After 10 years of blockbusters which all led to the box office-shattering Avengers: Endgame (2019), Marvel Studios had two major choices: go bigger or rebuild. In that rebuilding is an opportunity to start fresh and, for the most part, they did. The Marvel films of 2021 were strictly Phase 4 releases with Cate Shortland’s Black Widow, Destin Daniel Cretton’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, and Chloé Zhao’s Eternals, and two of these three were more about creating a foundation for the future than clearing unfinished business of the past. Of these three, the one that’s the most unique, the most dissimilar from any Marvel film before it is Zhao’s Eternals, now available on digital-to-own and Disney+. Rather than leaning into the cosmic wonder of the art and stories of creator Jack Kirby’s 1970s run, the film shifts to a blend of magical naturalism, focusing more on the burgeoning humanity within the aliens known as The Eternals rather than constantly building toward one super-powered fight or another. While some found it less enjoyable than the other releases in Marvel Studios’s deep stable, I found it not only a satisfying ride, but a profoundly thoughtful one.
If you are interested in learning about Eternals without spoilers, I recommend heading to the initial theatrical review. Moving forward, there will be spoilers.
Post-Endgame, the world seems to be functioning just as it once did with humanity back to bustling from one responsibility to another, unaware that trouble lurks underfoot. The first to realize it are a group of aliens, known as Eternals, that have been among humanity, guiding them but never interfering in conflict, who believe that the danger is tied to the return of malevolent creatures known as Deviants. In gathering their splintered forces, however, the Eternals learn some heavy truths about who they are and what their mission is, forcing the 10 powerful beings to decide between the humans they’ve spent centuries living among or their loyalty to their lord, the Celestial being known as Arishem (voiced by David Kaye).
Ahead of the film, I couldn’t have told you who any the central characters in the film were. I couldn’t have told you who the Deviants were. I have an *idea* of who the Celestials are thanks to their inclusion in both Guardians films, but, largely, Eternals was an unknown quantity for me prior to seeing it for the first time. This means that I had no preconceived notions to combat (evidentially the Deviants are different in the comics and Kirby’s comics are far more vibrant in their design and palate) so I was able to just absorb as much as I could. This is a tricky proposition for the uneducated as the central cast is literally 10-large with several peripheral characters. Thankfully they’re easy to identify between (a) their abilities, (b) their costumes, and (c) their casting. So even if you lose the forest for the trees regarding who’s who, you can lean back on what you know of the actors. This would be a struggle for any director tasked with setting up so much and keeping the narrative flowing, yet Zhao does it with relative ease. She manages it through a set of time jumps which, though jarring on the first watch, flow much more easily on subsequent watches. You can more easily understand why the narrative jumps backward, how the character relationships carry more weight with each jump forward and back, and the underlying conflict which comes to the forefront in the final confrontation can more easily be seen brewing all along. This is a long way to say that because I held no fore-knowledge, I can more easily accept what Zhao does here and see it for what it is rather than what I want it to be: a fresh start for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
So what is this “fresh start” and why is it the third film and not the first or second?
The whole of Eternals can be boiled down to one thing: The Trolley Problem. Here, the characters must decide which one is more valuable: the lives of everyone on Earth or future billions thanks to the sacrifice of Earth. This seems entirely unexpected as the first hour sets up a fairly basic Marvel film with disbanded heroes coming together, only for everything to shift once Cersei (Gemma Chan) becomes their new leader after Ajak (Salma Hayek) is murdered, discovering that the true purpose of the Eternals is to help humankind prosper as a lifeforce for a growing Celestial, Tiamut, inside Earth. At this moment, with this truth, everything the audiences thinks of the film is about suddenly shifts. Pushing toward a single question: who has the right to exist? Do the Eternals continue their mission and doom Earth or do they reject it and prevent the birth of Tiamut, knowing that this decision could destroy an entire universe? They must throw a single switch and, it’s with this knowledge that the final confrontation becomes about philosophy not force. Moreso than Civil War (2016), there are no clear villains in Eternals, each with support that makes the righteousness of their position understandable. Sure, it’s the usual slug-fest, but the stakes are both larger than before and yet smaller in scope. As Tiamut breaks through Earth’s crust, the Eternals battle each other without a desire to hurt, but with a duty to protect. It’s painful watching this family implode, each one taking sides (Kumail Nanjiani’s Kingo fascinatingly opting-out as a kind of conscientious objector), each one trying to save lives. Maybe it’s the fact that so much of recent MCU shifted from character-driven stories to spectacle, that Zhao’s focus on character feels like a breath of fresh air. We get some of this with Cretton’s Shang-Chi, a film which uses its action in concert with character development, not as a replacement, but Eternals, a film which must spend time to introduce a great deal of characters and concepts, does so without sacrificing the beating heart of it.
