In many ways, Eternals is no different from most of what Marvel has offered for more than a decade: an action-packed, humor-ridden romp about “gods” among men doing battle with other “gods” among men for the fate of the world, with a third act too busy and too dependent on inconsistent VFX to register as well as the two hours leading up to it. In other ways, Eternals is quite different than all the rest: a heavily thematic, wonderfully textured, beautifully shot epic spanning thousands of years involving true gods among men, sans quotation marks.
About a group of guardian angels sent to Earth to protect us from a race of alien carnivores called Deviants, Chloe Zhao’s populist debut is a soaring tear-jerker. That is, if you’re a believer in more. If you believe in God, Buddha, Muhammed, or any spiritual afterlife, Eternals will tug at the corners of feelings and funny what-ifs we’ve all had ruminating on the nature of existence. That’s not to say Eternals is about the afterlife or a hypothetical all-mighty. The Eternals themselves are not spirits nor angels, but their purpose on this planet and their employer, a being called a Celestial, raises questions about man and God, heaven and earth, and everything in between. Zhao employs techniques often ignored in Marvel’s house brand of filmmaking: natural lighting, on-location shooting, and an atmospheric tone that eschews quick narrative editing and quicker action sequences in favor of a slightly more thoughtful pace. A scant one or two characters offer comic relief, each of them bestowed their own unique personality versus all mimicking one another via unending quips. Leading the group in various capacities are Sersi (Gemma Chan), the soft-spoken soul of the bunch, Ikaris (Richard Madden), the stoic resident Superman, and Ajak (Salma Hayek), their noble liaison to Arishem (Gil Birmingham), the God-like Celestial in space handing down orders from above. Rounding out the group are Thena (Angelina Jolie), badass goddess of war, Gilgamesh (Don Lee), a gentle giant with brute strength, Sprite (Lia McHugh), a grumpy teen trickster and conjurer who cannot age, Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), the all-knowing brains of the operation, and Druig (Barry Keoghan), a wily telepath with a heart of his own. That’s not even mentioning two sources of actual comic relief, Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), a funnyman-turned-Bollywood star, and his cameraman/assistant Karun (Harish Patel), a human with stars in his eyes as he traipses around the world with a gaggle of superheroes. There’s also Bill Skarsgaard as an evolved Deviant who can speak, and Kit Harrington as Sersi’s earthbound boyfriend Dane. It’s a stacked cast, and one teetering on the precipice of too-much were it not for a healthy runtime that avoids the typical pitfalls of cramming one too many characters in a single film.
While Chan and Madden are more than up to the task of anchoring the film, their central romance doesn’t land seriously enough. Despite being told their love stretches for centuries, their connective bond simply doesn’t click emotionally or performatively with the audience. Sersi’s connection with boyfriend Dane is somehow more believable than what transpires on screen between her and Ikaris. Stealing scenes from the both of them are Jolie, Keoghan, and Nanjiani. We often forget how good of an actress Jolie can be, what with her jet-setting around the world more often than acting, but here she commands the screen as a warrior heroine beset by a mental illness in which the brain can no longer cope under centuries of memories. A moment wherein Thena is tasked with giving Sersi a pep-talk is an exercise in doing so much with so little. Keoghan, for his part, plays an irascible character who nonetheless provides a touching anchor for the film’s heavy philosophical themes. He’s the star of what is perhaps the picture’s most potent scene, a flashback to the fall of Tenochtitlan wherein Druig rebels against orders to avoid intervening. He watches as tribes of men commit atrocities and he can no longer stand idly by while genocide continues. Keoghan’s fierce, teary-eyed stand for humanity fills the room, his penetrating gaze typically used for evil (The Killing of a Sacred Deer, The Green Knight) instead used here for perseverant justice. Obviously, Nanjiani and his funny cohort Patel offer what Marvel movies are obligated to provide: laugh-a-minute one-liners. Fortunately, they’re never used to distract from the heavy conflict at hand. Zhao utilizes humor efficiently, not prolifically. An early dance number and ode to Bollywood musicals is an exceptionally endearing introduction to Kingo as he seeks to tell the story of the Eternals on the big screen. Marvel’s third-act problem of too many VFX shots is mitigated somewhat by a script that introduces a number of character twists which narratively re-frame the Eternals and their relationships with one another, thus enlivening what otherwise might have been another rudimentary save-the-world plot. Zhao’s preference for on-location photography and her frame-by-frame finesse, always the work of a perfectionist, helps to alleviate such overuse of green screen as well.
Eternals is another solid, enjoyable entry in the Marvel cinematic canon, buoyed by a few memorable performances, thorny spiritual philosophies, and Chloe Zhao’s penchant for technical perfection. Professional critics have again proven they’re no different than Joe Blow on Rotten Tomatoes, succumbing to biases, expectations, and genre exhaustion when it suits them. There can be no filters or funny blinders when assessing the work of thousands of artists. Eternals is a proper epic, and despite a familiar endgame, one of the best comic-book adventures of 2021.