Alexander the Great may have wept when he found himself with no more worlds to conquer, but super-producer Kevin Feige — having usurped every screen on Earth and reshaped the global entertainment landscape in his own image — merely straightened his baseball cap and announced that it was time to begin the next phase of his crusade. He knew there were more planets to rule, more parallel dimensions to explore, and more revenue streams for Disney shareholders to tap dry.
Most of all, Feige knew that it wasn’t enough to dominate the creative arts; if the Marvel brand were to achieve its rightful place in the hearts and minds of all humanity, it would have to unseat the Creator themselves. A major step towards achieving a kind of singularity between the Marvel Cinematic Universe (lucrative and popular) and the Actual Physical Universe (prestigious but full of fading stars), “Eternals” starts by papering over every origin story that science and religion have ever invented.
“In the beginning…,” reads the text on screen, a supergiant Celestial named Arishem created the heavens and the Earth out of space dust. It created us, too — for reasons that will later be explained at great length during one of modern filmdom’s most explosive info dumps — along with a race of sinewy monsters called “Deviants” and an immortal alien task force known as “Eternals” that was eventually dispatched to protect our species after the beasts evolved beyond Arishem’s control. Oops.
The idea that our planet and everyone on it was designed by such a sloppy cosmic builder makes a lot of sense, and some of the more ass-kissing Eternals are quick to defend Arishem by arguing that humanity’s greatest threats have always spurred its greatest strides. But the fact remains that Arishem is a fallible being, and the cataclysmic “emergence” triggered by the sudden return of half the world’s population will force the Eternals to question their maker for the first time in the 7,000 years since they landed on Earth.
In other words, Marvel has made a “Dune”-sized, “Dune”-length, and almost “Dune”-portentous superhero movie about literally confronting God.
On paper, that should be enough to make “Eternals” a radical departure from the rest of the MCU, as well as a sharp escalation from the previous two installments of the mega-franchise’s current phase (the no-stakes prequel “Black Widow” and the relatively self-contained origin story “Shang-Chi”). In practice, it still amounts to several hours of watching good actors save the world from bad CGI, as philosophical differences erupt into a weightless battle royale while civilization itself hangs in the balance. By making such an unadventurous movie about how crisis breeds creativity, Marvel effectively illustrates why even the most independent-minded of filmmakers are powerless to evolve an apex predator franchise that doesn’t have any Darwinian impetus to adapt.
Which isn’t to say that “Eternals” fails to score any points for its scope and relative sense of gravity, or to overlook the subtle — and not so subtle — ways that it pushes back against the plastic-ness of a franchise that often looks as if it had been filmed against a Zoom background. Chloé Zhao, who shot her Oscar-winning “Nomadland” during pre-production on this movie, isn’t the first auteur to faintly put their stamp on one of the assembly-line spectacles manufactured by Feige’s money factory.
Nevertheless, there’s a galaxy of difference between hiring a populist like Shane Black to gift “Iron Man 3” with a bitter dose of Christmas spirit, and handing the reins of a $200 million blockbuster to an arthouse darling who’d never shot on a set, cast most of her roles with non-professional actors, and boasted a body of work that consisted of two micro-budget indie dramas (both inextricable from the rugged naturalism with which they were filmed).
Giving Zhao this job is simply the most interesting decision that Marvel has made behind the camera since Edgar Wright’s departure from “Ant-Man” suggested the studio wasn’t interested in making any. Nobody is going to mistake “Eternals” for “Songs My Brother Taught Me” — and Feige’s justifiably mocked enthusiasm over Zhao’s use of real-world locations is a helpful reminder of how low the bar has been set for this stuff — but compared to the diarrheal computer goop of the “Endgame” finale, this might as well be Dogme 95. Exterior scenes are desaturated for seriousness but shot with natural light, dialogue is often exchanged without a bombastic underscore, and many of the Eternals introduced by Zhao, Patrick Burleigh, and Ryan and Kaz Firpo’s script look and behave like real people (even if they’re actually deathless aliens who are stuck in the same bodies for all time).
Some of the bigger special effects are so monumental they circle past realism and all the way back around until they achieve a sense of awe that’s been sorely absent from the MCU. In a refreshing change of pace for these movies, the climactic orgy of 1s and 0s is rendered with a tact that feels more ominous than numbing (“Shadow of the Colossus” comes to mind). But there are other moments of digital majesty along the way. The prologue, in which star-crossed Eternals Sersi (Gemma Chan) and Ikaris (Richard Madden) first meet each other aboard their crew’s Earthbound spaceship, is kissed with some of the stately grandeur that Stanley Kubrick brought to “2001.”
