Director: Chloé Zhao
Screenwriters: Chloé Zhao, Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo, Kaz Firpo
Starring: Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Salma Hayek, Angelina Jolie, Barry Keoghan, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Ridloff, Lia McHugh, Kumail Nanjiani
9th July 2021. The release of Black Widow. Marvel’s first feature length entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s (MCU’s) Phase Four – as well as the first Marvel movie released on the big screen in over two years. After the release of Black Widow, Marvel Studios did not keep fans waiting for their next offering, with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings coming only two months later. Now, two months after Shang-Chi, we have Chloé Zhao’s Eternals. This long-awaited 2021 release marks the first time that a director with an Oscar to their name (for Directing and Best Picture) has directed an entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, bringing an air of “legitimacy” to the MCU for any nay-sayers of the behemoth Marvel Studios.
Similar to Shang-Chi, Eternals introduces fans to a whole new world and a whole new set of Marvel characters: the Eternals; a group of ten immortals who have lived on earth for over 7,000 years, protecting the planet from Deviants and watching over the progression of the human race. With so much backstory to tell and so many characters to introduce, one could not be blamed for any concern surrounding the execution of this famous comic book group. Thankfully, the sheer volume of information needed to portray the Eternals has been duly noted by the studio, with Zhao’s follow-up to Nomadland running at 2 hours and 37 minutes; an unprecedented runtime in the MCU given that the four Avengers films and Captain America: Civil War are the only previous MCU movies to surpass 2 hours and 20 minutes.
Introducing one new character to a franchise can be a challenging task, let alone introducing ten all at once, but Eternals manages it handily. Of course not every character is given equal screen time or character development, but each new hero is given their own conflict that allows us to care for and about them. Standouts are Brian Tyree Henry’s Phastos, Angelina Jolie’s Thena, Gemma Chan’s Sersi, Barry Keoghan’s Druig and Richard Madden’s Ikaris; all of whom are given excellent character arcs throughout the film, with Madden’s Ikaris being especially brilliant. Ikaris may have one of the best arcs in any MCU flick, with Richard Madden bringing depth and humanity to his otherworldly character.
As much as the new characters are some of the largest strengths of Eternals, there is also one character who may be one of the Marvel series’ worst: Kumail Nanjiani’s Kingo. He has his moments, but for the most part Nanjiani brings nothing but annoyance and frustration when he is on screen, and will prove to be the cause of many eye rolls. It isn’t Nanjiani’s fault that he is constantly saddled with the most insipid roles Hollywood has to offer – he can be good, it is just that no one seems to know how to write for the guy. It’s an unfortunate but noticeable misstep for a picture with otherwise great characters.
In spite of this misstep, the overall gathering of these ten characters creates a wonderful message of diversity. Eternals feels like a celebration of the human race, no matter what shape, size or colour they may come in. The diversity of the casting itself more than does this on its own, but so do the differences between each hero. Whether it be the heroes’ opinions, genders, ages, sexual orientations or skin colour. Eternals celebrates the differences in all of us – those differences that connect each of us as humans and yet make us unique from one another. No better is this shown than through the costumes – a dazzling collection for each member of the Eternals, each coming with distinct patterns and colours, and all of which are simply gorgeous to look at. We may have a frontrunner for best costume design at the Oscars.
Given that the action-packed blockbusters of the Marvel Cinematic Universe could not be stylistically further away from director Chloé Zhao’s previous work, it is understandable why some would be concerned about her stepping behind the camera for such an important entry into many peoples’ favourite big screen universe. Whether there have been differences or not, one thing is clear: Zhao was famously quoted as saying “Even though sometimes it might seem like the opposite is true, I have always found goodness in the people I met, everywhere I went in the world”, and this message remains as clear as ever in Eternals. Though the styles may not seem as though they should work together, it is this overriding message that allows Zhao to slip into the director’s chair on a Marvel movie so easily and with such little conflict of ideals.
It is primarily the Oscar-winning director’s sensibility as a filmmaker that brings so much weight and maturity to this late 2021 release. Perhaps more than most movies within the MCU, Eternals aims to tackle existential questions about religion, our collective and individual purposes, and our own mortality. This is of course photographed in the beautiful style that Zhao’s Nomadland was lauded for, with the production wasting no opportunity to best show off the costumes, CG, choreography and sets (whether they be the city of Babylon or the Aztec Empire). Even in the action sequences – a new aspect of the filmmaking process to the ordinarily more stoic director – Zhao thrives, ensuring that stakes are always attached to the world-ending battles of these ever-powerful beings. Far too often in Hollywood blockbusters there is no doubt in your mind that the good guys will come out on top and that everyone will live happily ever after, relieving all tension there could possibly be in any given action sequence. Marvel is no exception to this, with the likes of Black Widow and Captain Marvel being standouts due to their placements as prequels, but Eternals will successfully make you worry, and it does feel unpredictable.
With Eternals, Chloé Zhao proves that she really can do anything. Transitioning comfortably into the world of blockbuster filmmaking and proving that she is one of the best directors working today, Zhao and Marvel, against all odds, have collaborated to create a beautiful film and a wonderful celebration of life on planet Earth. If you believe that superhero pictures are getting stale, then Eternals is the movie to prove you wrong: this is one of the best films of 2021 and one of the best films to come out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.