You can count me among the many Chloé Zhao fans out there. The Beijing-born filmmaker has had a short yet prominent career, making a name for herself in the thriving world of independent cinema. Her renown grew even more last year when her film “Nomadland” dominated awards season, taking home Academy Awards for both Best Picture and Best Director. Needless to say, a lot of people became well acquainted with her name.
You can also count me among the many who were surprised by the announcement that Zhao would be co-writing and directing the next $200 million installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In one sense it was interesting to see how Zhao’s distinct artistic sensibilities would fit with a mammoth MCU blockbuster. On the other hand, it felt so at odds with what she has become known for.
While Zhao unquestionably puts in the effort and gives it her all, “Eternals” is a surprising inert and at times downright dull superhero movie that doesn’t really utilize her strengths. Yes, you can see it working hard to be a departure from the staling Marvel movie norm. Yes, you can see its attempts at humanizing its characters in more intricate ways than past MCU films. But Marvel already has a pretty good track record for digging into the humanity of their heroes. Sadly Zhao and Marvel Studios guru Kevin Feige’s efforts to be something new never goes beyond the optics.
The screenplay comes from the writing team of Zhao, Patrick Burleigh, Kaz Firpo, and Ryan Firpo. Their story spans 7000 years, sloppily hopping back-and-forth across their timeline, resulting in an overly long and overstuffed 157-minute running time. To cover all its ground, the story ends up drowning us in exposition, skimming over things that might have been interesting if given enough time. Instead, stuff like Celestial Seeds, the Emergence, a World Forge, etc. means nothing, and goes in one ear and out the other.
One key problem with “Eternals” is that it is overloaded with characters, and Zhao tries to give each of them some semblance of a backstory. Inevitably all end up feeling shortchanged to various degrees. A few get more attention which helps in terms of depth. Others have their lives crammed into small segments. It’s obvious Zhao is interested in her characters, but too much of their stories are left on the side. Mainly because the film also needs to build its superhero mythology which too often consists of large and often tedious information dumps.
Storywise, the Eternals are a group of ten good-looking cosmic beings who were sent to Earth eons ago by Arishem the Judge to defend the planet against a ravenous species known as Deviants. Their centuries long war ends in 1500 when the last of the Deviants are finally killed. The Eternals then go their separate ways, with each immortal settling and assimilating into different locations around Earth, waiting for Arishem to summon them home. 500 years pass and each Eternal has carved out a life for themselves (more or less). But when a particularly nasty new Deviant suddenly appears in London, it’s clear that it’s time to get the team back together.
Marvel Studios brings in a lot of star power to portray the Eternals and much like the characters themselves, some are much more convincing than others. At the top is Gemma Chan who plays Sersi, an eternal with the weird ability to manipulate matter. Sersi is easily the most complete character and Chan gives a terrific performance full of warmth and compassion. Richard Madden plays Ikaris, a poor man’s Superman and one-time love interest of Sersi. Angelina Jolie plays Thena, a powerful Wonder Woman like warrior who wields weapons made of cosmic energy. She’s haunted by past memories that threaten her and the team. Druig (Barry Keoghan) can control minds and Makkari (Lauren Ridloff ) is the Eternals version of The Flash. Both are two of the movies most intriguing characters but both (especially Makkari) get back-burned.
On the downside you have Salma Hayek who plays the team leader Ajak. I love Hayek and there’s nothing wrong with her performance. But she feels woefully out of place in most of the scenes she’s in. The same can be said for Brian Tyree Henry who plays Phastos, a cosmic inventor (for lack of a better description). His story is the most jammed together and almost feels plucked from another movie. And like Hayek he’s not always convincing, especially on the battlefield. Kumail Nanjiani is Kingo, who shoots balls of energy from his fingers and provides tacked on comic relief. But he inexplicably vanishes during the final act. Then you get Don Lee as Gilgamesh (super strength) and Lia McHugh as Sprite (projects illusions) – both are nice presences but both feel like tag-along characters.
As the movie predictably brings the former teammates back together, it tries to tell their individual human stories while also building up its cosmic storyline. Surprisingly that leaves little room for superhero action. We do get a couple of set pieces that look fine and checks most of the boxes, but there’s little there that we haven’t seen done better elsewhere. Even the big CGI blowout finale is missing the energy and style of the better Marvel films. Even worse, it has no stakes. Yes, the world is in danger once again. But frankly, I really didn’t care.
As I sat through “Eternals” I couldn’t help but think of how it would have fared better as a Disney+ streaming series. There’s very little here that screams big screen movie and giving the characters and their stories more room to develop would have helped tremendously. Instead we get a rare MCU misfire – a flat and flavorless superhero film full of bold ambitions. But in its efforts to realize those ambitions it cuts too many corners and forgets a key ingredient in all of these superhero movies – fun.
Yet all that, at least we have the post credits scenes, right? Don’t worry, no spoilers here. I’ll just say even they fall short. I would laugh off the shockingly bad mid-credits scene as a stunt if it wasn’t actually happening. And the end-credits scene (which is actually pretty exciting), is so poorly put together that many will immediately pull out the phones and go online just to understand what happened. But what can I say? It almost feels like fitting end for a movie that aims at something new, but completely misses its target. “Eternals” is now playing in theaters.