‘ETERNALS’ Review: Chloé Zhao’s Marvelous Superhero Film

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

ETERNALS

Rated PG-13, 2 hours 37 minutes

Directed by: Chloé Zhao

Starring: Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Kumail Nanjiani, Lia McHugh, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Ridloff, Barry Keoghan, Ma Dong-seok, Salma Hayek, Angelina Jolie, Kit Harington

Director Chloé Zhao’s ETERNALS is unlike anything you’ve seen before in the MCU. Outside of harnessing the innate power of natural environments to not only augment, but fascinatingly juxtapose its sprawling fantasy tale filled with the unreal, it refreshingly bucks convention by not following the studio’s typical story and aesthetic formulas. In effect, she and her team deliver a uniquely evocative, extraordinarily epic superhero film that features a thought-provoking, thematically dense narrative, enriching emotional stakes, and actual, tangible queer representation (that’s action, not solely talk). It’s assured, masterful work – one that should also finally put to bed the discourse that these movies are largely sexless.

The Eternals are a group of super-immortals instructed by omnipotent super-being Arishem to unwaveringly follow his orders to rescue Earth from a slew of deadly creatures called Deviants, whose goal it is to wipe out intelligent life. The benevolent-but-dysfunctional team include supreme leader Arjak (Salma Hayek), molecularly-skilled Sersi (Gemma Chan), laser-eyed Ikaris (Richard Madden), cosmic energy-powered Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), mischievous illusionist Sprite (Lia McHugh), knockout Gilgamesh (Ma Dong-seok/ Don Lee), builder Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), lightning-fast runner Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), mind-controlling Druig (Barry Keoghan) and champion warrior Thena (Angelina Jolie). They’ve existed throughout history, combatting these otherworldly destructive forces, but also supervising and encouraging humankind on their journey toward enlightenment. The plan is that once the evil menace has been eradicated from the planet, the gang can return home to their planet of Olympia.

Or so they thought. Even though the peril appears to be vanquished, the super secretive superheroes have been abandoned, left awaiting instruction for centuries, splintering across the globe. However, a world-shaking earthquake awakens both an evolved species of Deviants and a new threat of global extinction. They take it upon themselves to reassemble, slowly discovering that what they steadfastly believed may or may not have not been the truth. With humanity again thrown into crisis, they must set aside their differences and figure out what’s the right thing to do, which doesn’t necessarily mean what they’ve been commanded to do.

(L-R): Karun (Harish Patel), Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), Sprite (Lia McHugh), Sersi (Gemma Chan), Ikaris (Richard Madden), Thena (Angelina Jolie), Gilgamesh (Don Lee) in Marvel Studios’ ETERNALS. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

Zhao and collaborating screenwriters Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo and Kaz Firpo bring a well-earned, nurtured sense of balance to each of these characters’ story threads. Frequently intertwining their individual journeys works efficiently, for the most part. We feel the burdensome romance between ex-flames Sersi and Ikarus, the respectful, platonic friendship tether formed between warriors Gilgamesh and Thena, and, despite it getting dealt short shrift, the caring bond between Druig and Makkari. Yet, while the unrequited crush Sprite harbors for Ikarus aids in her arc, it makes a play for the obvious, obtusely referencing Tinker Bell and Peter Pan’s relationship dynamic. More so, Sprite’s inner turmoil is A reductive carbon copy of vampire Claudia’s anguish in INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE, where her maturity has grown beyond her youthful corporeal confines.

Zhao takes great craft and care for her ensemble to have memorable Movie Moments showcasing their prowess. The calculated pace at which they “get the band back together” again helps make these moments land. Hayek’s luminous work reverberates throughout. Chan is the effervescent, graceful beating heart behind the drama. Jolie’s melodramatic arc is as equally entrancing as her bad-ass stunt-work, and especially potent in her climactic fight. Madden handles the push-pull of his character’s conundrum with engrossing command. Keoghan’s wild card temperament is at the forefront, giving the character a distinct edge. Ridloff is captivating in her career-defining role. Henry’s standout, scene-stealing performance is full of dimension, internality, vulnerability and wisdom. Nanjiani’s tasked to carry much of the film’s levity and he does so with aplomb, demonstrably during the long-running gag involving him and an ever-present video-camera his valet is handling. But it’s Lee’s grasp of nuanced facets that genuinely wows, combining humor, heart and physical acumen, making him the picture’s MVP. 

On the technical side, Ben Davis’ cinematography earns top marks. His eye for naturalism shines a spotlight on the characters’ humanity, providing an interesting, beguiling sense of wonder and joy witnessing extraordinary beings and creatures placed in ordinary locations. These elements would clash in lesser hands, but here, it adds to an interesting character study.

That’s not to say everything is handled perfectly. Due to the picture’s unconventional nature, some of its construction is left a little wanting. Flashbacks dovetail almost innocuously into present day problems without much warning or visual dexterity. Everything dealing with Sersi’s long-suffering boyfriend Dane (Kit Harrington) is ham-handed. It’s great that her relationship doesn’t define her, but it comes as a detriment when he’s largely forgotten about for a large portion of the run time, leading us to question why he’s even there in the first place. The Big Bad being battled isn’t a traditional villain, but a cataclysmic event where the team’s clashing theologies and ideologies are challenged, creating tension as to whether or not they’ll unite to alter the fate of the world. It’s a good idea in theory, brilliantly feeding into heady thematic concepts surrounding free will, ecology and selflessness versus selfishness. However, it blunts the audience’s collective cathartic release, as they may yearn to see invincible heroes overcoming an uncontrollable evil mastermind.

The spectacle of what Zhao and Company have created, overall, feels awe-inducing and inspiring. Her fingerprints are all over every frame and yet her distinct, grounded, character-driven style doesn’t clash with what’s expected from the genre, only magnifies the greatness lying in its underpinnings.

Grade: B

ETERNALS opens in theaters on November 5.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.