The Marvel Cinematic Universe has come a long way since the first Iron Man in 2008. We've gone from a cocky weapons manufacturer building an advanced suit of armor in a cave to omnipotent deities crafting entire galaxies out of the vast nothingness of the ever-expanding cosmos.
Chloé Zhao's Eternals (in theaters Nov. 5) is a prime example of what you can get away with after more than a decade of storytelling and trust-building with your audience.
Keeping in line with the growing weirdness of Phase 4 projects like WandaVision, Loki, and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, the film is — aside from Avengers: Endgame — the most ambitious thing to come out of the MCU thus far.
Spider-Man: Far From Home (out Dec. 17) and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (out May 6, 2022) could end up giving Eternals a run for its money, but one would be hard-pressed to find a comic book flick more unique than what Zhao has accomplished here. The writer-director, who took home a pair of Oscars for Nomadland earlier this year, goes for the full swing of the cosmic bat in both look and scope.
***Warning! The Following May Contain Light Spoilers for the Film!***
Right from the start, the movie sets itself apart from the last 13 years of Marvel tales by foregoing the usual Marvel Studios logo and Michael Giacchino fanfare in favor of a Star Wars-like crawl of text that tells us a little bit about the creation of everything. No, literally — the first words on the screen are: “In the beginning…” (all you Hebrew school kids should know exactly where that comes from).
While Shang-Chi flirted with the concept of Lovecraftian beings in the MCU (i.e., Dweller-in-Darkness), Eternals fully commits to the concept with the influence of the Celestials. They're basically Outer Gods who look like the Regis from the Pokémon games and are responsible for the creation of new life throughout the universe. Yes, there is intelligent design in the Marvel Universe.
Everything was going swimmingly at the start of time until ravenous monsters known as Deviants emerged from the receding darkness and began to snack on their favorite meal: intelligent life. To combat this, the chief Celestial, Arishem, tasked the Eternals (a race of immortal beings from the planet Olympia) to dispatch the Deviants.
And that's just what they do in the movie's rip-roaring introductory set piece in which the Eternals show up in their minimalist spaceship, the Domo (a cross between a paper football and the alien crescents from Denis Villeneuve's Arrival) and protect a human village in ancient Mesopotamia.
Are you lost yet? It's ok, no need to be embarrassed.
The screenplay (co-written by Zhao, Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo, and Kaz Firpo) leans into the intriguing mythology of the obscure '70s-era comic books conceived by the late great Jack Kirby. Most audience members probably didn't know what an Eternal was until Disney announced the project in 2018, making this film the MCU's largest calculated risk since James Gunn managed to turn a talking tree and raccoon into household names.
Sort of like a proto-Avengers, the Eternals may not be universally known just yet, but Marvel made the smart choice of hiring some of the biggest names to play them: Gemma Chan (Sersi), Richard Madden (Ikaris), Salma Hayek (Ajak), Angelina Jolie (Thena), Brian Tyree Henry (Phastos), Barry Keoghan (Druig), Don Lee (Gilgamesh), Kumail Nanjiani (Kingo), Lauren Ridloff (Makkari), and Lia McHugh (Sprite).
Such a large ensemble requires a lot of heavy narrative lifting that would so often be spread over several movies released over the span of several years. A runtime of 2 hours and 37 minutes certainly helps (Eternals is the second-longest entry in the MCU after Endgame), but a number of flashbacks to the distant past — while effective at delivering quieter character beats — often bring the momentum to a screeching halt.
Nevertheless, it really drives home the fact that these beings have been on Earth for the last seven millennia, living alongside human settlements — from the fabled hanging gardens of Babylon to the magnificent pyramids of Tenochtitlan — and subtly influencing their development with inventions like the plough and steam engine. Their powers (super-speed, flight, laser eyes, mind control, elemental transfiguration, technological prowess, eternal youth, self-healing, deadly combat skills, and super-strength) are the stuff of legend, giving rise to the human myths of Gilgamesh, Athena, and Icarus we still talk about today.
So if they did all of that, why couldn't they be bothered to lend a hand when that big purple alien showed up to erase half of all life in the universe with the snap of his gauntleted fingers? Well, you see, the Eternals can't get involved in human affairs unless the Deviants are directly involved.
Huh, I guess they invented the cop out, too.
The main action takes place in the present day shortly after the Blip. The Eternals are scattered across the globe, having gone their separate ways long ago, but when a new batch of Deviants crop up (thought to have gone extinct centuries before, they now have a few devious tricks up their tendrils), Sersi, Sprite, and Ikaris set out to get the old band back together.
Eternals has a grand old time with the reunion, traveling to a wide variety of different locales: South Dakota, Mumbai, Australia, the Amazon rainforest, the Chicago suburbs, and Iraq — to name a few. Zhao and her DP, Ben Davis take full advantage of real-world backdrops wherever possible, masterfully framing certain shots — particularly those involving elemental phenomena — in such a way that you feel incredibly small within this gods-among-corner of the MCU.
This is easily the best-looking Marvel Studios film and a true reflection of Zhao's arthouse sensibilities that test the limits of the polished, family-friendly Marvel formula (case in point: this movie contains the MCU's first-ever sex scene).
Chan and Madden support the piece from an emotional standpoint as Sersi and Ikaris, whose 5,000-year-old romance fizzled out long ago for mysterious reasons I'm not about to spoil here. Sersi's now in a relationship with a human by the name of Dane Whitman (a barely-seen Kit Harington who is clearly just there to set the stage for a meatier turn as Whitman's heroic persona, Black Knight, sometime down the road) and fully integrated member of mortal society.
Even with so much going on, everyone gets their moment to shine, and it's a blast to see how they've made cozy little lives for themselves in the 21st century: Kingo's a legacy Bollywood star with an incredibly loyal valet (played by a scene-stealing Harish Patel), Gilgamesh is a proficient cook who ferments his own beer, Druig lives off the grid in a remote jungle commune, Phastos enjoys a quiet life with his husband and son (a sweet and genuine depiction of the LGBTQIA+ community onscreen), and so on and so forth.
Despite their immortal and nigh-indestructible natures, the Eternals are more attached to this planet and its people than perhaps they realized. The question then becomes: who takes precedence? Humanity or the Celestials? Turns out even gods can have a crisis of faith.
Eternals comes close to buckling under the weight of its own lofty aspirations and if this had come from another cinematic universe (say, Warner Bros' DCEU), it would not have worked in the slightest. Like I said earlier, this is only something you can pull off after more than a decade of steady world-building. All the new content is rooted in set-ups from bygone phases (the Celestials, for instance, were established all the way back in 2014's Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1).
Intermittent references to safer side of the MCU do occur (Doctor Strange, Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America all get name-dropped) to remind us of where we are and why we should care. But other than that, Eternals is an exercise in something new and proof that you can still teach an old cinematic universe new tricks. Like a proud father teaching their child how to ride a bike, Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige has allowed the training wheels to come off and replaced them with an atomic-powered rocket booster.
Playtime is over, kiddos, and things will never be the same.
Eternals opens in theaters everywhere Friday, Nov. 5.