REVIEW: An exploration of humanity through the eyes of ‘Eternals’ shakes up the Marvel formula

Boyce Rucker, Intern

“Eternals” is Marvel Studios’ most ambitious film yet since “Avengers: Endgame.” This film has the makings of being something extraordinary under the direction of Academy Award Winner Chloé Zhao (director of 2021 Best Picture winner “Nomadland”), alongside the adaptation of lesser known characters and an ensemble cast to give them nuance. Developed by comic book writer/artist Jack Kirby in 1976, the Eternals are a race of superpowered immortals tasked with defending the earth by their creators, the Celestials. Their cinematic debut is marked by Zhao’s own creative freedom and themes that encompass the characters’ mythological nature.

The grand epic centers around the ten members of the Eternals. A race of superpowered immortals who were sent to earth in 5000 B.C. by the Celestial Arishem and have inhabited the planet ever since. They are tasked with defending humanity against the Deviants, a species seeking to eliminate all apex predators on the planet. The cosmic beings have secretly guarded the planet for centuries and have contributed to many of its technological, or societal advancements. However, they are forbidden from interfering in any human conflicts, such as those that involve the Avengers. In the present day, each Eternal is scattered across the globe, but they’re forced to unite against the Deviants in a battle that threatens the entire planet.

A still from Marvel’s “Eternals” (2021). (Chloé Zhao/Marvel Studios)

The Eternals consist of Sersi (Gemma Chan), Ikaris (Richard Madden), Thena (Angelina Jolie), Ajak (Salma Hayek), Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), Sprite (Lia McHugh), Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), Gilgamesh (Don Lee) and Druig (Barry Keoghan). The ensemble is accompanied by Dane Whitman (Kit Harington) and the Deviant Kro (Bill Skarsgård).

Zhao strives to tell a contemplative story in this film, one that broadens the horizons of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Most standard MCU films are beholden to a standard formula that we can admire, or become annoyed by. At times repetitive, the formula shows the hero’s origin, their fight against an underdeveloped counterpart villain, along with an assortment of wise-cracking jokes and a supporting cast to make the hero more relatable. Zhao uses these godly characters to tell a bigger story about humanity and whether it deserves salvation.

Richard Madden in “Eternals” (2021). (Chloé Zhao/Marvel Studios)

Saving humanity is the endgame for heroes in other MCU films, but “Eternals” plays on that idea with immortal characters who don’t have too big a stake in the planet and are restrained by their own rules in the face of humanity’s crises. The film makes a point of how much of mankind’s conflicts or atrocities, such as the Hiroshima bombing, stems from its own greed and desire for technological advancement. Zhao does what DC Comics’ “Man of Steel” set out to do, giving us a bird’s-eye-view of humanity from figures who surpass it on every level. The DC film is an influence on this MCU entry, as Zhao praises director Zack Snyder’s take on Superman “because he approached this myth in an authentic and very real way.” Ikaris is clearly inspired by Superman, based on his leadership characteristics and the powers he shares with the man of steel.

The film is more like a superhero drama than a superhero action-adventure. The interactions and family dynamics of the Eternals is a strong component throughout the film. The cast members add to this dynamic, as they all share a chemistry with each other in their roles. This chemistry is so authentic and alludes to the centuries their characters have spent with one another. While some characters only get a certain amount of time with one another onscreen, such as Thena and Sersi, it’s so easy for us to sense those long-lasting bonds. Zhao’s focus on familial bonds is comparable to those in “Nomadland” that Frances McDormand’s character forms with the group of nomads. Zhao expands on emotional ties in this film and makes them  the greater focus that draws us into the lingering humanity within the inhuman characters.

Salma Hayek in “Eternals” (2021). (Chloé Zhao/Marvel Studios)

With grand themes in mind, there isn’t much room for character development. Previous Marvel films have developed main characters in their own solo films, or their introductory scenes in team-up films. However, “Eternals’” focus on a team of ten characters makes it harder for each character’s decision or fate to be as impactful to us. As each of these characters are introduced in the opening minutes, but not fully explored at that point, it’s difficult to become invested in them. When we see them in the latter portion of the film, their presence feels brief and rushed. This is the case for Henry’s Phastos in the present-day as we’re introduced to him later in the film, alongside his husband and their son. Henry adds so much strength and emotional value to the character that makes him an instant fan-favorite, but the timing of his character doesn’t allow for us to enjoy him fully.

The film’s structure carries a choppy quality that makes the story hard to follow. The narrative loses its linearity, as the film alternates between the past and present day. The flashbacks act as exposition for the characters, but these sequences could have been melded together as montage for a prologue that would shave off the film’s runtime and make room for character development. These sequences look back on the history of the characters and give clarification to their present-day circumstances, though they disrupt the narrative’s natural flow.

Gemma Chan in “Eternals” (2021). (Chloé Zhao/Marvel Studios)

The cast is a huge draw and each member adds so much to their character for a well-balanced ensemble. Jolie adds dramatic fierceness to Thena, Nanjiani balances the film’s seriousness with Kingo’s comedic presence, Harington gives us Whitman’s everyman presence and Madden portrays the charm and conflictedness in Ikaris. This ensemble gives us something refreshing and vigorous when it comes to their characters. However, Chan and Henry are the two standouts. Chan’s Sersi is the closest to a main protagonist, as she portrays the inner turmoil of her character who’s torn between her role as an eternal and her human life, even if the latter won’t last a long time for her. Even though the character has lived for thousands of years, Chan strongly conveys both doubt and hopefulness for a character we would expect to carry wisdom over a long timespan. Henry shows dynamic range when we look back on his roles in “Atlanta” and “Widows.” His past characters have been very headstrong and tough, which makes it a revelation for him to show vulnerability as the Eternal. Henry adds warmth and intelligence to the role that gives the film emotional stakes near the end.

“Eternals” is not the best film to come out of the MCU, but it’s an invitation to an ever-expanding future for the cinematic universe. Director Chloé Zhao presents a reflective film that elevates the scope of the MCU. Despite its shortcomings, Zhao’s creative freedom demonstrates the range of themes and new ideas that Marvel Studios may allow directors to produce in the future.