At the beginning of the 2021, Chloé Zhao became the second woman in history to win the Oscar for best director. She now rounds out the year by joining the ranks of filmmakers who have made their mark on the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Zhao makes her Marvel debut directing Eternals, a fast-paced, action-packed, big-budget, CGI-infused Hollywood spectacular that’s vastly different from the slow-burning film for which she won the Oscar, Nomadland. We can catch glimpses of Zhao’s directorial expertise, respect for nature, and reverence for human connection in Eternals — but in the end, the movie is still characterized by the same distinctive style, themes, and humor that define all films in the MCU (how many jokes can you make about non-human beings trying to figure out human technology?). After Avengers: Endgame, Eternals feels a bit like an all-or-nothing attempt to get a new superhero group together as quickly as possible. Fans should buckle up, because there’s a lot going on in this latest addition to the MCU.
Joining Zhao is a star-studded cast that portrays 10 all-new superheroes: Gemma Chan as Sersi, Richard Madden as Ikaris, Angelina Jolie as Thena, Salma Hayek as Ajak, Kumail Nanjiani as Kingo, Lia McHugh as Sprite, Brian Tyree Henry as Phastos, Barry Keoghan as Druig, Don Lee as Gilgamesh, and Lauren Ridloff as Makkari, the first deaf superhero in the MCU. This dynamic group makes up the Eternals, an immortal alien species from the planet Olympia. At the dawn of human civilization, cosmic architects called Celestials sent the Eternals to Earth to protect mankind from the Deviants, a race of destructive and bloodthirsty beasts. Each of the Eternals is gifted with a classic superpower — one has laser-eyes, one has super speed, one has super strength, etc. Together, they make a powerful defensive force and eventually wipe the Deviants off the face of the earth. They also help shape the course of human history and development, providing a few technological gifts here and there thanks to Phastos’ inventing skills. Over time, the Eternals split up and begin to integrate themselves into everyday human society. But when the Deviants begin popping up again in different areas around the world, the group must join forces once more.
While “six degrees of Kevin Bacon” was the party game of choice for Gen X, a more relevant game for millennials and Gen Z might be “six degrees of Marvel.” As the MCU grows exponentially, so does the number of A-list celebs who have contributed their talents to the franchise. It’s easy (and perhaps somewhat accurate) to say that the production team behind Eternals brought on as many household names as possible so they could make billions of dollars without taking the time to put together a good, nuanced story. At this point, the MCU is a swirling stewpot of stars, directors, writers, headache-inducing timelines, endless self-referential jokes, and mythologies from different parts of the world that shouldn’t work together in the same universe. Eternals adds a smorgasbord of new elements to that stewpot, as if the creative team frantically grabbed as many ideas as they could and threw them at a Marvel-movie-writing bot. At certain points in the movie, it feels like too much. But when has the MCU ever been about anything other than making big-budget movies to entertain the masses? Marvel movies are meant to be blockbusters that feed a hungry fandom. If Eternals was anything else, it wouldn’t feel like a Marvel movie.
A movie that’s jam-packed with stars isn’t necessarily a bad one. Does Eternals feel like a money-grabber? Yes. Does the MCU’s tendency to star-stuff its films make those films feel cheap? For sure. But you have to admit, there’s not a single bad performance in Eternals. The cast had the difficult task of developing new and dynamic characters all while sharing the screen with other talented MCU novices. No member of the Eternals has their own solo film yet, but each character still came across as sympathetic, complex, emotionally rich, and believable. Even Kingo (Nanjiani), the token comedian of the group, gets the chance to demonstrate his true character and develop emotionally. The Eternals certainly have stereotypical powers, character traits, and tragic flaws, but at least the charismatic cast makes these stock characters interesting. There are a few character hiccups that make certain parts of the plot feel rushed and under-developed, particularly when it comes to romantic pursuits. Eternals certainly isn’t a manifesto on character development, but it isn’t trying to be. It’s part of a multi-billion-dollar franchise that was created to make audiences flock to the theater. And if that’s the purpose of a movie, why not pack the cast list with every star available?
The other nice thing about Eternals is that you don’t need to have seen any of the other Marvel movies to understand and appreciate it. Sure, the movie includes a few references to the events of Age of Ultron and Endgame, but you won’t be totally lost while watching Eternals if you haven’t seen the previous Marvel movies. Eternals is a great place for any newcomers to the MCU fandom to start. The superhero mythology in Eternals is fresh and interesting. History and mythology buffs will appreciate the way that the Eternals fit in with human civilization, and anyone interested in ancient alien theory will appreciate this film the most out of all those in the MCU. But even though they are technically aliens, the Eternals look like they could fit easily into any other MCU movie. They face the same conflicts and challenges as the Avengers did, making their mission to save the world less interesting. The ultimate test for this new set of superheroes will be in front of thousands of MCU fans in theaters across the country starting November 5, 2021.
"Our embodied spectator, possibly perverse in her fantasies and diverse in her experience, possesses agency...finally, she must now be held accountable for it."