Eternals Movie Review: This lovely origins story is also Marvel's most layered film yet
On several occasions, the film feels like it has bitten more than what it can chew but Zhao makes up to it with fantastic visuals and relatable characters
As I was quickly sorting my coffee fix, reading the news online before heading to catch Marvel's latest film Eternals, a headline caught my attention. The news was about how this film features a character named Phastos (played by Brian Tyree Henry), the first superhero to be depicted as gay in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and also how it has a scene showing him sharing a passionate kiss with his on-screen husband, Ben (Haaz Sleiman). This has apparently not gone down well with the censor authorities in certain countries and Eternals may never see the light of day in those lands. 'What has this world come down to' was my thought as I hurried to the theatres where I got to witness director Chloé Zhao echo the same sentiments in Eternals and that's why the latest entrant to the MCU is the franchise's most surreal yet relatable film in a long time.
ALSO READ: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait ban screening of Eternals because of gay superhero
Director: Chloé Zhao
Cast: Gemma Chan, Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek, Richard Madden, Kumail Nanjiani, Brian Tyree Henry, Don Lee
Marvel's tryst with origin stories has been quite dicey over the years. While the ones like Iron Man, Captain America: The First Avenger, Black Panther and Thor worked in favour of the franchise, films like The Incredible Hulk, Captain Marvel and Black Widow, failed to hit the bullseye. While Guardians of the Galaxy is their first try at showing us a team of new characters, the studio takes it up a notch with Eternals that introduces us to ten primary characters and a lot more secondary ones. After a Star Wars-style opening crawl giving us an introduction to who this team of powerful warriors is, we learn how they are stationed at Earth to save its lives from an invasive group called Deviants. But with their mission somewhat completed a long back, why weren't they called back to their homes by the Celestial Arishem who equipped them with superpowers? What have they become over the years because of their contact with humans? What's the relationship dynamics between them? Why can't they interfere when humans face threats? Eternals puts out a canvas big enough to make us ask a ton of questions and thanks to it being the second-longest MCU film after Avengers: Endgame, it slowly answers them all. And boy, a lot of questions were staying rent-free in the minds of the franchise's fans even before the film's trailer was out. What were they up to when Thanos happened? during the World Wars? during other catastrophes? Academy-award winning director Chloé Zhao clears them all, including the sillier ones like how Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) is a Bollywood actor for three generations and still gets away with it.
Despite far from being a perfect film or one that will satiate the quench of the majority of the genre's lovers, Eternals will be an elegant origins story that sacrifices usual tropes to fit in as much drama as possible. Director Zhao's biggest film to date intentionally leaves a few integral checkboxes, such as big action set-pieces set in the busy streets of New York or one of Marvel's countless fictional worlds and she opts to introduce a host of new characters with a touch that's unique to her method of storytelling. For starters, apart from the one mentioned earlier, the Eternals sport quite a few firsts. Makkari (played by Lauren Ridloff), is the series' first deaf superhero and Don Lee who plays the strongest Eternal Gilgamesh, said that he pursued the role to be an inspiration to youngsters as the first Korean superhero. Remember the time Bruce Banner was hiding in Kolkata in The Avengers? Or the time Tony Stark attended an Indian wedding in Spider-Man: Homecoming? Eternals take it to next level by establishing Nanjiani as an Indian actor and his trusty sidekick Karun (Harish Patel) appears in the majority of the film for comic relief. We get to hear Hindi lines, witness a desi wedding and even see a Nataraja Statue in the end credits sequence.
As the first woman of colour to sit on the director's chair for a Marvel film, MCU (after Captain Marvel's Anna Boden and Black Widow's Cate Shortland) and Zhao's Eternals can be a case study on the topic of representation. If her second film, The Rider, is a love letter to the heartland of America, Eternals is one for the whole world. If her Academy Award-winning third film, Nomadland, is a character study of one person, she does the same here for a gang. Her magic of humanising even the most powerful of characters and giving them everyday problems on trust, friendship, relationship and moral dilemmas, make their struggles relatable. The ensemble cast also does a good job in translating those internal and external conflicts to the screens. While veterans like Angelina Jolie (Thena) and Salma Hayek (Ajak) carry their characters with grace, it's the comparatively newer stars like Gemma Chan (Sersi) and Richard Madden (Ikaris) who get the bigger slice when it comes to screen space. Despite having a host of primary characters, the long run time comes in handy in character development for almost all of them.
The director takes fan service to a different level with the film referencing both Batman and Superman, the big guns of the DC world, in the film. Seeing Game Of Thrones actors in the MCU is not uncommon - we saw Peter Dinklage in Avengers: Infinity War, Natalie Dormer in Captain America: The First Avenger and many more actors doing secondary characters in the series and MCU. But Eternals brings GoT's two biggest stars Kit Harrington who played the famous Jon Snow and Madden who starred as Snow's brother-from-another-mother, Robb Stark. They even share space in one scene that made me search for dragons on screen. Harrington plays a character that's teased in the film and given the comic book background of that character, I hope we get to see more of him in the sequel.
The film is a visual extravaganza and instead of seeing CGI in the name of magic and grandeur, the non-linear screenplay takes us to events spanning over 7000 years. We get to see everything from ancient Babylon to our Gupta dynasty, Mesopotamia and Aztec empire to South Dakota, and these scenes are a product of brilliant graphic works. What doesn't work in favour of the film is how expository it is. While we have seen the Avengers assemble a number of times, the idea of this film is to bring the gang back together only to know that the basic philosophy with which they were working is flawed. Jumping to flashbacks in between too does not help us wade the brunt of the film's lengthy runtime.
On several occasions, the film feels like it has bitten more than what it can chew but Zhao makes up to it with fantastic visuals and relatable characters. For some, Eternals might be the oddball no one expected from the MCU and for others, it will be a superhero film with more of humanity and less of highflying, gravity-defying action. What can't be disagreed is that the film has pumped in some much-needed fresh air into this beast of a franchise that strives to be eternal.