Marvel has had tremendous success by methodically introducing characters to their elaborate universe, giving them time and space to breathe as audiences learn their story and positioning within the current linage of events. However, Chloé Zhao's Eternals opts for a different approach.
Telling the story of the Eternals, a race of immortal beings who've lived on Earth for over 7,000 years, shaping our history and the progress of our civilization, there's a wealth of information and backstory to unravel. Maybe that's why the film, the first Marvel entry helmed by an Academy Award-winning director, has such a daunting runtime. Or perhaps it stems from the more dramatic tone of this story, a stark departure to other superhero tales.
Regardless, the film is long, beautiful, and an undeniably ambitious project, regardless of Zhao's historical success. Set shortly after the return of half the population by the defeat of Thanos in Endgame, Eternals centers on the emergence, a catastrophic event that would lead to global destruction. Sent to Earth to protect the humans from the Deviants, it was thought their job complete. As a result, the Eternals are spread across the globe, living life as humans.
Though Salma Hayek's Jax is the group's leader, we spend much of the film alongside Gemma Chan's Sersi. She has adapted well to life on Earth. Her connection to humans is authentic; she holds compassion for the race, an emotion that helps to ground a film centered primarily on otherworldly beings.
Sersi's empathy and mercy drive the film, and Zhao captures the raw emotion with utter perfection. Through Sersi, we encounter our first present-day Deviant, and by way of her, we are reunited with the others in her group. She is the undoubted lead in the film, an interesting distinction given the star power that surrounds her.
In addition to Hayek, Richard Madden, Kumail Nanjiani, Brian Tyree Henry, Don Lee, and Angelina Jolie portray Eternals in arguably supporting roles. While the film teaches togetherness and community, there is little to dissent regarding Sersi's prominence in what is easily the most progressive Marvel film to date.
Outside of casting, Zhao has brought forth a true blend of characters. Henry's Phaistos, a weapons and technology inventor, is the first openly gay depicted superhero in the MCU. It's a landmark moment for the franchise, which has come under scrutiny recently for its lack of diversity and inclusion within its primary players.
But where there is more, there is also less as Eternals struggles to capture the wit and humor that makes Marvel films, well, Marvel. Nanjiani succeeds at moments, notably when playing to the camera while filming a documentary for his generational Bollywood fans. Still, those moments are short-lived, leaving much to be desired and a missing component that most fans admire.
The climax, a family dysfunction on steroids, fails to live up to the hype. Though it sets the stage for mass destruction, the solution is easily obtained, the obstacles only temporary as many of them exists internally, within the mind and heart. It's an interesting perspective, the colossal ramifications at play; however, the final result is too grand to ever be in serious doubt. That is one ginormous misstep that exists within the otherwise character-driven third act - emotion.
In many ways, Eternals is not a Marvel film. Though many are marking it as a new beginning that expands our current perspective of the MCU and its inhabitants, I won't venture so far. A drama through and through, Zhao has forged her own path within the genre, giving audiences a new look at the stories a superhero film can tell. I've often complained of the tight box Marvel confines their directors to, and I celebrate the result of this entry. The creativity, ingenuity, and beauty work in harmony, capturing a new energy. Genre fans might disagree, but there is something special about this moment; its ripple effect likely to be felt for the unforeseeable future.