Watch a Celestial Might appear in Marvel’s Eternals made me feel small.
Director ChloÃ© Zhao has a knack for stimulating the senses by letting the outside world in. In his previous films, like the one from 2017 The horseman and Oscar winner in 2020 Nomadic country, Zhao captures human subjects who touch and feel their environment, forming a deep connection with the landscape.
This appreciation for the majestic sprawl of nature is crucial for all of the characters in Zhao’s stories – even when, as in the case of Eternals, they are not from this Earth.
Marvel’s latest cinematic offering, Eternals – which hits theaters on November 5th – is both a crazy change of pace for Zhao and a story that demands his distinct voice. Within this centuries-long, globe-trotting epic, ancient alien beings feel authentically human through the symphony of dirt, water, sun, fire, and wind that surrounds them – and through relationships. that drive them.
When these heroes are overshadowed by even more titanic figures, we assume their point of view, that of the ants during a picnic. The scale on which Zhao operates through Eternals is vast, sometimes absurd. But when Zhao’s aliens develop a deep intimacy with each other, that’s when Eternals shines the most.
Eternals adapts the sci-fi creations of comic book legend Jack Kirby of the same name, a race of ancient aliens with extraordinary gifts and the power of immortality. Their sworn enemies are the Deviants, monstrous “accidents” in the evolutionary process. Months after the events of Avengers: Endgame, an ancient plan is put into action, forcing the Eternals to finally act after centuries of hiding among the gathered masses of humanity.
While Eternals is visually stunning and richly crafted – creating a compelling language of magical forms and harnessing the power of the Celestials whose towering and unsettling presence seems rightfully Lovecraftian – he has the unenviable task of translating Marvel’s most complex property to date. Few comic book readers know the Eternals; let alone read the original Kirby comics (as opposed to the more accessible Neil Gaiman miniseries). Spider Man movies have it easy in comparison.
So it was a masterstroke on Marvel’s part to hire Zhao, who specializes in portraying near-mythical lifestyles in a way that feels grounded and humanly recognizable. But Zhao’s film ultimately struggles under the weight of its mission, unable to distribute all of the exposure necessary for its story. Far from communicating its entire context in an organic and rhythmic way, Eternals starts with a Star wars the exploration of the opening credits, a noble attempt to achieve greatness that has so many proper names in it you’ll want the projectionist to take a break. From there, the rest of the film dispenses entire mountains of exposure with devoted solemnity, until its last moments that raise eyebrows and scratch their heads.
Forcing Zhao to adopt the Marvel house style, the rest of the film does not fare any better. An introductory CG battle begins and ends with a thud, while a complicated but rote murder mystery with a telegraphed “twist” plagues the visually stunning experience of Eternals. All of the rudimentary Marvel tropes on display undermine Zhao’s painstaking efforts to pursue more naturalistic cinema; his style turns out to be totally incongruous to a story that his studio can only continue to tell artificially.
Although Zhao is good at visualizing texture, she is unable to communicate with Eternals what else makes her interesting as an artist. There’s little of the natural lighting that distinguishes his past films (aside from a few pretty sunsets), and only the occasional graceful Malickian camera movement that brings us closer to the characters. Both look like flourishes. Tragically, Eternals is another example of a good director choked within the confines of Marvel, not the studio expanding its creative parameters to accommodate a new voice.
At least the characters are fun. The many heroes of Eternals are diverse in appearance, potency and personality. It is easy enough to follow such endearing characters throughout their 7,000-year journey.
A vast array of A-listers and charismatic actors make up Eternals, each had their own arcs and breathing space that allowed them to shine as performers. Salma Hayek, Angelina Jolie, Brian Tyree Henry, Lia McHugh, Kumail Nanjiani, Richard Madden, Don Lee, Barry Keoghan and Lauren Ridloff – who plays in American Sign Language (ASL) – play all of Earth’s designated Eternals, who have found corners in human society in which to hide. Some are reclusive, while others quietly have families. At least one dares to be a celebrity: Kingo de Nanjiani, a movie star at the center of a colorful and stereotypical Bollywood dance act.
But the real “star” of the film is undoubtedly Gemma Chan. As Sersi, a museum curator capable of manipulating matter, Chan’s role is one where Eternals regains its emotional gravity. Although superficially a superhero movie, Eternals is spiritually a love story. Sersi spends his torn-screen time between two men: Madden’s Ikaris, an Eternal with powers similar to DC’s Superman (this comparison is verbalized at one point) and Kit Harington’s Dane Whitman, a museum scholar for whom there is more than it seems. (Yes, it’s a mini Game Of Thrones reunion, and Eternals has a little fun with the shared CVs of his actors.) Above the two actors, Chan, a deeply engaging performer whose weight Sersi carries with responsibility, duty and love. You can read the emotional essence of Eternals on Chan’s face.
Beautiful and ambitious, Eternals takes great swings which are admirable although they fail to connect. It’s not my favorite Marvel movie but it’s the one I can’t wait to see again. While unlike most other Marvel movies, it’s less ascetic and features the studio’s first love scene, Eternals finds himself indebted to an infuriatingly rigid formula.
And so Eternals is not so much a testament to Zhao’s creative vision as it is a warning to Marvel, which must allow visionary artists to follow their instincts instead of imposing limits on them. The tender human touch that characterized Zhao’s past work is just a faint whisper in this sci-fi superhero show. Her characters and the open perspectives in which she positions them are the only signs of life in what remains a plastically disappointing universe.
Eternals hits theaters on November 5.