ETERNALS Review: Marvel Superheroes Have Their First Existential Crisis In Chloe Zhao-Directed Family Drama

ETERNALS Review: Marvel Superheroes Have Their First Existential Crisis In Chloe Zhao-Directed Family Drama

In a little over a week, we're heading back to the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Chloe Zhao's superhero epic Eternals! Check out our review to learn more about what we thought of the film!

After being forced to take 2020 off, Marvel Studios has spent most of this year pushing the limits of what the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Marvel Cinematic Multiverse?) could be or where it could ultimately go, and while they still have a pair of major projects left on their release calendar, it seems reasonable to assume that Kevin Feige and company always intended for Chloe Zhao’s Eternals to be the film that ends up pushing the boundaries of the MCU further than ever before. Does it succeed? Well...

**This review contains mild spoilers for Marvel Studios’ Eternals**

What does it mean to be a God… and do nothing? That’s the central theme of Marvel’s latest blockbuster, and a question that the film earnestly tries to answer for the majority of its runtime, albeit with mixed results. We’re first introduced to the ten eponymous Eternals as they arrive on Earth 7,000 years ago - the earliest recorded moment in the history of the MCU - and use their unique skill sets to quickly dispose of a Deviant threat. Cue the title sequence and flash forward to present day as we’re sent to London to catch up with Sersi (Gemma Chan), who serves as our guide for the rest of the movie.

She’s living a quiet life with her seemingly ordinary Jon Snow-esque boyfriend Dane Whitman (Kit Harington) and the perpetually youthful Sprite (Lia McHugh). Things are going pretty well until a dangerous new Deviant threat emerges which brings the strongest Eternal and her cosmic energy beam-firing ex Ikaris (Richard Madden) back into the mix and sets the story in motion. From there, the film jumps back and forth between the past and the present day, where Sersi attempts to unravel the mystery behind this resurfaced threat as well as the true purpose of her people.

The flashbacks, which take us to key moments in human history, allow us to get better acquainted with the different Eternals since many of them don’t factor into the present-day storyline until the end of the second act, and we learn more about the events that led the team to part ways. The root cause of their issue is that the Eternals were ordered by the Celestials, via their leader Ajak (Salma Hayek), to only fight Deviants and never interfere in human evolution, allowing them to develop on their own. Of course, this is a lot easier said than done when humans constantly prove to be their own worst enemies. The team knows they have the ability to prevent so much pain and suffering, but simply can’t get involved because they’ve been told not to by their own God, the Celestial Arishem (David Kaye), which is frustrating to say the least, especially for someone with powers like Druig (Barry Keoghan). So, when they all believe the Deviant threat has been vanquished, they decide to go their separate ways and live amongst those they’ve sworn not to protect.

In present-day, Sersi reluctantly takes the lead when she’s tasked with reuniting the team in order to stop this ultra-powerful new Deviant named Kro (Bill Skarsgård) while finding out what’s causing these sudden earthquakes across the globe. It does play out like a mystery of sorts, and the final reveals are meant to be shocking, but it’s not exactly handled like a big mic drop moment, so nothing really ever catches you off guard since everything is laid out kind of neatly. 

Chloe Zhao, fresh off an Academy Award-win for Nomadland, was always an inspired choice for Eternals and as far as stunning visuals and likeable characters go, she delivers on both fronts. Surprisingly, it ends up being the execution of the story where she falls a little short. She sacrifices a lot of that Marvel spectacle for repeated exposition dumps, with the apparent intent of catering more for adult audiences than the general comic book movie fans. To be fair, Zhao takes a big swing here, and the result is a very ambitious film and an appreciated change of pace for the MCU. However, she ultimately ends up hitting a double instead of a sure-fire home run, which, while not what we wanted, is still a pretty good result.

It never feels like she’s particularly interested in the greater MCU or in telling another story about superheroes, and her natural instincts seem to lean toward exploring what it actually means to be a God. This isn’t a big-budget action spectacle, despite what the trailers may have you believe - it’s very much a high-profile family drama about these all-powerful immortal beings having a centuries-long existential crisis and finally coming to terms with their place in a mortal world. The Avengers changed everything with the snap of a finger, while the Eternals sat on their hands for the better part of seven millennia. How do you cope with that? It’s one of many questions Zhao raises, while also touching on the ideas of blind devotion and predestination. This gets the Eternals to where they need to go, but even with a 157-minute runtime, it felt like she may have needed another 23 to tell this story in a satisfactory manner.

Compared to prior Marvel films, Eternals is actually relatively light on any meaningful action scenes. While all of them have abilities, only half of the Eternals are actually fighters, and most of the battles between the Eternals and Deviants are set in the past. The Deviants are barely even characters, to be honest, and are really just generic monsters for the Eternals to show their might against. It isn’t until the brilliant forest fight late in the second act where they actually even seem formidable. The finale ups the ante quite a bit, and there is a big action sequence to close the film, but it probably won’t be what you’re expecting.

Fortunately, Zhao nails the characters and successfully introduces nearly a dozen instantly likeable new faces to the MCU. Thena (Angelina Jolie) is arguably the most badass and easily gets the most interesting arc of the cast. She’s the goddess of war, but is suffering from Mahd Wy’ry, a degenerative mental illness that causes her to go into manic episodes where she can’t tell her friends from her foes, resulting in her attacking anyone that steps in her way. It’s actually quite tragic, and Jolie plays it beautifully, bringing us a superhero unlike any we’ve seen before - one that loves to fight, but has to choose not to because she could hurt the ones she loves. Jolie also seems to be having a blast being in the MCU, and Zhao rewards her with one of the MCU’s coolest kills.

Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) is another highlight, bringing some much-needed levity to the film and major style points to the action scenes, but he unexpectedly gets sidelined late for whatever reason. Druig also makes an impact, with Keoghan giving a strong performance. Ajak, Sprite, Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), Gilgamesh (Don Lee), and Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) all get emotional moments to shine, and you really come to care for them all. Unfortunately, it’s the leads Sersi and Ikaris who prove to be the least compelling of the bunch because they’re never really given anything interesting to do except to go through the motions.

Kit Harington, in his first major role since Game of Thrones, is really an awesome addition and an easy person to root for as Dane Whitman, but sadly, he isn’t in the film that much. Luckily, we do get a tease of his future, and it’s pretty damn cool. Harish Patel, who will probably get overlooked in his small role as Kingo’s manager Karun, also deserves a special mention. He landed the role of a lifetime and completely kills it, bringing a lot of sincerity to the film.

The ending is surprisingly abrupt, and for an unfamiliar batch of characters, it’s something of a WTF moment. Similar to Dune, it very much feels like Part One of a story rather than a full-fledged three-act film, which is odd considering everything we just witnessed. It’s not even entirely clear where the story goes next, so it’s hard to make predictions, but the two exciting post-credit sequences do shed some light on who we can expect to be part of their next adventure.

Eternals is light on action, but heavy on family drama. Marvel superheroes have their first existential crisis, coming to terms with not only what it means to be a superhero, but also what it means to be a God. It’s one of the most ambitious Marvel Studios projects yet, and while it doesn't completely hit the mark, it still opens a whole new realm of possibilities, presenting ideas that may take another film to fully digest and realize. It’s only the beginning of the story, and director Chloe Zhao has laid an incredible foundation for what’s sure to be a blockbuster follow-up where these characters will finally be able to soar beyond our wildest imaginations.

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