I’ll get this out of the way now. If you’re expecting Eternals to be standard fare for the MCU, it’s not. This is going to be a divisive movie. And it’s because it’s heavy, it’s out there, it’s a bit slower paced, a bit more disconnected from the established films for now, and it covers a ton of ground.
Now, for the most part, after finishing an MCU film, I am usually quite able to make a snap decision about how I felt. Typically I absolutely love it. And the lowest I’ve ever really felt about an MCU film would be if it fell into the “still pretty good” territory. For Eternals I had to think about it and process it. I knew I liked it, but did I love it? It’s that heavy. And after ruminating about this one, I realized the film, unlike for example, Dune, was something that kept me thinking for a couple of days. And each time I thought about it, I realized I liked it more and more. So what does this all mean? It means I really, really liked this movie.
I get that, perhaps, I’m going to be in the minority here, and that’s fine. Sometimes, audiences don’t like their MCU films heavy. It’s why movies like the Fast franchise or Venom exist; to allow folks to put up their feet and leave the thinking caps at home. Hence why I said, divisive. At this juncture, Marvel Studios has built itself up in such an elevated position that it has gotten to a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” point in its franchise history, where people will complain that all the MCU films are the same, then still complain about the ones that deviate heavily from the formula.
And it’s a shame because were I running the MCU, I wouldn’t know what to do with that information, since audiences can be fickle. But as a critic, I have to defend Eternals because, credit where credit is due, it’s incredibly different and incredibly risky. After all, this is a movie about giant space gods and their servants. Things are going to get out of the MCU comfort zone.
To summarize the plot, Celestials created the ten Eternals introduced in this film, and sent them to Earth to protect humanity from another race of Celestial creations called Deviants. In their 7,000 years on Earth, the ten Eternals began to love humanity. But as the years went on, and the Deviants started to grow extinct, thanks to their efforts, they each decided to go their separate ways. Until one day, a mysterious murder, connected to the re-emergence of the Deviants, forces each of them to come out of hiding and reunite with the rest of their teammates to discover an even bigger, more shocking truth than any of them could have ever imagined.
Contrary to what many may think, this one is a true Chloé Zhao movie first, and an MCU movie second. From the sprawling landscapes to the attention to dialogue and relationships, Zhao puts an emphasis on character over action. And while, because it’s still in the MCU, we have little references and comments to address interconnectivity, for the most part, she wants you focused on what’s going on with her ensemble only and their cosmic half of the universe. You’ll find no appearances from Hulk or Captain Marvel in this. But you don’t need them because an ensemble of ten compelling characters is enough to get you through two-and-half hours of movie, covering 7,000 years of story. Now as is the standard for Zhao, pacing can be a bit slower, but in this case, I felt she did a mostly good job never lingering on slower bits for too long (maybe in the second act only), and intercutting with fun action scenes and Deviant battles throughout the film.
Thematically, this is a beautiful film. Eternals explores heavier concepts posing questions about whether or not humanity is worth saving, as well as the potential costs to blindly following religion. Ideas of free will and freedom, and the good and evils that can come from letting humanity conduct themselves with both are also presented. And how those affect each and every single one of the Eternals themselves is gorgeously woven into this fine tapestry of philosophy and heroism that Zhao is trying to create. One thing to bear in mind is that this is not an easy movie to make.
To cover 7,000 years of history, mythology, and relationships for ten characters we’ve never been introduced to, while exploring weighty themes like this, means this is a lot of movie. But to me, she covers the exposition and themes as well as can be for the time allotted to her. And more than that, she honors these characters and gets you to love them, demonstrating those themes through their stories.
Each and every single one of the ten Eternals has a fleshed out personality and personal history with humanity. The particular highlights being Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), Sprite (Lia McHugh), Druig (Barry Keoghan), and most of all Sersi (Gemma Chan). And it’s a triumph that Zhao is able to get you to understand and sympathize with the entire ensemble, even if some get more attention than the others.
In particular, I ended up leaving the theater loving Phastos, Druig, Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), and Sersi. And to me, that represents a very clever subversion of expectations from Zhao. The marketing for the film would have you believe heavy hitters like Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek, Kumail Nanjiani, Kit Harrington, and Richard Madden would be the stars of this show, but it’s really a platform to put the spotlight on the less famous, rising star actors like Keoghan, Ridloff, McHugh, and Chan, who all give really fantastic performances!
Chan especially knocks it out of the park and showcases why she should receive more attention as a leading actress today. Her Sersi is gentle and quiet, yet caring, pensive, and powerful. It’s a character and a performance driven by the strength of heart over CG powers. But on the whole, everyone gets a moment to shine brightly, and as such, for me, I believe Zhao has ultimately created the best working template to-date for how to do an ensemble superhero film that gives all characters their due.
In addition to Chan, the rest of the performances are fantastic across the board. Henry and Nanjiani get the most laughs, but Henry surprisingly also brings us some of the biggest heartfelt and heart breaking moments of the film. Jolie absolutely brings regal gravitas to Thena, who has a tragic secret of her own. Her scenes with Don Lee’s Gilgamesh (who sadly doesn’t get too much to do, but is still great) are sweet and somber. Hayek brings so much kindness and maternal understanding to Ajak, leader of the Eternals. And McHugh, Ridloff, and Madden are all great as well. The only actor and character to really get shortchanged here is Harrington, who does the best with the limited screen time he has as Dane Whitman, Sersi’s modern day love interest. Naturally the film is setting his arc up for future films, but he really, unfortunately, doesn’t get much to do at all.
On a visual level, the film had some incredibly jaw-dropping moments of cinematography. It looks beautiful and feels fittingly sweeping. The action isn’t as good as Shang-Chi (my new gold standard for MCU action), but is adequately entertaining enough. The final battle at the end is incredibly fun, and a particularly amazing highlight for Ridloff’s Makkari. And the score is beautiful and epic courtesy of Game of Thrones composer Ramin Djawadi.
Additionally, the post-credits scenes really set things up for the MCU to get even more crazy, so watch out for those and avoid spoilers if you can. And on a POC level, I don’t have to do anything further to praise this film that I haven’t already done in the past. Zhao being a gifted director being a female POC is incredible. But to add to that that the best characters in this film are all POCs — one being the leader of the Eternals — is nothing short of rare and extraordinary these days.
If I had to voice complaints about the film, I would admit I was a little annoyed with their explanations for why the Eternals weren’t involved in any of the previous MCU crossovers, particularly in stopping Thanos. I realize the point of the film is not for it to be another puzzle piece in the MCU narrative, but really set up its own identity and separate narrative, but their explanation wasn’t satisfying for me. And going back to pacing, I will admit that the second act does drag a little. But if I can sit through Dune, by comparison, this was an absolute breeze!
Eternals is not a perfect movie. And it won’t be loved by everyone. In fact it will be divisive because it’s not like a lot of the other MCU films audiences have been used to. But that’s the beautiful thing about it. It’s ambitious, daring, and thought provoking with terrific performances from its ensemble, and characters that are instantly compelling. While not as much fun as a movie like Shang-Chi, due to its heaviness and weighty exposition, I’m still incredibly excited to see more from these interstellar characters and how they’ll ultimately play into the grand future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Overall Score (on an entertainment level): B+
Overall Score (on a representation level): A-