Directed by Chloé Zhao
Screenplay by Chloé Zhao, Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo, Kaz Firpo
Story by Ryan Firpo, Kaz Firpo, based on “Eternals” by Jack Kirby
Starring Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Kumail Nanjiani, Lia McHugh, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Ridloff, Barry Keoghan, Don Lee, Harish Patel, Kit Harrington, Salma Hayek, Angelina Jolie
Origin stories are notoriously difficult to pull off in the cinematic landscape of today. The characters have to be told from a certain point of view. Suppose your audience, namely me, isn’t familiar with said characters or their situations. In that case, it can become a trying experience to decipher how they fit into an already larger world-building landscape. Marvel successfully pulled this off with “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “Ant-Man,” “Dr. Strange,” and to an extent, “Black Panther.” Those films had characters who, even if you haven’t read the comic books their stories are based on, the existing goodwill of the franchise ushers you into their world. MCU has a formula for integrating characters throughout multiple story arcs.
With Academy Award-winning Chloé Zhao at the helm of the latest MCU adventure, “Eternals,” a different approach was taken, isolating these . . . . gods into their own story. Ten human-like characters form a team sent to earth in 5000 BC to protect humans from the invasive Deviants from the Celestial Arishem.
Their duty is done to protect humans, the group dissents concerning their responsibilities as protectors of earth and break apart as a group, going their own way. Zhao uses a non-linear narrative to tell the Eternals’ story with the empathic Sersi, Gemma Chan’s lead performance. Richard Madden plays Ikaris, a love interest for Sersi, whose opinion on humanity differs from Sersi’s. Kumail Nanjiani plays Kingo, the “plucky, comic relief” in the film, followed by his manager, Karun (Harish Patel.) Lia McHugh plays the twelve-year-old Sprite, the “youngest” member of the Eternals band (sounds like an 80s rock group, doesn’t it?). Sprite is, as her name implies, but she has a more profound implication to the group than the others. Makkari, played by Lauren Ridloff, has the power of super speed. Her function in the story becomes more apparent in the Marvel-esque spectacle of a third act. As Phastos, Brian Tyree Henry portrays the genuine humor and humility of the group, both in character and in performance. Don Lee as Gilgamesh is the strongest of these superheroes, while Salma Hayek as Ajak is the wise and spiritual leader of the group. Angelia Jolie as Thena embodies the personae of a Greek goddess, who spends the majority of the film fighting through a transition. Barry Keoghan plays Druig, perhaps the smartest of the Eternals, in secluding himself from the rest of the group; he is the misanthrope. Kit Harrington plays Dane Whitman, a human dating Sersi.
The trouble with “Eternals” is that there are too many characters at this table and not enough exposition for their characters to expand beyond their horizons. The non-linear structure, while essential to understanding the Eternals’ function on earth, doesn’t do the characters any favors, that is, until we get to the third act. Zhao imbues Sersi with a zen-like character, whose calming effect, lost on her colleagues, is felt in the actress’s performance but isn’t enough to pull through the eternal and infernal in-fighting over their role on earth. The story touches on their function, but it isn’t until the third act where they are needed. Of the characters, Keoghan stands out because he plays the role to the tune of the story. Henry’s Phastos has been the subject of consternation in certain parts of the world because of his character and its implications on those societies. However, the story is too pivotally focused on his character that it feels blatant in its inclusion. As a member of the community his character reflects, I appreciated this inclusion. Still, I am also annoyed that it couldn’t have been included as a natural extension of the character.
Editing is an issue, as is the run time. Sure, other recent films approach “epic-length” run times, but because of the non-linear aspect of the storytelling, the functions of each character against the story are rendered mute.
Visually, “Eternals” is stunning. Zhao’s influence on the film is felt along with the prestige of her win for “Nomadland,” which occurred after this film was buttoned up for a pandemic-induced delayed delivery. Zhao has the right instincts, but the formulaic nature of the MCU fights those instincts delivering a relatively flat MCU entry. The mid-credit and post-credit sequences usher in future MCU adventures, and despite my objections to this film, I am looking forward to seeing these characters in future entries.
For now, “Eternals” is a spectacle unto its own; whether that’s good or bad is up to you to decide.