When you hire a writer/director like Chloé Zhao to make a Marvel superhero movie, you know you are going to get something different. Her last film, the celebrated Oscar winner Nomadland was a deeply contemplative piece about belonging and social expectation and before that she’s given us stories of masculine identity, family and cultural duty.
Sure enough Eternals is not like anything we have seen from the MCU before and all of those themes explored in Zhao’s previous work find expression in this $200 million blockbuster somewhere. Some seem to have taken against the film; there is much chatter online about the poor reviews and how Marvel have dropped the ball, but I don’t know what people were expecting and why they have rejected a film that takes the stylings of a hundred other superhero movies and boldly does something totally new with the genre.
Eternals takes its name from a new team of super-powered beings, which is something the studio have given us previously, but while the Avengers and the Guardians had their squabbles the one thing they could all agree on was the need to be heroic. At the point at which we meet these characters they don’t all share that ideal and some of them might even be going the other way. It isn’t like it was with Loki, Bucky or Wanda though, these new guys aren’t playing the odds or getting brainwashed or corrupted by grief, rather they are having existential crisis and philosophical and moral debates. They’re not Cap and Stark as much as they are Kant and Decartes. These are supers with immense powers and equally big and dangerous hang ups.
We’ve also had gods in this ongoing narrative before but this idea is extended here too. The Eternals are agents of all powerful, gigantic (like planet size) celestial beings that create life and rule universes. That’s what you call a god; not some regular sized guy with a flying hammer and the ability to control a single aspect of the weather. Just like the Asgardians, these fellas are explained as just being technologically more advanced but to be honest they are deities by any sensible definition. Those that follow them appear to do so religiously too, through faith and calling. We really are dealing with supreme beings here, not aliens. All of this comes together to make the movie a lot more thinky than we’ve seen from this studio up until now, (and their films have never been dumb).
The Eternals total ten in number and generally they all get their due moments on screen. This is managed by denying most of them any character development and there is a plot thread about something that is happening to Angelina Jolie’s Thena that doesn’t really go anywhere, but the large ensemble cast is managed well. Gemma Chan is the lead and she provides the heart. Richard Madden is the brain and he and her and these two things combine and clash at various points. Kumail Nanjiani is effective as the comedy relief but like so many of his ilk they literally cannot think of a way to involve him in the final battle. Most interesting though are the Others in the group (note the capital O).
Eternals gives the MCU its first gay superhero with Bryan Tyree Henry’s Phastos. As it is this is not all that noticeable unless you are looking for the representation or scared of it. As he should be, he is just another guy in a relationship that happens to be with another guy. There is also Lia McHugh as Sprite who is on that cusp between childhood and adulthood and has been for thousands of years. We are also introduced to a superhero with a disability in the form of deaf actor Lauren Ridloff as Makkari. One question that is raised with both of these last two characters is why a divine power would create genetically designed superheroes that are less than the rest of the group in this way. The wonderful answer is that neither of them are less, they are just different. I also like that that the narrative is prepared for one of the two to be conscious of how this limits her and significantly it isn’t the woman who can’t hear who has the issue, it is the kid.
The story mostly makes sense within its own parameters as well. It might feel a little expositional in places but the events of the film and the motivations of those on screen are well explained. It does veer into dodgy Doctor Who physics at the end where there is a major event that would have had way more effects on the tides and the environment, not to mention the integrity a certain planet’s structure but mostly this an engaging art house movie with all the trappings and budget of a big superhero movie.
When the press have not been decrying the film, they have been discussing the two post credit scenes (sometimes they have done both at the same time). The first brings in a couple of new people with connections to already established characters, which raises a whole load of questions. Not least of these is why the CGI so bad on one of them and why they cast that guy in that role for the other one, can it just be to bring in a younger audience? (To be fair, I liked him in that other film he did.)
The second features one of the film’s minor characters, promising him a larger role in some movie or TV show in the future. There is a voice heard in this scene that belongs to someone else who has been cast in an upcoming MCU project but has not appeared yet but there is no way of knowing it is him unless you Google it. This seemed an odd play, as if there was to be some mystery around this then why has the director confirmed who it is in interviews and if we were supposed to know anyway then why not make it clearer in the actual movie? Have we really got to a point where you don’t only need to have seen all of these films and read all the comics to know fully what is going on, you also need to have a good working knowledge of CinemaBlend.com and YouTube? Are we sure we’re ready for that, Mr. Whitman?
The Ripley Factor:
I’ve talked about the representation in this film a little already but of the ten members of the Eternals there are five men, five women; one LGBT, one adolescent, three Asians, two black people and a Mexican. There is only one straight white guy and even he is Scottish (technically he’s from outer space).
None of the women are objectified, although Jolie’s armour is a little more form fitting than the others, and Chan’s Sersi and Salma Hayek’s Ajak totally drive the plot.
Let’s just say there are more fights being won here than those depicted on screen.