Eternals Review: A Beautiful, Moving Story That Sometimes Struggles With Its Own Mythology

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ETERNALS

It may have felt like a centuries-long wait thanks to pandemic delays, but Eternals has finally arrived to shake up the MCU. The result is a beautiful look into the joys and sorrows of humanity that also doubles as an entry point into some of Marvel’s stranger cosmic storytelling. 

Eternals follows a group of cosmic beings charged with protecting the Earth for centuries. They are called on once again to defend the world they’ve grown to love when a new threat emerges. 

Directed by Academy Award-winner Chloé Zhao, the film features a large all-star cast including Gemma Chan (Sersi), Richard Madden (Ikaris), Kumail Nanjiani (Kingo), Lia McHugh (Sprite), Brian Tyree Henry (Phastos), Lauren Ridloff (Makkari), Barry Keoghan (Druig), Don Lee (Gilgamesh), Kit Harington (Dane Whitman), Salma Hayek (Ajak), and Angelina Jolie (Thena).

ETERNALS/ Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

The Eternals aren’t the Avengers, but that’s not a bad thing. Phase 4 has shown us over various projects that perhaps the Avengers as an overall team really were just “friends from work.” 

The Eternals are the team-turned-family we’ve been waiting to see on screen. We see their complex relationships play out through the film not only in the present day but across the centuries through the use of flashbacks. 

These flashbacks add to the expansive feel of the film, giving it more in common with an epic drama than a superhero film. 

The story sees them reckon with the burden they have as protectors who are limited by their mandate to only stop the Deviants and not otherwise interfere. They also grapple with the complexity of the human race they’re sworn to protect, falling in and out of love with their new home. 

Within the group itself, there are so many dynamics to add tension and emotion to the film. Whether it’s the immutable friendship between Thena and Gilgamesh or Makkari and Druig’s flirtation, there is so much life and humanity to be found in the group. 

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ETERNALS/ Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

If you loved the shawarma scene from The Avengers, you will love all the family bantering and hanging out Eternals manages to pack in alongside the team’s lofty mission. 

It’s hard to credit one standout performance over another because each Eternal is so well cast. Actors who may be lesser-known to audiences like Ridloff or Keoghan shine just as bright as Jolie or Hayek.

At the center of the film is the centuries-long relationship between Sersi and Ikaris, as Marvel once again explores the conflict between love and duty. They are not the first Marvel couple to grapple with this hurdle, but Chan and Madden’s intense chemistry on-screen sells the heightened stakes of their love for one another. 

While some Eternals get more screen time than others, they all feel like fully fleshed characters despite this being their first film appearance. They’re easy to fall in love with, even if some end up breaking your heart. 

Not to be ignored is the effortless diversity of the group. With so many heroes, each doesn’t get as much exploration as they probably deserve, but none ever feel tokenized within the group.

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ETERNALS/ Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

Eternals doesn’t compensate for the MCU centering around white male heroes for far too long, but it’s a welcome addition to the franchise’s seeming commitment to correcting it moving forward. 

Despite its enormous heart, the film does occasionally struggle under the weight of its often convoluted mythology surrounding the team’s creator the Celestials, and the Eternals’ true mission. 

Marvel Studios and Kevin Feige have been incredibly strategic about what stories are brought to screen, but watching the Eternals it’s not always clear why this corner of the Marvel universe is happening now. If the future of the MCU is on the cosmic level, Eternals is pushing fans into the deep end instead of letting them test the waters. 

Much like Dane Whitman learning his girlfriend is an immortal being, we’re just expected to roll with all of these revelations about the nature of the universe without too much surprise or confusion. 

Adding to that is the fact that certain truths are revealed for the first time to the Eternals themselves during the events of the film. Audience and Eternals alike are on this complicated ride together. 

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ETERNALS/ Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

The weakest element of the story lies with the Deviants whose purpose in the story ends up muddled. Like most Marvel films, Eternals’ attempt to make the villain someone worth exploring seems abandoned by the middle of the film. 

Given that the real conflict of the film comes from within the Eternals themselves, the subplot with the Deviants feels like spare parts.  

It’s possible to enjoy the film without understanding the history or significance of the comics, but it’s not immediately clear how Eternals changes the future of the MCU like Kevin Feige has promised. The film’s sort-of cliffhanger in the end credits scenes does leave the door open for more adventures with this group. 

As funny as the references to the mainstream MCU can be, they are fairly scant aside from the plot role the Blip plays. Without spoiling what’s already been plastered over the internet, the post-credits scenes rely on a good bit of comic book knowledge to understand their significance. 

Zhao creates an impressive and moving film, but you wonder how her work on this type of epic story would be received without the pressure of the MCU. Fans who vehemently adhere to the “it’s all connected” sentiment may end up disappointed by the film’s efforts to tell a story that lives on its own.

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ETERNALS/ Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

If you’re willing to let go of the expectations you have for Marvel Studios’ well-oiled machine, it’s easier to see and appreciate the humanity and emotion Zhao imbues into this layered story. Her power as a director, beyond technical prowess, is finding a way to make the audience connect with her subjects. She does that here with deft execution.

It’s hard to imagine any other director making viewers care about this group of immortals the way Zhao does. Whether or not Zhao chooses to return to the MCU in the future, she’s made an indelible mark with the introduction of this unique group of heroes. 

Eternals is now in theaters.

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