Director Chloe Zhao’s Eternals takes place within a world that has fully gotten used to the notion that superheroes exist. Occurring after the end of 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, where a massive population returns after ‘the blip,’ the fact that Gods living among us doesn’t seem so far-fetched. Dane Whitman (Kit Harrington) asks his girlfriend Cersei (Gemma Chan) if she’s a wizard “like Doctor Strange” and “to see if she can turn him into a giraffe.” With something as monumental as half of life on Earth turning into dust vanishing into dust, the MCU had to raise the stakes. What if there were God-like entitles that living among us that sought to protect us from a powerful, ancient enemy – even more powerful than an A.I. run amuck or an infinity gauntlet yielding mad man?
About 7,000 years ago, The Eternals were sent to Earth to protect humankind from the Deviants – as ordained by a Celestial being, Arishem the Judge. The film jumps around at various points in human history. These beings with powers ranging from matter manipulation, energy beams, super speed, illusions, and choose to live among the humans – but to allow them to forge their evolutionary chart. They do introduce advancements like combustible engines and the plow just as a helper tool. But humans are capable of both love and hate, peace and war – those are things that the Eternals have to struggle with and be hands-off with. Druig (Barry Keoghan), an Eternal who can control minds, brings up this very point. What do you do when you have powers to influence things and can’t use them? But if you do, you would rob humans of developing their own sense of expansion. We’ve seen questions of mortality and sacrifice within characters like Steve Rodgers and Tony Stark, but Eternals does this looking on the outside looking in.
When the film shifts to the present day, the writing team of Zhao, Patrick Burleigh and Ryan, and Kaz Firpo try to tie different storylines to find their ways back to an overall theme – love. Cersei was previously in a love affair with fellow Eternal Ikaris (Richard Madden), but her time with humans leads her to Dane when he goes away. Ajak (Salma Hayek), the leader and healer of the group, is withholding a secret from the group – the real reason the Eternals are on Earth. In a process called ‘The Emergence,’ a celestial being is made – for that to happen, all human life must be sacrificed. Here, a lot of the splinters within the group rear their ugly heads, and it lends to the conventional breakup of a superhero team. Some are ok with the mission because they see it as the natural order of things. Others do not because they’ve seen too much good in humans throughout the Marvel saga to give up on them. It’s an excellent problem to dive into, buried in many story beats that we’ve seen before in other films.
With a narrative like this, it’s hard to navigate all the characters’ emotional proponents properly. There is a concerted effort to keep the fleeting relationship of Cersei and Ikaris as the Eternals base. In saying that, everybody well uses their screen time. Kumail Nanjiani, who plays Kingo, a movie star who relishes the world knowing who the Eternals are, is the welcomed comic relief of the movie. Together with his manager and trusted documentarian Karun (Harish Patel), they make a very entertaining pair.
David Tyree Henry’s Phastos, whose ability is contingent on machinery and technological advancement, has seen the highs and lows of humanity – from something like the atomic bomb and living in suburbia with his husband and young son. He brings a lot of heart and quick, clever lines to the role. Angelina Jolie’s Thena, the ensemble’s best warrior, gets her time to shine within action sequences. She also has a condition called “Mahd Wy’ry,” where too many memories fragment her mind and causes her to lash out at her teammates. Gilgamesh (Don Lee), the Hulk-like character in the Eternals, takes it upon himself to look after her. They have a shared bond you’ll wish had more time to show itself.
There are beautiful backdrops aplenty, and Zhao and cinematographer Ben Davis know how to let shots linger in the right places. Either to make it, so the Eternals, Deviants, and Celestials feel out of this world, or when the landscape of sites like the Amazon makes it seem as though the Eternals fit in. The action is extremely fast-paced and is used to accentuate every character’s ability on screen. Eternals finds itself often caught in a spiderweb of the MCU structure that came before it. A tug-o-war between Zhao’s penchant for deep character excavation and superhero team-up tropes. They take from each other so that it feels as though both modes of storytelling don’t do quite enough.
Ultimately, the film feels like a pet between two owners, and it’s confused on exactly who to run to. We have a team that has to reconvene together to stop calamity from happening. When they separate, the plot’s main message splinters with different exponential questions. It’s only when the characters are together that everything becomes clear.
Photo Credit: Disney/Marvel