As far as the home release is concerned, this review can discuss the few special features that were included and identify the differences between the home release and the Disney+ edition, but can’t get into the technical aspects as my home review copy is digital.
With the digital edition dropping on the same day as the film hits Disney+, the biggest differences between the two versions is that the Disney+ version can be viewed with IMAX Enhanced. So if you’re interested in seeing the sequences shot for IMAX, the Disney+ version is the way to go. Unlike Shang-Chi which was shot entirely for IMAX, Eternals can get a little dizzying as it’s bounces between standard widescreen 2.35:1 and the IMAX Enhanced 1:90:1. Put more simply, in the sequence when Cerrsei and Sprite (Lia McHugh) are being attacked by a Deviant, depending on whether the creature is in frame will depend on which ratio you’re presented with. It didn’t matter if I was watching on my 63in plasma or my 30in LCD, the fast jumps between ratios was distracting. It may be nice to see more of the film on-screen, but there is something lost with each switch. Additionally, the only bonus feature available right now on Disney+ is a trailer. The digital edition, however, doesn’t have the IMAX Enhanced option, so the ratio is consistent at every point of viewing.
The digital edition comes with approximately 25 minutes of bonus materials: four deleted scenes, two featurettes, and one gag reel, plus a feature-length commentary track from director/co-writer Chloé Zhao, production visual effects supervisor Stephane Ceretti, and additional visual effects supervisor Mårten Larsson. The deleted scenes are interesting, but it is easily discerned why they were cut as their respective material is covered better in other scenes. Heck, one brief bit of dialogue between Cersei and Kit Harrington’s Dane more efficiently covers the same material. The two featurettes are going to be the first stop for people who loved Eternals, but will, most likely, find them lacking, even with a combined length of 16 minutes. So much of both is spent talking up the diversity of the cast as a major highlight of the film that all the material discussing production design, costumes, casting, Zhao’s work, and the script is short-changed as a result. The cast of actors making up the central cast as certainly diverse and the reaction of the cast to what it means for young audiences being able to see that kind of representation does appear to be genuine. It’s just that one starts to feel a sense of “We get it already” when the 10th cast member is talking about how wonderful it is that they’re diverse after barely a minute or two of behind the scenes technical exploration. Considering the critical response to Eternals has been fairly negative and parent company Walt Disney didn’t really do any kind of push for awards in 2021, perhaps we should just be grateful that there are any bonus features at all. That said, the gag reel is fantastic and really does convey how much fun this cast had working together. Thankfully, even more than the usual N.E.R.D. philosophy that pervades comics (no-one ever really dies), we know from Arishem that the Eternals are sentient humanoids with stored memories so any of this cast who we lost through the runtime could very well come back in a later installment. And I do so hope we get another installment.
In my initial review, I spoke about how Eternals feels like a return to Phase One. Part of this is because so much of the film builds a brand new world with characters we don’t know. The other part of it is because, if you go back to Iron Man (2008), it was all about relationships and how those relationships shaped the characters. Most of all, the way Eternals ends implies that life on Earth is about to get shaken in a way we haven’t experienced since Infinity War (2018). While I can’t conceive of an event bigger than the Infinity Saga, I’m truly excited to see where it goes from here. And, most refreshingly, such a follow-up story won’t require copious cameos to get me to watch.
Eternals Special Features:
- Audio Commentary – View the film with audio commentary by Chloé Zhao, Stephane Ceretti, Mårten Larsson. (2:35:51)
- Immortalized – Phase 4 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe launches into the cosmos with the Eternals. In this behind-the-scenes documentary, dive deep into the reasons why Marvel wanted to immortalize these superheroes for the MCU. (10:46)
- Walks of Life – Eternals unveils Marvel’s biggest and most diverse lineup of Super Heroes in one film. Hear reactions from the cast on being involved in the film and the instant sense of camaraderie that was felt on the day they all joined each other in their costumes. (5:01)
- Gag Reel – Watch some of the hilarious mishaps of the charming cast and crew. (2:29)
- Four (4) Deleted Scenes (6:02)
- Gravity – Phastos and Jack have a conversation that leads to a breakthrough. (1:16)
- Nostalgia – Sprite and Makkari reminisce about humankind while overlooking the ruins of Babylon. (1:06)
- Movies – Gligamesh and Kingo connect over movies while crossing the Amazon River with the rest of the team. (0:43)
- Small Talk – Sprite confronts Dane in the museum about his interactions with Sersi. (2:37)
*bonus features vary by product and retailer
Available on digital and Disney+ January 12th, 2022.
Available on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, and DVD February 15th, 2022.