Director Chloe Zhao took upon herself the monumental task of telling the story of a pantheon of MCU’s strongest characters. With its 156-minute run time (reportedly making it the second longest-running MCU movie after ‘Avengers: End Game’), what Zhao does is not give us a standard movie with recognizable narrative beats or story structure. Instead, she weaves all the individual stories of these Eternals and creates a mythology that spans 7,000 years of human civilization. Well, to be frank, she goes even further and even details the beginning of the MCU itself by introducing the cosmic beings known as The Celestials.
In the first hour of Eternals, Zhao, co-writing with Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo, and Kaz Firpo, introduces us to the ten Eternals as they are stationed on Earth to defeat the creatures known as Deviants. In a way, the Eternals are like The Celestials’ soldiers, and while they are ordered to defeat the Celestials and ensure that the human population flourishes, they are also commanded to not interfere with their evolution.
The story is told first at their arrival and then jumps into the present where the most gentle-hearted of the cosmic beings, Sersi (played by Gemma Chan), is now living in London as a professor, complete with a cell phone addiction, and a human boyfriend, Dane Whitman (played by Kit Harrington). She also lives with Sprite (Lia McHugh), who is trapped forever in the body of a 12-year-old girl. When they are suddenly attacked by a Deviant, who both Sersi and Sprite have thought completely eradicated, they are rescued by Ikaris (played by Richard Madden) and the three Eternals must find the other seven and reunite to understand why the Deviants have returned and if it has anything to do with the sudden earthquakes ravaging the planet.
The narrative jumps back and forth in time, detailing the reason why the Eternals have split some 500 years ago, the nuances of their relationships with each other, and their individual relationship with the planet they’ve called home for seven thousand years.
What’s great about Zhao’s myth-making through mainstream filmmaking is how she allows each actor to imbue each Eternal with their own very unique personality. Don Lee’s Gilgamesh is a warm-hearted brawler, who is just as caring and nurturing as he can pack a punch. Kumail Nanjani’s Kingo is a self-possessed, attention hound, who has found his place as an actor in Bollywood. Bryan Tyree Henry’s Phastos, is an inventor, who has to exercise patience as he has to keep pace with human civilizations’ rise to technology. Salma Hayek’s Ajak is the quintessential earth-mother, the healer, and leader of the Eternals. The ones who stand out the most, though, are Angelina Jolie’s Thena, Lauren Ridloff’s Makkari, and Barry Keoghan’s Druig.
One of my biggest gripes about the film is how modern and how very human the Eternals are, even as they arrive on Earth 7,000 years ago. They act and talk just like The Avengers. There is no alienness to them, which detracts from the overall mood except for Madden, Jolie, Ridloff, and Keoghan. The four of them and the way they portray their characters really give off the feeling that they are powerful beings that have seen and done things beyond our imagination. They have an air that they are above human affairs and are only bound by Ajak and the Celestial’s order to not interfere.
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Because Zhao is not making a conventional movie but laying out a mythos, ‘The Eternals’ has trouble finding its pace. The action sequences, while extremely enjoyable, feel out of place from the building of this delicate morality play that is slowly creeping in as the story unfolds. Because there are unanswered questions — why have they not left Earth when the Deviants were eradicated, why did Ajak allow the group to split up, etc. — and as the story takes very surprising twists and turns, we start to see the flimsy articulation of the film’s narration.
As mythology, I enjoyed the film immensely. Like when I read stories about Greek, Norse, or Egyptian gods, I’m not looking for character development or reasoning. I enjoy it for the things they do, and what they represent, and how they act with very exaggerated human flaws and in this territory, ‘The Eternals’ work. I don’t end up looking for the justification on why Sersi or Ikaris fell in love, or why Druig has settled in the Amazon in the way that he has. They are so powerful that they don’t have to explain. They just are.
But when the “superhero” story comes in, that’s when the story starts to feel lacking. There are explanations as to why the Eternals act a certain way but it doesn’t justify the sudden character arcs that are created for the lead character, Sersi, and some other characters at the big finale.
It is the clash of both these narrative elements that will probably make ‘The Eternals’ an unsatisfying watch for the casual movie-goer expecting the usual and familiar narrative beats of a superhero story. It is a very flawed movie but, truth be told, I enjoyed it immensely.
I love myths and legends and I love the grandness of its ambitions. These are larger-than-life characters, even bigger and more powerful than the Avengers, and the scenes equal the ambitions of this story. I’ve seen criticism that it would have been better as an 8 part or 10 part mini-series and there’s a strong argument for it.
Deep down, there is a story that questions the order of things and a moral play of what is wrong and right amongst beings of such immense power. It’s the point in the story when it transitions from myth-building to the formation of a superhero team. This is where they might have been able to handle the balancing of the two tones.
But nevertheless, I enjoyed myself completely. Eternals was a flawed movie but I had a hell of a time at the cinema watching it.