Since the start of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) in 2008 with Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, the once indie studio Marvel Studios went on to create possibly the most elaborate series in cinema history as it slowly built up a mythology across 23 films, including its end Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019), which they called the Infinity Saga. When you’ve watched your heroes battle a foe so strong that there are theories wondering if Chris Evans’s Steve Rogers only survived 2018’s Infinity War thanks to the last minute use of the Time Stone by Thanos (Josh Brolin), the question becomes: where do we go from here? The Avengers, as audiences know them, are basically no more: Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is dead, Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) is dead, Steve is too old, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is off-world with the Guardians, and Hawkeye’s (Jeremy Renner) likely retired. The only thing left to do is start over, which is why, more than any other Phase Four film, director Chloé Zhao’s (Nomadland) Eternals feels like a Phase One film, starting from scratch so as to plant the seeds of conflicts to come. Though it lacks the emotional heft of Phase Four starter Black Widow (2021) or the infectious energy of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021), Eternals presents an opportunity, not just for new adventures, but for a new way of presenting these stories. Hold tight, true believers, this isn’t the film you expect from the MCU, but it may just be what you need.
In 5000 B.C.E., a small team of eternal superhumans led by Ajak (Salma Hayek) arrived on Earth for the sole purpose of protecting the population from a species of predators known as Deviants. Sometimes this means offering the populace tools to protect themselves, sometimes this means intervening, but this 10-individual team is ordered by the Celestial they serve, known as Arishem (voiced by David Kaye), to never interfere in the lives of the people unless a Deviant is involved. Enter present day post-Snap and a threat the likes this team has never faced presents itself just as the team scrambles to gather itself back together after 2000 years. But will they be enough and in time?
Zhao’s Eternals is unlike any MCU film before it. This isn’t hyperbole, it’s the simplest way to describe it. It’s somber, thoughtful, and more concerned about characters than it is in action or explosions. The conflict is interpersonal and weighted, the fallout uncertain and from whence the potential of Phase Four becomes unimaginable. While I didn’t find the cinematography to be particularly magnificent, returning MCU cinematographer Ben Davis (Captain Marvel; Doctor Strange; Avengers: Age of Ultron) eschews the typically bright colors for something more natural and earthy in tone. This means that even the costumes the Eternals wear, while singular in color to help convey that each member is unique in their own way, aren’t garish in the slightest. This may upset those who hoped for something a little more in the vein of creator Jack Kirby’s artistic style (seen in Doctor Strange (2016) and Thor: Ragnarok (2017)) who crave that vibrant ‘70s style. The choice, though, to lean in to natural colors emphasize the themes of connection and harmony that runs throughout the film. It also supports the way in which Phase Four seems to be shifting toward grounding the stories even further than they’ve ever been. Considering the stories on deck — Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021), Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness (2022), Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (2023) to name a few — and the ways in which these films are expected to explode the status quo by introducing the multiverse, Phase Four is going to need grounding in order to not lose the thread of what makes these stories so accessible.
Don’t mistake Eternals as shaking off the MCU essentials, there’re plenty of CG-laden sequences and quite a few fisticuffs, but the feel of it is less masculine-driven which imbues the film with an unseen sensitivity. When one considers that, of all the team members, it’s Gemma Chan’s (Captain Marvel) Sersi with her powers of transmogrification who takes the lead as the audience’s proxy, the vision of the film becomes quite clear. This isn’t to suggest that it’s Sersi’s femininity which instills the film’s general vulnerability, but her ability compared to other’s on the team. Unlike, say, Angelina Jolie’s Thena (warrior ability), Ma Dong-seok’s (credited as Don Lee) Gilgamesh (increased strength ability), Kumail Nanjiani’s Kingo (blaster ability), Sersi’s is distinctly defensive with the capability of gentle offense. This requires solutions to come not from the usual third act claptrap, but something more creative. Thus, we’re offered a final confrontation that’s far more personal and intimate even though the stakes are global. Thus far, only the Ant-Man films have managed to contain their conflicts and, while the future of Earth may be in the balance, the conflict itself is approached in a more intimate-manner. This results in a fight that possesses more than all of humanity in the balance, but something that matters for the Eternals themselves. The aforementioned Doctor Strange and Ragnarok are the closest comparable two to Eternals in that the confrontation isn’t about fixing or resetting to zero, but offering a solution at a cost. It’s both a bold move for a studio which is deservedly accused of “cookie cutter” character arcs and story acts and it’s also what makes this film feel so very Phase One: the possibilities of what’s to come are inconceivable at this time. This alone adds an extra bit of invigoration audiences haven’t had in the MCU since the end of Infinity War.
For all of its delightful shifts in approach, it’s still a Marvel Studios film, for better or worse. Given that this one features 10 central characters, it doesn’t so much pad its runtime as it requires a certain amount of patience in the storytelling in order to fit them all in and give them agency. This aspect is successful, but it’s hard not to notice just how long you’ve been sitting there. The trick is, I wouldn’t know where to cut. Eternals only works because of the character work, so we need to spend time with them, yet there’s so much pensive pondering and infighting that require setup and resolution that the actual fisticuffs start to feel like a nice break from the conversation. (It’s a weird feeling to have.) Luckily, the fights are well choreographed so that each altercation possesses the weight of uncertainty regarding who may or may not be injured. Unlike prior MCU films, Eternals doesn’t posture as to the invulnerability of its leads, which makes the choices the characters make feel far more weighted and dangerous in the execution. Add in the fact that the few times we see Arishem, the scale of him turns any Eternal into that of an ant. Previously, audiences have either seen Celestials via Eson the Searcher in Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 1 (2014), which suggested a height akin to Godzilla or taller or Ego in Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 (2017), the consciousness that formed a planet around itself, so Arishem is something else entirely, which the script effectively uses to instill both awe and terror at once. Of all the things in Eternals which will appear more effective in a theater versus at home (setup depending, of course), it’s any scene involving Arishem.
Phase One stories had the benefit of telling individual stories that slowly built the universe as we know it. Oddly, this film, of all the Phase four films we’ve seen, uses characters that are the least known (this will obviously change given the talented cast who brings them to life) to not only create the cinematic foundation moving forward but to change almost everything we thought we knew in the process. Doing so requires patience and that’s not something the MCU typically allows when it’s got some bam-pow! to get to. This is laudable, but not likely to feel like a homerun from audiences at first. Zhao’s Eternals may very well be the first way-homer of the MCU, garnering appreciation with both time and contemplation.
By the by, there are two post-credit sequences: one mid-credit and one stinger after the credits. If you’re as unfamiliar with the characters as I am, you’re likely going to be less whelmed than those into the Marvel Comics lore, but I will caution you to listen closely to the stinger as what you hear is going to excite you more than what you see.
With the intent of keeping my review spoiler-free there’s a great deal that I haven’t discussed and hope to do so in a future home release review. This is a film that, while imperfect, feels like a step forward into maturity for the MCU. I enjoy the spectacle that most of the MCU films are and their quippy one-liners, but, if that’s all they ever are, if that’s all the studio allows moving forward, then we, as an audience, will never rise above the end of the Infinity Saga in terms of emotional connection. There’s been talk of a rising sense of MCU fatigue between the high-number of television shows and films, the synergy exciting comic book fans yet creating a decreasing sense of scarcity that made them wondrous in the first place. Zhao’s Eternals may just set a precedent that could revitalize the MCU moving forward by leaning on its adult themes and new opportunities. This won’t be for everyone, that’s for sure. But it’s exciting nonetheless.
In theaters November 5th, 2021.
For more information, head to the Marvel’s official Eternals website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.