her quiet life by the reemergence of Deviants. Sersi is not a fighter — despite being the film’s protagonist, she is seldom the focal point of the action sequences save for a few impressive set pieces.
Instead, she is defined by a profound sense of compassion for humans, instantly empathizing with us in all our flawed glory. Unfortunately, the script doesn’t always do her favours. It wavers towards the one-note, often failing to round her out beyond the single character trait. Still, Chan’s performance is lovely, quiet and grounded. There’s a refreshing eye-of-the-storm quality to such a calm, understated character at the center of a story in a world often known for its bombastic.
Opposite Chan is Richard Madden as Ikaris, Sersi’s long-time lover-turned-ex. The two-star in the MCU’s first (very safely PG-rated) sex scene, an honour that frankly sounds more salacious than it is. More than anything, it’s evidence of the more remarkable thing, which is the film’s emphasis on romance. Not just the polished presentation of an iconic comic book power couple, but a simple look at the dynamic between two people who love each other but can’t, for various reasons, be together. It’s not necessarily the most fleshed-out relationship. Still, Madden and Chan have a tender, gentle chemistry that simmers throughout to genuinely poignant and wrenching effect in the climactic scene, and it’s a breath of fresh air to see the film’s concerns with free will humanity, and love centred in a romantic relationship.
This is perhaps the most divisive but, in my mind, effective choice the film makes. The significant galactic conflicts and end-of-the-world problems function almost as background fodder for the character dynamics. Take Phastos, for example, the technological wizard of the Eternals portrayed by Brian Tyree Henry. He has turned his back on humanity somewhat, grief-stricken by how they have corrupted his technology to use for destruction. But his love for his husband and son inspires him to see the good in the world and to see a fuller, more vibrant purpose for himself.
Equally touching is the dynamic between Thena (Angelina Jolie) — one of the most powerful warriors in the group who can conjure a magic sword and shield from thin air — and the supernaturally strong Gilgamesh (Don Lee), which is a surprisingly nuanced exploration of mental illness and how it affects relationships. Barry Keoghan’s magnetic performance as Druig, the most morally ambiguous of the group and the Eternal with the ability to manipulate minds, shines even further in his dynamic with Lauren Ridloff’s super-fast Makkari (who is the first deaf superhero in the MCU). Their flirtatious back-and-forth effervesces off the screen whenever they’re together, and brings a richness to every part of the ensemble cast in a way that’s easy to miss.
Lia McHugh brings a degree of wist and melancholy to what could be a one-note performance as the snarky quipper as Sprite, The only Eternal with the appearance of a child who secretly pines for Ikaris and longs to be able to experience love, change, and other facets of human experience. Even Kumail Nanjiani’s genuinely hilarious turn as Kingo (Desi viewers should keep an eye on his Bollywood plotline, which throws plenty of winks to those in the know about the quirks of the Indian film industry) is sweetened by his surprisingly endearing dynamic with his valet and sidekick Karun, portrayed by an affable Harish Patel. Rounding out the pack is Salma Hayak as Ajak, the leader of the Eternals, who is a motherly, affectionate figure closer to a Marmee than a Nick Fury.
What works so well about the ensemble is that the film’s unafraid of fleshing out individual dynamics between them, allowing that interconnectedness to build a sense of family organically, rather than forcing the surface-level obligatory rah-rah go-team attitude that can sometimes emerge in popcorn “found family” films. The film’s major plot twist was gut-wrenching, not because of the shock value but because you can genuinely feel the emotional ripple effect exerted on the characters. The biggest tension of the film is emotional, not material, and that’s a bold move on Zhao’s part.
This won’t be a film for everyone. It’s slower, heavier, somehow more melancholy than the usual Marvel fare. It has good jokes, but it’s not suffused by the zingy humour Marvel movies are often known for. The themes it explores are rich, but some may find their density stifling. I’m honestly unsurprised by the reviews I’ve seen decrying this as Marvel’s “worst movie.” But in my mind, Eternals, with its emotional vibrance and beautifully rendered exploration of relationships and love, is one of its best!