Sent here 7000 years ago to battle an alien lifeform known as the Deviants by the celestial Arishem, the Eternals have lived on Earth, silently watching mankind through its greatest eras. However, after all the Deviants have seemingly been defeated but with no word from Arishem to move on, the Eternals decide to part ways, living separate lives until the sudden reappearance of their old foes forces them back together again to confront their complicated relationships and their very existence.
Coming after the fantasy-skewed Shang-Chi, this new phase of the MCU looks certain to be taking a whole new direction and the latest installment, Eternals, is doing the same. With Oscar-winning Indie director Chloe Zhao taking the helm, a timeframe spanning 7000 years and covering the whole world (and beyond), Eternals really does set out to be different. And it is. Not only is its expanse far greater than we’ve ever seen from the MCU but we get a whole bunch of firsts. Our first deaf superhero. Our first sex scene. Our first gay kiss.
Zhao effectively balances all these elements – we flit from ancient Mesopotamia, to modern-day Camden, to the gardens of Babylon in swift procession; the layered backstory is measured and thoroughly explained; and for a movie with ten protagonists, it’s impressive that each character is given a unique personality.
The closest we have to a main character is Cersei (Gemma Chan) whose love of humanity serves as a nice anchor to the rest of our otherworldly characters, including Cersai’s ex Ikaris (Richard Madden) who has Superman-like powers, their leader and healer Ajak (Salma Hayek), the perpetually young Sprite (Lia McHugh), tech-man Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) who can shoot energy beams from his hands, speedster Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), strongman Gilgamesh (Don Lee), mind-manipulator Druig (Barry Keoghan) and warrior Thena (Angelina Jolie) who is suffering from a superhero version of PTSD.
Zhao’s Oscar-winning Nomadland (a substantive documentary-esque look at people in the American West) feels like an influence on Eternals. Indeed, that focus on humanity is certainly apparent, and Zhao does well to include her grounded sentimentality in the MCU, but when squeezed in between superpowers, literal world-building and eons of mythology, it feels out of place and wearisome. Zhao’s Indie lens also has a small place here, though jumbled in with CGI-heavy showpieces.
Speaking of which, this isn’t all nuances and firsts. Eternals also touches upon those MCU tropes we know so well. There are wonderful ensemble fights (too few), a couple of laughs (far too few and only primarily via Nanjiani and his sidekick Karun played by Harish Patel) and superheros to root for (mainly the aforementioned Nanjiani and definitely Jolie’s Thena) but they’re sporadically littered under the weight of exposition and era-spanning traumas.
Which isn’t to say that Marvel movies can’t confront in-depth themes. Comic book characters have long dealt with complex, divisive subject matters but with all these firsts, thorough narratives and superhero touchpoints, Eternals is too mixed up to be either overly entertaining or profound.
That’s not to say that there aren’t some fantastic building blocks to work from here. The mythology is rich and opens a big gleaming door to a whole fresh direction for our new and established characters to go in. Now that Eternals has completed the burden of exposition, we’re looking forward to seeing some of these characters come into their own right to take on the rest of the MCU.
Add Eternals to your digital collection and on 4K Ultra HD™, Blu-ray™ and DVD now. Read our interview with Eternals star Kumail Nanjiani here.