Marvel Studios was certainly doing something right when they hired Nomadland director Chloé Zhao to direct the twenty-sixth instalment in the decade-spanning Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), Eternals. Seeing as how the aforementioned Nomadland secured a Best Picture win at last year’s Academy Awards ceremony, there’s no denying that Zhao is a filmmaker who knows how to make a gripping film with characters that feel fully realised and down-to-earth. And although Eternals quite literally focuses on other-worldly superheroes, Zhao still finds naturalistic ways to humanise them while also making Eternals the most daring and ambitious movie of the MCU to date.
Many will surely watch this film and be frustrated by how different it is from the previous films in this saga. Most Marvel films abide by the same formula, which always wins over critics and audiences alike: you can expect a good heaping of humour, some tremendously fun action sequences, and a story structure that hits the expected beats. Eternals aims to change that recipe at its very core; even the opening title sequence is more akin to something you’d see in Denis Villeneuve‘s Blade Runner 2049 than a Marvel studio movie.
The closest thing one can compare this movie to is this year’s Zack Snyder’s Justice League – and that’s a very, very good thing. Zhao clearly had some bold ideas in mind when it came to the story here, and almost all of these ideas paid off. The indie director certainly dreamt big for her first blockbuster, and wasn’t afraid to push studio boundaries and take risks with the material. Some expecting classic Marvel fare may be left cold by the story, but many will be exhilarated by this new direction.
The intersection between auteur filmmakers like Zhao and huge studios like Marvel can sometimes result in a product that feels at war with itself. Yet in this case and despite the fact it was written by four people, Eternals feels (at least for the most part) surprisingly coherent. There are moments where the screenplay can get a little muddied and the course of the story becomes unclear. In general though, it’s impressive how fluid this film turns out to be, despite so many hands being on it.
That’s particularly noteworthy given how much the plot twists and trips you up. The story may seem very straightforward one second and then the next, it throws a wrench in the works and takes the plot in a new direction. There is one reveal in Eternals’ third act that will absolutely throw fans for a loop and sets a promising (and gutsy) precedent for what Marvel may attempt in future.
Beyond even Marvel fans, there will be those who head to the cinema for this cast alone. Eternals assembles an incredible ensemble of established stars that includes Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Kumail Nanjiani, and Angelina Jolie are just a few of the star-studded names attached to this project, and they are wonderful.
Madden is a stellar Ikaris, giving off major Superman vibes. Nanjiani steals scenes and hearts in the role of Kingo, one of the MCU’s goofiest and most hilarious characters who thankfully isn’t just defined as comic relief. Brian Tyree Henry is excellent and assertive as Phastos, while Lauren Ridloff shines as Makkari, the first deaf superhero in the MCU.
The stand-out performance however belongs to Chan as Sersi, one of the most interesting and emotionally gripping characters this cinematic universe has blessed us with to date. Chan feels born to play this role, and we can only hope to see her in tons more down the road. In short, Eternals does a marvellous job of fleshing out every character equally, which is particularly impressive given the sheer scope of the ensemble cast.
Eternals may not be the best movie the MCU has given us to date, but it most definitely is the most original and ambitious one, and that’s something to be respected and applauded. Here’s hoping that we get more of these projects in this cinematic universe in the future, because stories such as these are the ones begging to be told.
Eternals is out now.