Review: ‘Eternals’

Directed by Chloe Zhao, the epic adventure stars Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Kumail Nanjiani and Angelina Jolie.  

What price immortal life? 

Eternals

The film opens on Friday, November 5 in area theaters via Disney. Visit the official site for more information. 

Serving up a bounteous feast for the eyes and ears, Eternals offers an outline of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that is markedly different from the films that have preceded it into theaters worldwide. 

The third entry in the so-called ‘Phase Four’ begins on a bold note of revision, grandly announcing its own spiritual order to creation and Earth’s place in it, declaring that creatures known as ‘Eternals’ were sent to Earth as its protectors from evil creatures known as ‘Deviants.’ Beyond their sole mission to battle Deviants, the Eternals were granted immortal life and told to stand by for further orders, as communicated to them through their leader, Ajak (Salma Hayek). 

Over the thousands of years that follow, two Eternals, all-powerful Ikaris (Richard Madden) and all-empathetic Sersi (Gemma Chan), fall in love, while the other Eternals, including child-like Sprite (Lia McHugh), inventor Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), fireball flinger Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), speedy deaf mute Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), muscle man Gilgamesh (Don Lee), stand-offish hypnotizer Druig (Barry Keoghan), and war-loving warrior Thena (Angelina Jolie), stay together to observe and protect humans. After a decisive event a few hundred years into their mission, they are (mostly) separated as well, per Ajak’s command, and disperse to the four corners of the world. 

Long thought extinct, the Deviants begin to rise in the modern day, first making themselves known in London, where Sersi, her new human beau Dane Whitman (Kit Harrington) and Sprite narrowly survive a close encounter with the legendary creatures. The rise of the Deviants presages the Apocalypse, or an Apocalypse, apparently, and so the Eternals are compelled to reform, which takes some time, as they must be gathered together from the separate lives they have made for themselves. 

Whew! That’s a lot of backstory for any film to carry. This marks the third team of heroes that has been introduced in the Marvel Cinematic Universe; it’s perhaps helpful to remember that the individual superheroes were introduced in their own separate films before coming together in Avengers (2012) to form the first team. 

Composed of lesser-known characters, the second team, as depicted in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), was introduced to a moviegoing world that had become accustomed to the idea of superheroes. Introducing a new team, especially from the comic outer space perspective proffered by writer/director James Gunn, felt refreshing and invigorating. 

Black Widow, the first entry in the so-called ‘Phase Four,’ was set before the events in the Avengers: Endgame films, while Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings begins in the months after those era-defining event films, calling back to familiar ideas and characters. 

In contrast, Eternals is something altogether new as far as its characters are concerned, a previously-unknown group of people who are now trying to save the world, absent any involvement of any of the superheroes who have been established over the past 12 or 13 years as the protectors of mankind. Where are the superheroes? 

We don’t know. They are never discussed, though a couple of DC comic book characters are, strangely, namechecked. Thus, Eternals must work hard to create its own mythology and spin up a story that will appeal to fans of past entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe — including, now, television shows — while also reaching for something new and different in its storytelling. 

Director Chloe Zhao (after The Rider, but before Nomadland) tries mighty hard to bring all these disparate elements together and whip up something fresh. The broadly diverse and inclusive cast is a great starting point for any modern tale of superheroes, and the actors certainly do their best to bring life and vitality to characters who are, by definition, impervious to pain, suffering, or death. 

They roll their eyes at mankind, a lot, but have generally decided to be tolerant, even as they themselves do not take advantage of their superior attributes. As a group, they are reminiscent of angelic creatures, waiting upon the Divine One for their orders. 

Designed for the big screen, director Chloe Zhao and her thousands of artists and craftspeople behind the scenes have assembled an impressive picture that looks very good on a big, big screen. (I saw it at an IMAX multiplex theater at the AMC Northpark 15 complex, and it was suitably impressive visually and sounded good aurally, though not as thunderous as the recent Dune.) Beyond that, however, the material asks for admiration rather than engagement. 

Of course, the Eternals are not human — again, by definition — so it’s challenging to empathize with their fate, since they’ve lived for thousands of years without many cares. Even for fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Eternals may test their faithfulness and loyalty to the franchise. 

But what’s a little faith without a lot of testing? 

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