Eternals : Movie Review

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Phase Four of the MCU has seen a shift in tone to more personal stories, starting with Black Widow’s solo redemption mission which time-jumps back to the hours following Captain America: Civil War. Later came Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, a post-Blip film which incorporated bits and pieces of MCU hints to create a hero who steps out of from under the shadow of his past. Both had the Marvel aesthetic – high-flying action, comedic relief, and delightful camera and fight choreography – but the writers and directors of each film seemed to be reaching for more depth and less on the casual disaster side.

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These were merely introductions paving the way for director/co-writer Chloé Zhao’s Eternals, which dispenses with the standard MCU sturm und drang and goes for a more adult drama-centric attack than the 25 films which precede it. Eternals is a film that requires introspection and empathy, two things that the majority of Marvel films don’t ask of their audience. Sure, there’s stuff that goes boom, but writers Zhao, Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo, and Kaz Firpo have switched up typical bad-guys-versus-good-guys conflict for something more nuanced and elegant.

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Eternals doesn’t hesitate to be different in execution and characterization. There isn’t any smart-alecky gallows humor tossed off by humans entering battle for the first or hundredth time; the Eternals, a band of otherworldly immortals (think a humanoid, spacefaring, alien version of the Avengers) has been on Earth for 7,000 years, and they’ve seen it all, from pre-civilization to the current post-Blip society where nothing surprises them and they face nothing that can’t be handled with a quick hurl of energy from their fingertips (or eyes); these are the most jaded superheroes you’ll ever hope to meet, having suffered through the best and worst humans have to offer.

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The crux of the story is in how a few of these Eternals – beings created by a race called The Celestials for the express purpose of fighting the evil Deviants – have come to embrace humanity and its pleasures, sinking themselves into the everyday fray instead of keeping themselves above it. So when Earth is threatened by a sect of assumed-dead Deviants and the reason behind their appearance (and the true purpose behind the Eternals’ assignment to Earth) becomes known, the Eternals have a choice: let things happen as they were meant to, or rebel against the Celestials to save humanity, even though some of them have the opinion that it’s not worth saving?

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Eternals forces us to look at ourselves from the perspectives of ancient beings sent to observe and protect us. There’s nothing new under the sun for them, yet they still carry an enormous amount of sadness wrought by man’s cruelty to man, not apathetic detachment. When a nigh-unstoppable force threatens the Earth itself, some of them actually leap into action instead of using their powers to turn their backs on the planet’s inhabitants, even though they are expressly forbidden to interfere in human affairs. 

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What Zhao and company get so right are the emotions running through each character. All are respectful, wise, and somewhat disconnected souls trapped in perpetually young bodies, and they emote this notion with solemnity and grace. Zhao gets gorgeous performances from her actors making these characters come alive in spite of their muted, “been there, done that” presence. Each Eternal bears the ultimate sorrow of knowing too much about these humans who know so little comparatively, and all of them wear it from their skin to their bones, evident in each glance, every interaction with the humans they love, and even in the way they cast their energy blasts against enemies.

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One of the Eternals, Sprite (Lia McHugh), possesses the same fate as Kirsten Dunst’s Claudia from 1994’s Interview with the Vampire, her weary and aged soul and persona residing in the body of a preteen child. The rest of this wonderfully inclusive and diverse group – played by Gemma Chan (Sersi), Angelina Jolie (Thena), Kumail Nanjiani (Kingo), Brian Tyree Henry (Phastos), Lauren Ridloff (Makkari, the first deaf character in a Marvel movie), Don Lee (Druig), Salma Hayek (Ajak), and Richard Madden (Ikaris) – appears as adults, free to act on their feelings in ways Sprite can never experience… which leads into why Eternals feels so off-kilter and strange.

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The film agonizingly creates friction with its arthouse-tinged doom-and-gloom feel mixed with lifts from familiar films and well-known cultural legends, whether within the genre or without. Even though it’s a visually and aesthetically gorgeous film, it suffers from not forging any new paths to make its own journey. It’s like the creative team knew they were going to place indie film sensibilities at the heart of a blowout blockbuster, so they had to compromise and go extremely safe by blatantly appealing to those seeking simpler contrivances. And that’s what the entire film feels like: a compromise.

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Marvel fans expect big action sequences and witty banter; Eternals has, well, some of that, but it’s secondary to an intimacy – both between characters and between the film itself and its viewers – that Zhao creates through pensive dialogue and with obvious love and care for everyone onscreen (except for maybe one or two beings). Genuine emotion is what gives Eternals its power, as it is not at all satisfied with just being another notch on the Marvel superhero movie bedpost. This film speaks of sympathy, acceptance, and goodwill first and foremost – traits not often found in this pantheon built on funny snark and loud action – thus making Eternals a memorable entry into the MCU.

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for fantasy violence and action, some language and brief sexuality.
Contains mid- and post-credits scenes.
Running time: 156 minutes.
Released by Marvel Studios and Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

Eternals

Rating

3.5

Arthouse sensibilities, vast inclusivity, and genuine emotion are what gives Eternals a curious power.