One of the many criticisms of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the feeling of sameness shared throughout two dozen films that have so far been released. There are cosmetic differences, obviously, but “the hero’s journey” usually hits familiar beats and almost always ends with CG shenanigans in the sky. The end results can still entertain and thrill, but the template is clear for both better and worse. The 25th entry in the MCU, Chloe Zhao‘s Eternals, has already been both praised and criticized for shaking things up with its brand new characters and old gods, but here’s the thing — it’s still every bit an MCU film through and through.
Celestials are humongous, Iron Giant-looking beings responsible for shaping the universe, and for Arishem (voiced by David Kaye) that means creating the Eternals — a band of humanoid mini gods whose sole purpose is to fight and destroy reptilian creatures known as Deviants. After being sent to Earth around 5000 B.C. for just that purpose, the Eternals are left on the planet even after their mission is accomplished. Centuries pass — centuries of human trauma and tragedy in which they refused to intervene — until they’re drawn back together after a global earthquake and the return of the Deviants. The newly advanced monsters are far from their biggest concern, though, as the fate of humanity comes with universe-shaking revelations about the Eternals themselves.
There’s a lot going on here as evidenced by the epic time span covered within, but for all the big reveals, human milestones mentioned and tossed aside, and implied ramifications, Eternals more often than not still comes down to familiar moral conundrums and a lot of the punch-blast-punch action that makes up the MCU. A threat, some arguments, and boom, we’re shootin’ lasers and fighting in the sky. To be clear, some of it entertains, but the film’s strengths rest instead on the mixed bag of characters and the actors bringing them to life.
While the Marvel brand is character continuity, the Eternals gang are all new. Ajak (Salma Hayek) leads before retiring to the American Midwest, Sersi (Gemma Chan) scrolls Instagram in London with Sprite (Lia McHugh), and Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) has become a Bollywood superstar. Gilgamesh (Don Lee) and Thena (Angelina Jolie) hang out in rural Australia, Druig (Barry Keoghan) lives in a South American commune, and Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) has settled down with a husband and a child. The daily lives of Ikaris (Richard Madden) and Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) are less clear, but also irrelevant, as they’re all back together soon enough. Their various superpowers feel like they’ve been ripped from an introductory text on creating superheroes — laser eyes, mind control, super fast, super strong, etc — but once the fighting begins it all comes down to the same CG-driven antics anyway.
Zhao, along with co-writers Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo, and Kaz Firpo, ensures a big question is answered early on — where were these godly bastards when Thanos wiped out half the population? — but the answer flies in the face of the film’s own “grand” themes. The concept of blind obedience is so strong that they let carnage and chaos reign simply because stopping it was never part of their mission. Fine. Weak, but fine. But if that’s the case, why do their battles with Deviants always see them not just fighting the monsters but actively rescuing and saving humans? The script wants us to believe that some of the Eternals care deeply about humanity, but things flip again as it’s only when their own “lives” and current home are threatened that they finally decide to break free of authoritarian rule. Mini gods, they’re just as indecisive and inconsistent as the rest of us!
Eternals goes out of its way to tell us how special and unique humans are compared to other species — a real “fuck you” to the MCU’s non-human heroes and characters despite Rocket’s arc in Guardians of the Galaxy delivering far, far more emotion than Zhao’s film can manage for all of its characters combined — but for all of the natural beauty that Zhao and cinematographer Ben Davis catch (and the CG wizards create), we see very little of humanity itself. Sure, their name is on the title card, but the Eternals make up the overwhelming bulk of the film’s arguably indulgent two-and-a-half-hour running time with barely a speaking role for mere humans to be found. The two real exceptions are both love interests, naturally, but even there the film can’t resist elevating one of them into something more “special” and part of the MCU’s never-ending world-building.
While telling us that humans rock, the film also takes some time to show us how humans suck. Genocidal slaughters and mentions of war share the screen with one terribly ill-conceived beat that drops Phastos right in the middle of a still smoking, bombed out Hiroshima — so he can make it all about himself somehow. It’s unintentional but fitting as the film ultimately sees these characters as human despite their own truths. Sprite, an inhuman projector of sensory illusions, struggles as an Eternal trapped in a body that doesn’t match who she truly is. Sersi is torn between the love of two bland white guys, one of whom, despite living for centuries, still prefers missionary position.
So no, Zhao’s Eternals isn’t some big step forward for the MCU or superhero movies in general. Also? It was never going to be.
It’s instead a middle of the road entry in the never-ending cash cow that is a corporate conglomerate’s MCU, as far from the best (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) as it is from the worst (Iron Man 2). Some of the action is fun, the design of the Deviants is sharp and lends each of them a unique appearance, and the implications going forward suggest all manner of epic silliness. Ramin Djawadi‘s score adds to the big, international feel as well and offers a welcome change from the Zimmer-fication of blockbuster scores these days.
For a grand epic, though, it’s those smaller beats and characters that make Elementals worthwhile. Nanjiani, Henry, and Harish Patel (as Kingo’s valet) ensure more than a few laughs, and Jolie takes her supporting turn in stride while still managing to carry herself like a star. Keoghan gets to break free a little from his career trajectory of playing weird little shits to embody a more complex character with an intriguingly conflicted persona, and while it’s not explored as well as you’d hope it’s good seeing the actor stretch and smile without malicious intent. McHugh and Ridloff are the two newest faces, and while again, their characters are left a bit wanting, their performances and personalities mark them as talents to watch.
As mentioned earlier, Zhao ensures some attractive natural beauty throughout the film as we hop through time and around the globe. It’s an appealing looking film, albeit one that’s neither mind-blowing nor paired with the human weight that marks her earlier films like Nomadland and Songs My Brothers Taught Me. It’s difficult to fault Marvel’s habit of poaching indie filmmakers and offering them blockbusters featuring big-name stars in funny costumes, but the otherwise talented Zhao might want to consider returning to her more successful roots after this. She won an Oscar last year!
Eternals teases some legitimately interesting conversations, dilemmas, and questions about blind obedience, the one versus the many, and moral obligations while soft shoeing around them to get to the expected beats and booms. Just as the title characters follow orders to their detriment, so do Zhao and her fellow screenwriters offer only mild pushback before giving in to their overlords. Some filmmakers have found ways around those obstacles to deliver supremely entertaining superhero fare whether in Marvel’s house or DC’s, but Zhao hasn’t managed the same. Instead, she’s delivered with Eternals an epic that feels far smaller than it should. It’s fine, but it probably won’t stay on your mind for all that long.