‘Eternals’: Chloé Zhao’s Existentially Elegant Marvel Film Clashes With Its Own Scale

How much weight can a superhero movie bear? That seems to be the question driving director Chloé Zhao throughout “Eternals.” As Marvel has risen to the preeminent pop culture powerhouse in movies, a debate has raged over the validity of superhero films as “cinema.” Respected directors like Martin Scorsese have famously sparked fierce debate on the matter, especially when it comes to how much of the MCU roster is seen as an expensive factory product following a specific formula. “Eternals” feels like the studio’s biggest effort to answer that question. Zhao’s overstuffed epic tries to be everything for everyone. It’s a comic book adventure filmed with poetic arthouse visuals. It still follows the usual Marvel plot points but at the same time wants to be some grand meditation on God. Basically, it wants to be taken really, really seriously, while still featuring giant rock entities with multiple eyes. 

The opening is quite literally a Biblical crawl describing the cosmos as being the work of entities called the Celestials. Apparently our planet is one of their creations, and is threatened by Deviants, who are snarling predators that look plucked from the jungles of “Avatar.” This is followed by an epilogue in which the title heroes, the Eternals, save some prehistoric humans from rampaging Deviants. You see, the Eternals have been here for about 7,000 years cleansing Earth of the monsters and succeeded, or so it seemed. But before we go too deep into the cosmology of this dense film, the plot really kicks off with Sersi (Gemma Chan), an Eternal fronting as a lecturing scientist in London. Her boyfriend Dane Whitman (Kit Harington) suspects there’s something different about her, but can’t figure it out. When they’re attacked by a Deviant, Sersi and fellow Eternal Sprite (Lia McHugh) are saved by Ikaris (Richard Madden), who was once Sersi’s lover. Sensing a looming threat, they reconnect with the rest of their old team, including Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), Druig (Barry Keoghan), and Gilgamesh (Ma Dong-seok), who has been caring for Thena (Angelina Jolie). They are all soon shocked to discover their leader, Ajak (Salma Hayek), has been murdered, revealing a greater cosmic threat beyond their imaginatio.

In many ways “Eternals” is the weirdest movie ever added to the MCU’s pantheon. At a galactic size of 2 hours and 37 minutes, it shows so much and yet still feels as if it doesn’t say enough. One minute it is awe-inspiring, the next confused and rather silly. Zhao’s approach can feel like a director at war with the very nature of the material she has been hired to direct. Renowned for her lyrical films like “The Rider,” an enveloping tale about an injured rodeo star, and “Nomadland,” the Oscar-winning portrait of wandering Americans in the aftermath of the Great Recession, Zhao tries to fit her voice to a specific popcorn formula. The result is a fascinating experiment. While other directors like Ryan Coogler and Kenneth Branagh disappeared behind their respective Marvel films, Zhao’s visual poetics are more present in “Eternals.” Cinematographer Ben Davis uses natural light, floating camera angles and wide shots that seem lifted from Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven.” An opening shot of a blazing sun, impressive on IMAX, looks borrowed from Malick’s creation sequences in “The Tree of Life.” There are truly elegant moments where kisses are shared during magic hour or hands hold each other. “Eternals” lacks the pop art colors of “Guardians of the Galaxy” or “Thor: Ragnarok.” 

Zhao’s evocative photography then has to somehow accommodate a screenplay co-written with Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo and Kaz Firpo that is one of the most cluttered MCU entries in years. It’s a lesson in how attempts at being original within a genre clash with keeping the bankable formula intact. Before the central plot gets going, we get long flashbacks of the Eternals’ early days hanging around ancient Babylon and watching the Conquistadors rampage through Tenochtitlan, not to mention a wedding in ancient India. Endless exposition explains their mission, meaning protect the humans but don’t interfere in their plans, which irritates Phastos, who would like to introduce modern inventions. The murder of Ajak leads to both a search for answers and an existential crisis involving the Eternals’ sense of identity and reality, after Sersi is given mind-blowing revelations by their creator, Arishem (voiced by David Kaye), a massive deity with six eyes who appears over Earth and looks made of stone. It could be a metaphor for humanity beginning to question God, or certain ideas of God. Would a divine creator have the right to destroy their creation? Would the creation have the right to resist? It’s one of many possible themes the film has little room to fully explore. Angelina Jolie’s valiant Thena is suffering from a particular kind of mental illness as well, which is so hastily explained you might be grateful for the rewind option once “Eternals” streams on Disney Plus. Another running theme is the broken romance between Sersi and Ikaris, which never gets to turn into real drama because we have to rush along to cover every other Marvel base. As a result there are lots of sad stares and cheesy one-liners, but we never feel the heartache. Notice how Richard Madden’s expression never seems to change during the entire movie. He can’t even crack a smile during Marvel’s first ever sex scene, where Ikaris and Sersi make love on a rock in very PG-13 fashion yet still bold for this franchise.

There are still moments in “Eternals” that have the old Marvel charm and even some truly groundbreaking touches. A newly-ripped Kumail Nanjiani steals the show as Kingo, who when the Eternals took a break became a Bollywood star. His assistant, Karun (Harish Patel), is a hilarious, scene-stealing delight who dutifully follows Kingo around with a camera to document his new adventure and offer moral encouragement. Phastos is gay and married to Ben (Haaz Sleiman). The two live with their son in a pleasant suburban neighborhood until Phastos’s old teammates show up with cosmic problems. It’s a great moment in which Marvel again shows how pop art can be at the forefront of progressive representation in media. There is also much more chemistry between Phastos and Ben than the boringly hetero Sersi and Dan, who is also played by Kit Harington as a guy always looking worried. Overall the only Eternal with vivacious energy is Ma Dong-seok’s Gilgamesh, who actually cracks jokes and shares drinks he’s learned to make through the centuries. Everyone else pace and stare like refugees out of a religious cult.

The better moments in this film are soon caged in by the required action scenes. Visual elegance gives way to efficient CGI battles where the Eternals fight Deviants in the jungle and later, as required by every MCU film, gather for the final brawl. It’s an entertaining showdown set on a volcanic island with the expected build-up to one massive special effect, this one involving a gargantuan face and fingers ripping out of Earth’s core. This might all work better if it were also just a tighter film. Zhao deviates too often to long monologues explaining a certain point or feeling that was already expressed earlier, as if that will give the movie a more “serious” tone. When Marvel films reach some real pop poetics, it’s when the movie basks in its own genre. The ending funeral scene of “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” where Rocket Racoon looks up at a cascade of fireworks with Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son” on the soundtrack is more eloquent than any moment in Zhao’s crammed metaphysical fable.

“Eternals” can still be admired for its chutzpah. There are visual moments and ideas that one rarely finds in any comic book adaptation. Zhao remains a filmmaker capable of composing shots memorable for their sheer richness. It still falters next to another recent epic, “Dune,” which is both visually awesome but with a clear narrative where the ideas don’t clash with the technique. Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi adventure is about as long as “Eternals” yet doesn’t feel that way. Zhao should be commended for taking a genre film and attempting to reach great heights. She tries to combine heroes in tights with theological musings. The ultimate fatal flaw is that along the way, even with great vistas rushing by on screen, “Eternals” also loses that all-important component to reading comics and watching them as movies— a sense of fun.

Eternals” releases Nov. 5 in theaters nationwide.