It’s often claimed that Marvel‘s blockbuster juggernauts allow directors little room for manoeuvre: maintaining the MCU house style trumps individual expression every single time. But Chloé Zhao, the Oscar-winning director of modern masterpiece Nomadland, suggested last year that she was given creative freedom with Eternals.
“I think I got lucky in that Marvel wants to take risks and do something different,” she said with a hint of surprise. This freedom is reflected, at least to an extent, in the thoroughly enjoyable end result. Yes, Eternals is another origin story, but it replaces the usual Marvel formula of quips and chaos with something altogether more soulful and melancholy.
It’s also an ambitious and somewhat sprawling origin story. With a runtime of 156 minutes, Eternals is longer than every MCU movie bar Avengers: Endgame, and Zhao doesn’t rush her world-building. In fact, she swings between the ancient city of Babylon and present-day Camden, with visits to Hiroshima in 1945 and the collapse of the Aztec Empire, to establish the film’s epic scope.
Put simply: the Eternals are an immortal alien race who have been hiding in plain sight on Earth for more than 7,000 years. They look like regular humans, but each possesses a superpower or two – Gemma Chan’s Sersi can turn any inanimate object into something else; Richard Madden’s Ikaris can fly and fire laser beams from his eyes – and they never age. They were sent here by the Celestials, essentially the architects of all life in the universe, to protect the human race from a species of huge sinewy beasts called the Deviants. It’s a seemingly never-ending task, and super-fast Eternal Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), the MCU’s first deaf superhero, is very much over the whole endeavour.
In fact, Zhao’s film is surely Marvel’s most inclusive to date. Her Eternals are a diverse crew who speak in a range of different accents and answer to a woman who isn’t in her first flush of youth: Salma Hayek’s Ajak, a character who was male in the comics. Midway through the film, it’s revealed that one of them is in a long-term same-sex relationship: a belated step forward for the oddly conservative MCU.
Still, because there are so many Eternals to introduce here, it’s inevitable that some make a greater impression than others. Kumail Nanjiani is very funny as Kingo, an Eternal who clearly relishes his glamorous day job as a Bollywood actor. However, as Thena, a fierce warrior with an affliction that affects her ability to fight, Angelina Jolie is a tad under-used until the final act.
Like much of the film, this final act looks a little different to other MCU climactic battles. Zhao can’t escape ropey CGI entirely – there’s something a bit ’80s about the way she presents the Eternals’ Celestial leader, Arishem – but Eternals is frequently stunning without being caked in production gloss: there’s no obvious attempt to scrub up lovably grungy Camden Lock, for instance.
By the end you’ll be invested in these characters and ready to debate who should get a standalone movie first: a sure sign that Zhao understood the assignment and executed it with flair.
- Director: Chloé Zhao
- Starring: Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Kumail Nanjiani
- Release date: November 5