Review by Liam Kelly
Fresh from her resounding success at the Academy Awards, auteur Chloé Zhao (Nomadland (2020)) ventures into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Out of all of the projects Marvel has on its slate, there was a lot of intrigue surrounding The Eternals. The characters from the comics are largely unknown, and it is clear with the budget as well as the high profile cast (Angelina Jolie, Richard Madden, Salma Hayek, Kit Harrington) that Marvel had a lot of confidence in Zhao to surprise audiences with a transcendental cinematic experience. However does the film deliver on its undoubted potential?
Eternals is anchored by its star studded cast, many of whom are oozing with charisma and charm. Madden is a commanding screen presence, outshining his Game of Thrones costar Harrington. He delivers a soulful performance as Ikaris, reminiscent of his stoic lead character in ‘Bodyguard’. As the matriarch of the group, Gemma Chan’s Sersi exudes an ethereal aura. The character is very similar in spirit to her starring role in ‘Humans’ , she also shares a deep connection with humanity. Irish viewers will be excited with the inclusion of Dubliner Barry Keoghan as the morally dubious Druig. It is so refreshing to see the actors use their natural accents, especially in a superhero blockbuster. The diversity of the cast is certainly something that the film takes full advantage of.
From a technical standpoint, Zhao offers assured and confident direction from behind the camera. I respect that Marvel allowed the director to make her own film with minimal studio interference. Those familiar with Zhao’s oeuvre will appreciate the use of a wide angle lens in capturing colourful landscapes and naturalistic elements, with a strong emphasis on the intimate moments between characters. In addition, Zhao likes to shine the spotlight on those who have been left behind by society. Newcomer Lia McHugh is particularly compelling as Sprite, she embodies the angst of an introvert who is trapped in a child’s body and struggles to fit into society. In contrast, comedian Kumail Nanjiani plays an Eternal with an inflated ego who has launched a Bollywood career of his own. The various dynamics between what is essentially a dysfunctional family of immortal aliens adds much needed moments of levity in a Marvel film surprisingly short of comedy. The film spends as much time with its action as it does with gathering the heroes around a dinner table which is very engaging while also emotionally resonant.
To Eternals’ credit, it succeeds as a form of escapism thanks to its many visually arresting scenes, faithfully capturing the unique psychedelic elements of the Jack Kirby comics. Fantastical creatures called Deviants and the all-powerful gods known as Celestials feel both menacing and imposing. We as the audience are brought on a journey spanning 7,000 years of human history: from ancient civilisations such as Tenochtitlan and Babylon, to modern day London and South Dakota. The fact that the film is this ambitious in scope and scale results in an extremely fast paced movie that never really finds its feet. The nonlinear narrative can feel very jarring and disorienting at times, especially the way it constantly jumps between numerous locations and time periods.
Looking back at Marvel’s past films with large ensembles, Eternals pales in comparison. James Gunn’s use of music and comedy gave Guardians of the Galaxy a timeless quality as well as adding much needed heart, personality and freshness to the MCU. This is something that Zhao and Marvel tries to replicate but it ultimately falls short. I commend Zhao and Marvel for making a film which is a significant departure from the formula that has defined the superhero genre for the past two decades. But, rather than elevating the franchise, Eternals never really establishes itself in what is essentially an overcrowded industry.