Based on its opening crawl, the audience can immediately tell that Eternals is a different kind of MCU movie. Considering that it’s the 26th feature in this franchise, a change a pace certainly isn’t unwelcome. With an Oscar-winning artist like Chloé Zhao at the helm, one might expect a game-changer. In some respects, Eternals is. The cast is brimming with diversity, Zhao’s style is more experimental than some past MCU outings, and this cinematic universe may never be the same again. So, why is Eternals just good in the end?
The film sets itself after the events of Avengers: Endgame, although the Eternals were around long before Captain America, Captain Marvel, or even Thor. Created by the Celestials, these immortal extra-terrestrial beings have been influencing humanity for centuries. Conveniently for this franchise’s continuity, the Eternals aren’t allowed to interfere with human wars unless creatures called Deviants are involved. When Deviants resurface for the first time in eons, the Eternals are called out of retirement. The more they uncover, though, our heroes begin to question their role on this planet.
Zhao’s direction is both the film’s greatest strength and drawback. Instead of Zhao’s usual cinematographer and partner, Joshua James Richards, Eternals is brought to life through Ben Davis’ lens. Although Davis has worked on several other MCU movies, none look as impressive as Eternals. Part of the credit must go to Zhao, who possesses an unparalleled eye for sweeping shots. Whether it’s a confrontation in space or a simple sunset on a farm, every image in Eternals feels meticulously mapped out. While Zhao certainly has the visual pizzazz to direct a $200 million blockbuster, it’s the pacing where Eternals falls short.
After being separated, the film spends almost an hour getting everyone back together. Then once everyone is united, they break up again with one major character not returning until the end. Zhao is known for making slow, atmospheric pictures where little seems to be happening on the surface, but raw humanity lurks underneath. Her style carried Nomadland to a Best Picture Oscar, but it doesn’t necessarily complement a Marvel movie. Considering how many Marvel movies follow a proven formula, it’s refreshing to see Zhao step out. At the same time, there are certain elements we’ve come to desire from the MCU, namely grand action and witty humor.
For all the marvelous visuals on display, few are dedicated to action set pieces. Even the climax doesn’t’ come off as epic as it should, despite the high stakes. The humor is hit and miss, although a charming cast goes a long way. While Angelina Jolie and Salma Hayek might be the biggest names, breakout star Gemma Chan holds the group together as Sersi. Kumail Nanjiani’s Kingo naturally gets the most laughs along with his manager (Harish Patel). Eternals also breaks a few barriers with Lauren Ridloff as the MCU’s first deaf hero and Brian Tyree Henry as probably Disney’s most layered gay character. The two most complex members are Richard Madden’s Ikaris and young Lia McHugh’s Sprite, although their character arcs get resolved in a rushed manner.
While not every character is as fleshed out as one would hope, everyone is likable, and the cast shares genuine chemistry. Having worked with mostly non-actors – Frances McDormand excluded – it’s interesting to see Zhao juggle an all-star cast. Considering that this is new territory for Zhao and Marvel, it might be unfair to expect a masterpiece. Even if it flies too close to the sun, Eternals is a spectacle with much to admire. Looking back at the MCU lineup, Eternals might not go down as one of the greats. However, it may be a stepping stone towards greater things to come.