After numerous iconic filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese and Denis Villeneuve made disparaging comments about the standards of superhero films, Marvel Studios faced extra public pressure to create innovative and exciting iterations of the familiar genre.
Eternals follows several members of an immortal alien race who secretly lived on Earth for several millennia to protect humanity from the dangerous and predatory Deviants—another group of animalistic alien creatures. Following the aftermath of Avengers: Endgame and the return of half the Earth’s population, the Eternals reunite after Deviants resurface and start hunting down the long-separated group.
The film’s vision clearly comes from the creative sensibilities of writer-director Chloe Zhao, who won multiple Academy Awards this year for her film Nomadland. Zhao brings a more grounded, humble approach to Eternals’ massive scale and stakes. While other TV shows like HBO’s Watchmen and Amazon Prime’s The Boys tell darker stories about super-powered individuals with grittier, more realistic dynamics, Eternals embraces a traditional superhero story without the genre’s usual pomp and circumstance.
The film’s cinematography is expansive and engaging, with the many geographic settings serving as a calm, yet powerful, backdrop to the adventures of the titular team. There is lots of natural chemistry and diversity amongst the cast, which makes it easier for audiences to believe the sensational fantasy of the plot. The film’s themes of community, destiny, and self-empowerment are potent and inspiring, and are just as present in countless other Marvel films.
At a runtime of 157 minutes, Eternals is a viewing commitment, but for the most part, the film earns its length. The size of the ensemble cast and broad scope of conflict necessitate the duration, providing space to accommodate the characters’ many interwoven stories. It isn’t completely successful, however: The sheer number of characters and plotlines lead to several of them feeling underdeveloped. The ingenuity of Zhao’s direction and the dynamic explorations of human settings, superhuman emotions, and nuanced moral quandaries round out the better aspects of the film.
Yet, the countless juxtapositions of the film’s intentions and finished product compromise the film’s overall quality. The movie is stuck in a type of fandom limbo—it isn’t extravagant or sensational enough to fit in with the majority of Marvel movies, but it’s not indie enough to please cinephiles either. While these aren’t the only categories of filmgoers, they are the most likely to see a Chloe Zhao-directed Marvel film. In light of Scorsese and Villeneuve’s comments, it is understandable why Zhao would try to break from Marvel films’s traditional format. The final product, however, is bogged down by the more formulaic aspects of the film—the romances between characters and the ending, in particular—making the tone feel inconsistent.
Another frustrating aspect of Eternals is its unconventional approach to common superhero film tropes—rather than subverting them, Zhao subdues them. The diminished tropes work to varying degrees of success: While the lack of melodrama is a fresh take on fantastical storytelling, this humble approach lessens the stakes of conflict. Lacking suspense and anticipatory energy, many moments in the film feel wrongfully constructed and anticlimactic. Some character arcs are both derivative of other Marvel films and only occasionally given dramatic weight, making certain scenes feel out of place. The logic behind these choices make sense, but ultimately lead to the film not living up to its full potential.
Eternals is a very enjoyable film overall, but its fallacies and contrasting elements prevent it from being truly great. The long runtime is needed to accommodate all of the ensemble cast’s stories and talents, but leaves certain necessary plot points to the muddled imaginations of audiences. It may not become a beloved Marvel classic, but the pieces of Zhao’s vision that are able to shine through make it well worth the eternally rising price of cinema admission.