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‘Eternals’ Review: Chloé Zhao Injects the MCU with a Refreshing Dose of Humanity

Dir. Chloé Zhao — 3.5 Stars

Richard Madden (left) stars as Ikaris and Gemma Chan (right) stars as Sersi in "Eternals" (2021), dir. Chloé Zhao.
Richard Madden (left) stars as Ikaris and Gemma Chan (right) stars as Sersi in "Eternals" (2021), dir. Chloé Zhao. By Courtesy of Marvel Studios
By Lanz Aaron G. Tan, Crimson Staff Writer

Just six months ago, Chloé Zhao was at the Academy Awards, smiling to the cameras with her two Oscars: Best Picture and Best Director. Now, fresh off the widespread acclaim from “Nomadland” (which The Crimson reviewed at The New York Film Festival), Zhao has written and directed “Eternals,” the latest Marvel superhero movie. Suffice to say, “Eternals” does not have much chance to win any above-the-line Oscars, nor does it flip the conventional Marvel formula on its head. But Zhao’s film is more introspective than many other films in the MCU. Its ambitious scope and strong emotional payoffs may take a few days to unpack, but they make “Eternals” a thoughtful viewing experience that lingers well after the credits roll.

Set over a period of 7,000 years and told from the perspective of 10 immortal extraterrestrials, “Eternals” compacts the entire MCU version of human history into 157 minutes. In the beginning, a celestial called Arishem created humans, but with them he also created Deviants, a supernatural species of sinewy monsters. When the Deviants start attacking humans, Arishem tries to correct his mistake by sending down the Eternals, all-powerful peacekeepers from the planet Olympus. After defeating the last Deviant and retiring in the 1500s, the Eternals find themselves — mysteriously and begrudgingly — drawn back to their duties in the present day.

Despite its massive scope, “Eternals” isn’t all blockbuster pomp. Much like her previous films, Zhao tries to keep “Eternals” human-centric, or in this case, Eternals-centric. The ensemble cast of characters all manage to be interesting in their own right, which is in large part due to clearly developed motivations and thoughtful character-driven discussions.

At its core, “Eternals” is a film about faith, purpose, and loyalty. These themes are explored through the central relationship between former lovers Sersi (Gemma Chan) and Ikaris (Richard Madden). Sersi is defined by her compassion, drawing strength from the people around her. But Ikaris has grown indifferent after millennia of existence, driven only by his love for Sersi and his faith in Arishem. It raises the question — what does it mean to have a purpose, and where does one find meaning when that purpose has withered away? In fame and riches, like Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani)? In the people around them, like Sersi and Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry)? Or in faith and duty, like Ajax (Salma Hayek) and Ikaris?

“Eternals” finds its beating heart in these quiet moments of self-discovery. All the Eternals start with a blind faith in Arishem — telling themselves that their choices, no matter how difficult or how cruel, are made for the greater good of humanity. But who should make the big decisions if the creator can no longer be trusted with the greater good? And can people truly change after centuries of devotion? As the film develops, and the morality of their mission grows murkier, cracks begin to widen between the Eternals. No one knows exactly what to do, and this honest uncertainty makes “Eternals” feel much more nuanced than other superhero films.

However, packing 7,000 years of story into one film also brings its caveats, and “Eternals” may be the most exposition-laden Marvel film yet. Zhao tries to make her film more digestible by integrating non-linear storytelling and using a slower pace to let “Eternals” breathe between extended bouts of exposition. However, some of Zhao’s choices compromise emotional involvement for easy accessibility. For instance, she reduces the Deviants to convenient CGI plot devices — villains that appear whenever the film needs a quick jolt of action. But that means that many of the action scenes involving Deviants feel dull, almost like they’re scripted to tick a checklist, rather than move the plot forward. Moreover, the slower, non-linear story means that it takes longer to get invested in the characters, which leaves some of the film’s bolder moments in its first act, like the first sex scene in the MCU, coming off as passionless.

In the leadup to the film’s release, renowned MCU producer Kevin Feige made sure to capitalize on Zhao’s big win at the Oscars, touting “Eternals” as a project unlike anything Marvel has done before. For instance, Zhao brings some of her independent filmmaking sensibilities to the table by shooting “Eternals” mostly on-location and using the longest average shot-duration in the MCU. The result often looks stunning on screen. But the contrast between the luscious cinematography and the conventional CGI fight scenes cheapen some of the film’s more powerful moments — especially its climax.

Despite uneven plotting, “Eternals” makes enough tweaks to the superhero formula to feel like a fresh take on an overplayed genre. Zhao’s latest isn’t exactly what Marvel fans expect — but by diminishing the action and doubling down on the characters, “Eternals” is more thought-provoking than many of its MCU peers. “Eternals” opens in theaters on Nov. 5.

—Staff writer Lanz Aaron G. Tan can be reached at lanzaaron.tan@thecrimson.com and on Twitter @LanzAaronGTan1.

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