It’s odd to think how close we came to having two unique filmmakers adapt the biggest signature solo creations of Jack Kirby. Sadly, the promising Fourth World adaptation with Ava Duvernay was not to be, ending my hopes and dreams for a year of pure Kirby dynamism dominating our eyeholes. But still, there stood Eternals, the lesser of the two properties by most measures. Eternals is still a fascinating pulp take on Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods – a premise that’s fueled movies like Prometheus, Stargate, and even that terrible Indiana Jones sequel nobody wants to talk about. And now, here we are, with a comic Kirby initially had no interest in tying into the larger Marvel Universe, retrofitted into the largest popular venue for Marvel characters that could ever possibly exist. Filtered through the mind of a newly-minted Oscar-winning director, it has a lot of appeal.
Chloé Zhao is a brilliant filmmaker. Her 2018 effort The Rider haunted me, and is the closest we’ve come to an effort that could be spoken of in the same conversations as the grand cinematic experiment Close-Up. And of course, my appreciation of Nomadland is already on the record. But it’s hardly the resume of someone bringing to life earth-shattering figures, or producing the sort of Sturm und Drang that Tarsem Singh or Zack Snyder have made their bread and butter. That’s not to say Marvel hasn’t altered the trajectory of a number of indie darlings into the blockbuster space, but Zhao is such a known quantity, and her predilections seem so deeply at odds with the material as presented that it makes for a fascinating mixture.
It’s hard not to feel like Eternals is designed to address many of the criticisms leveled at productions from the studio. For example: issues surrounding representation, or the fact that romantic entanglements are de-emphasized in these films, even down to the choice of Zhao in order to battle criticism that Feige and company aren’t interested in singular voices behind the camera. The only big complaint that goes unanswered is the MCU’s growing tendency for bloated runtimes. Which, unfortunately, is a big problem here. There’s simply far too much runway for the story being told.
That’s too bad, because what is here is intermittently engaging. Zhao and her co-screenwriters tackle the enormity of the cast by wrapping it up in a Seven Samurai-style “getting the band together” structure, providing some level of hook by building in flashbacks to their past. As Ikaris (Richard Madden), Sersi (Gemma Chan), and Sprite (Lia McHugh), who are living fairly normal lives in the present day, are attacked by the long-thought destroyed Deviants. They realize they need to pull together their broken apart immortal and super-powered family, and as each member is introduced into the present day, we zip to some historical moment in the past that defines their character just enough to have any reason to care at all.
It’s a big challenge, as I’ve long thought one of the biggest weaknesses of superhero movies in general is that only a select few of these heroes are multi-dimensional enough to carry their own big screen adventures. The Eternals are an even bigger quandary because they’re basically each defined by a singular trait or two. So, the job here requires a combination of compelling performances, scale, and momentum to get the job done over a nearly three-hour running time. It’s tough business. For a large amount of Eternals’ running time, you’re at least interested to see what happens next, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a successful movie. The Kurosawa structure comparison is apt, because in a way, this film plays a bit like an MCU take on Snyder’s approach for Justice League. There’s even powerset analogues for Superman, Wonder Woman, and The Flash, and a core antagonist that is about as dull. But beyond that, Zhao’s take on this team is that they are gods walking amongst us, much in the same vein as the derided (and then retroactively celebrated) Snyder movies. But unlike those takes on the DC pantheon, Zhao peppers in a lot of scenes of people sitting around tables and spouting off or weeping exposition at one another. I’ve never seen a movie where almost every sentence spoken at them requires being addressed by their name, but I’d bet if you did the math, 75% of the dialogue would have a name included in it.
The grounding of these characters is an interesting approach. One would be tempted to call it another attempt at the Inhumans formula, but with far sharper writing and less horrible cgi. Yet what it really brings to mind is a reminder of Stan Lee’s attempt at retooling the Silver Surfer and making him completely and totally alien from Kirby’s original intention for the character. This is a full-fledged shot at making the Eternals “relatable”, and it works up to a point.
But again, the performances help obscure this in the moment, at least where top-notch character actors like Barry Keoghan and Brian Tyree-Henry are concerned. Lauren Ridloff’s Makkari is also a welcome addition, and while the character has turned into a bit of an internet meme, Kumail Nanjiani’s Kingo genuinely elicited the most laughs I’ve gotten out of one of these in a long time. On the other hand, Angelina Jolie’s Thena should have completely hit the cutting room floor. Gemma Chan and Richard Madden aren’t the most convincing leads, but everyone involved is almost able to get away with it as solid MCU adventuring with a few higher ambitions (the Celestial looks like it’s ripped right out of the comics)…
…but Zhao also has to maintain the Marvel Studios structure, and that includes a lot of badly conceived second unit action. There are the aforementioned boring antagonists (the Deviants basically look like giant dogs with tentacles for some reason). And so many of these action beats are featured in environments so dark, it’s hard to make out what’s happening outside of pretty people making poses with shiny gold energy things. This becomes a detriment that no amount of tried and true borrowing from the masters is really going to fix, especially when the sludge colored finale exhaustingly unfurls itself. It’s that war between Zhao’s storytelling instincts and everything that is a prerequisite for the Marvel way of moviemaking that makes Eternals interesting to look at from a clinical perspective, but also highlights that really, maybe not every auteur needs to make blockbusters – particularly in an environment as creatively stifling as the MCU.
Regardless, for sheer ambition alone, Eternals is better than any of Marvel’s Phase 4 offerings to this point. I’ve hated almost everything they’ve done post-Endgame, though, so it’s a very low bar to clear.