In the “Everyone is hot but no one is horny” era of Marvel films, kissing is as far as things would ever go; by contrast, it’s only a few scenes after the Eternals endear themselves to the people of ancient Babylon and begin their protective watch over our species that two of them consecrate our planet with some old-fashioned shimmying under the sheets. Silly as it may sound, even that very PG tryst helps contribute to the earthiness of Zhao’s approach.
And Sersi and Ikaris aren’t the only Eternals with a pulse, even if these one-dimensional characters (she empathetic, he duty-bound to a fault) are largely humanized by their mutual attraction. After 25 adventures populated by sexless action figures, the basic fact of physical intimacy — whether expressed through allure or absence — makes a big difference across the board. No relationship in the MCU has exuded the sheer warmth shared between techno wizard Phastos (a sweet but out of his element Brian Tyree Henry) and his husband. The forever prepubescent Sprite (Lia McHugh) is agonized by the knowledge she’ll never be an adult. The mind-controlling Druig (a compellingly aloof Barry Keoghan) is isolated from humans by the control he wields over them, just as the softhearted Gilgamesh (a gloriously robust Don Lee) is cut off from his platonic life partner because her deadly alien dementia keeps them at an arm’s length (Thena is played by Angelina Jolie, whose immense star power unbalances such a minor role).
Sersi and Ikaris may be flattened by the sheer weight of their moral positions, but the rest of this film’s uncommonly human supporting characters help anchor “Eternals” to reality while its scale grows large enough to make the entire Avengers saga feel like a blip in comparison. Even Kumail Nanjiani’s Kingo, who injects some much-needed levity into Marvel’s least comic movie and has more fun with the whole immortality thing than any of his fellow alien friends, is given the space to make a bizarre yet supremely relatable choice in the build-up to the final battle. The dramatic heft of Zhao’s film stems from the sense that it’s telling the story that underwrites all of the other stories in the MCU, and when the Eternals are inevitably fractured into rival groups, their fighting words are grounded with the weight of shared millennia.
If only those words weren’t so frequently at odds with the movie around them. Much of the endless yammering in “Eternals” focuses on the vital role that death plays in rebirth, and yet it’s the ever-evolving Deviants who represent the natural order of things. The majority of Zhao’s heroes, on the other hand, decide to reject the wisdom they’ve gleaned from 7,000 years on Earth and side against the circle of life. It’s hard to blame them — even immortal space creatures are willing to die for love — but watching the Eternals reject the infinite churn of the universe and fight to protect the status quo is as touching a metaphor for The Movies at large as it is a damning self-critique of these ones in particular.
“Eternals” was uniquely poised to push the MCU in new directions, and Feige’s decision to entrust it to such a fiercely individualistic filmmaker would seem to suggest a willingness to make good on that potential. The story may cut to the core of series mythology, but aside from the Emergence it’s almost completely divorced from the rest of the saga. That’s also true enough of the movie’s style and tone, at least in the context of a franchise that previously just rotated between different flavors of the same basic dish. The Eternals are told not to interfere with the workings of our world, and so it stands to reason that their adventure exists a half-step outside of the MCU — if the previous 25 installments could be thought of as the attractions of a theme park, “Eternals” takes place behind the doors marked “employees only.”
Alas, this elastic mega-franchise only allows itself to be stretched so far before it snaps back to its default shape. For all of the incidental choices that set “Eternals” apart and seem to promise that Marvel has found the chutzpah required to break — or even bend — the vibranium blockbuster mold it so boldly forged in the first place, Zhao’s film is still just adhering to a template.
Its idea of conflict is still characters barking platitudes at each other (here rehashing an intergalactic version of the same trolley problem that antagonized Iron Man against Captain America in “Civil War”). Its idea of resolution is still having those characters fly around and shoot finger lights at stuff in a way that never fools your brain into believing the physical reality of what you’re watching. And while the Deviants serve a curiously different purpose here than previous MCU baddies might lead you to expect, it’s one that underlines why people fighting computer-generated monsters is the biggest waste of time in the world.
Yes, all of these are superhero tropes writ large, and comic book fans might see them as features instead of bugs. But can’t these movies do anything else? Is it too much to ask the most dominant kind of cinema on the planet to shake things up and challenge itself in a more significant way?
That “Eternals” feigns at such freedom only makes it harder to stomach when it falls back on the same old song, even if Zhao sings it in a slightly different key than we’ve heard before. Superhero movies are often defended as the Westerns of their day, but Westerns are a genre — the MCU is just a stencil, and Zhao’s ability to paint with a different brush ultimately highlights how even she had to color inside the lines. The Marvel Cinematic Universe will continue to expand for the foreseeable future, but it may need to be threatened with extinction before it can actually grow.
Disney will release “Eternals” in theaters on Friday, November 5.