Chloé Zhao brings epic visuals and humanism to the Marvel Cinematic Universe in Eternals (2021)

Eternals Review

You could be forgiven for thinking that Kevin Feige has taken the undeserved criticism of the formulaic nature of the MCU personally, using the 2021 slate of releases to subvert and refute the notion, first with SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS and now with ETERNALS. Sure, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY brought irreverent space opera to the cinematic universe back in 2014 but here, seven years later, Chloé Zhao brings to life a visually stunning cosmic epic like nothing else the Marvel Universe has offered us so far.

Opening with a crawl setting out the gospel according to Arishem, the ETERNALS arrive on Earth thousands of years ago to protect the fledgling human race from the predation of the Deviants. Throughout the centuries, they nurture humanity while hunting the Deviants to extinction until their mission is complete and they go their separate ways. But when the Deviants return in the present day, the heroes are compelled to re-emerge from the shadows.

There’s no doubting the ambition of ETERNALS as it sets out to tell a story spanning seven millennia and with so much ground to cover, there’s courage in approaching it with care, precision and, above all, patience. We’ve had the MCU as an action-comedy, as a political thriller, as a heist movie but this is the Marvel Universe through the polished lens of a prestige sci-fi lens. It’s a Marvel movie that can go toe to toe, aesthetically, with the likes of DUNE, or the work Zack Snyder has done. But unlike the latter’s visually stunning but spiritually stunted work, there’s a potent air of wonder, optimism and a deep and abiding humanism running the bedrock of the movie like fine veins of gold through black marble.

There’s a lot to take in with ETERNALS and it’s unlikely to provide the glutinous dopamine rush of Marvel’s other tentpole offerings tend to. This isn’t a 20-oz sugar rush big gulp designed to be guzzled down before rushing back to the counter for a free refill. It’s more like a fine liqueur, designed to be sipped slowly, its aroma swirled and savoured, its deep flavours allowed time to breathe and develop and mellow. Repeated viewings may not reveal the hidden caches of Easter Eggs we’ve come to expect (although ETERNALS has its fair share) but it does enrich the experience and I enjoyed the second go-around even more than the first and I’m looking forward to a third already.

Boasting one of Marvel’s most star-laden (outside of THE AVENGERS) casts, Zhao’s movie settles its main focus on Sersi (Gemma Chan, a rare returnee to the MCU after her appearance as Minn-Erva in CAPTAIN MARVEL), it’s through her we get to see the history of the ETERNALS and understand just what’s threatening their future. There’s very little by way of exposition in terms of exposition to bring the audience up to speed with the various character’s power sets with Zhao trusting the audience’s intelligence to work it out for themselves as the story unfolds. Salma Hayeck and Angelina Jolie are every bit as imperious as you’d expect them to be in this pantheon of stars and the rest of the cast are terrific, all getting moments to shine except perhaps the underutilised Barry Keoghan. Much of the humour rests on the (now incredibly buff) shoulders of Kumail Nanjiani and especially his wonderfully irreverent personal valet Karun, played with adorable sincerity by Harish Patel. Lauren Ridloff, Lia McHugh and Brian Tyree Henry are great too with only Richard Madden’s numbly wooden turn as Ikaris letting the side down. It’s a shame, too, because his erstwhile GAME OF THRONES alumni Kit Harrington is as animated and lively in he’s ever been in his small but portentous (for the future of the MCU) of Dane Whitman.

The action sequences and design work of the ETERNALS powers may not have the jaw-dropping power of the likes of SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS but they’re spectacular and beautiful and another leap forward in the MCU’s visual lexicon. Its elegant pacing occasionally strays to languid in the early stages of the movie and it stumbles more than once as it tries to shade in the definitions of its diverse – and star-powered – cast of characters but it finds sounder footing once it splits our heroes up and sets them on a path to reunion and revelation. This is big-swing storytelling, the diametric opposite of the street-level superheroing of the likes of HAWKEYE and THE FALCON AND THE WINTER SOLDIER, and beyond anything the cosmic Marvel cinematic storytelling has done before. ETERNALS taps into the Marvel Universe’s creation mythology without once reducing the magnitude of what’s come before it.

It might feel like an abrupt change of tempo, tone and direction to the MCU fanbase and general audience but there’s so much to enjoy, unpack and just enjoy looking at here that it’s almost predestined to be revisited and re-evaluated as the rest of Phase Four unfolds.

Score 8