There were five movies of build up before Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Black Widow, Hawkeye and the Incredible Hulk teamed up to save New York City from an invading horde of aliens in 2012’s The Avengers.
But with the ever expanding universe of spinoff streaming miniseries, fill-in-the-blanks back stories and new character creation, Marvel Studios simply doesn’t have time to develop the necessary lead up to their latest endeavor, a grandiose left-turn in telling a humanistic tale through the eyes of an immortal alien race hiding on Earth for thousands of years.
Director Chloé Zhao, fresh off an Academy Award for her Best Picture winner Nomadland, bites off more than audiences can easily chew over the course of 150-plus minutes in attempting to introduce 10 new heroes familiar only to the most hardcore of comic book readers while also bouncing back and forth between 7,000 years of history.
Eternals strives to be a ground-breaking cinematic achievement, Marvel’s experimentation with 2001: A Space Odyssey blended with super-hero team-ups. Selecting Zhao to lead the most expansive, wholly new project in the Marvel Cinematic Universe reflects this desire to broaden the horizons creatively.
This 26th film in the MCU feels like the studio is stretching their storytelling formula to the widest point imaginable without breaking it entirely, and while Zhao’s directorial style clashes with more bombastic comic book elements, Eternals certainly has more going for it than working against it.
Zhao’s film tells the saga of the titular alien race sent to Earth by the Celestial Arishem to protect the planet from genetically engineered monsters threatening to devour all life.
With so much exposition and relatively unknown characters to introduce, it’s hard for any of the expansive “Eternals” cast to develop significant personalities or build a deeper connection for the audience, although the effort is largely good throughout.
Gemma Chan centers the story as Sersi and often becomes a way in for viewers to hope to find an emotional tie to the plot as Chan’s ability to empathize radiates off her face and in the tone of her voice. It’s clear in her performances that Sersi’s one true love is the people that she secretly protects, while her chemistry with both romantic interests Richard Madden and Kit Harrington are less dynamic.
Madden is largely effective as a strong, brooding superhero though it isn’t till the final hour in which audiences will understand the conflict in his performance. His chemistry opposite Chan works better when staged in silence under Zhao’s dynamic visuals rather than in dialogue.
Stars like Angelina Jolie and Salma Hayek bring both high-profile and distinct character work to Eternals, but both are sidelined for large portions of the film and are overshadowed by more compelling performances from Brian Tyree Henry’s more empathic Phastos as well as Kumail Nanjiani and Harish Patel’s Kingo and Karun bringing much needed levity to the slow-burn pacing.
The film’s largest flaw is trying to do too much, and in doing so, disjointedly tossing viewers in and out of moments to connect with a character only to have three more spring up. It’s why there rarely is enough screen time given to Barry Keoghan’s most conflicted Druig or the bond Jolie’s Thena carves out with Don Lee’s sympathetic Gilgamesh.
Eternals looks its best when it’s in Zhao’s element as a director, outdoors in practical settings using natural light to give off a cinematic warmth that strives for something more dynamic than usual in a Marvel production, but often the overlaying of CGI-elements like the Deviant creatures the heroes fight clash harshly with the aesthetic Zhao is going for.
Bringing ten new major characters into a firmly established franchise like the MCU is a gigantic order for any single film to accomplish, and it’s too tall a task for Eternals to match the overall quality of films like Avengers: Endgame, Captain America: Civil War or Thor: Ragnarok.
But Eternals also opens so many intriguing possibilities for the future of the franchise both from a storytelling perspective and from a directorial one that its impact on the grand scheme of Marvel will likely be felt long after the film itself falls from cultural relevancy.