ETERNALS (Movie Review)

Academy Award winning director Chloé Zhao shakes up the MCU with her ambitious and provocative ETERNALS.

***1/2 out of ****
Rated PG-13
(for fantasy violence and action, some language and brief sexuality)
Released: November 5, 2021
Runtime: 157 minutes
Directed by: Chloé Zhao
Starring: Richard Madden, Gemma Chan, Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek, Kumail Nanjiani, Brian Tyree Henry, Lia McHugh, Lauren Ridloff, Barry Keoghan, Ma Dong-seok, Haaz Sleiman, Kit Harrington

Eternals is a God parable for the Secular Age.

As such, its God proxy — Arishem, the leader of the life-creating Celestials — is found wanting. But under the guidance of Academy Award winning director Chloé Zhao (Nomadland), who also co-wrote the screenplay, Eternals explores that Creator/Creation tension in thoughtful degrees of gray. 

Arishem is clearly the antagonist here (he even admits to making a cataclysmic mistake) but, as the alpha creator, his broader plans for maintaining and expanding life throughout the universe are arguably worth defending — and debating.

In the Eternals, that’s exactly what the titular heroes do, from wrestling with Arishem’s sovereignty to things like our own individual freedom and autonomy within that sovereignty, and his grander purposes beyond what we’re able to comprehend or understand. Or struggling with the fact that, within a Deistic order, there is only obedience or rebellion, not democracy, even as it allows for Free Will, identity, and agency.

(I’ll add that, as someone who’s God-positive in his personal beliefs and often bristles at post-modern deconstructions of the sacred, I appreciate the sincerity of how ideas and feelings are contemplated here, ones that feel intrinsic to the natural impulse of asking “Why?” rather than the mere reactionary, activist anger that often takes aim at anything institutional or traditional. I don’t jive with the implications of every metaphor or parallel that’s drawn here, but they’re posited sincerely, not bitterly.)

These notions create richer philosophical exchanges that go much deeper than previous, more contrived issues raised within the MCU (ones that have often been litigated by merely dispersing generic talking points between characters, in episodes like Age of Ultron, Winter Soldier or Civil War). Here, the concerns are more profound, more existential, and at some point can only be answered subjectively. 

That’s not to say most characters (and viewers) wouldn’t naturally take the side of being pro-humanity, but for those who don’t, well, there are reasons.

Those reasons (which I won’t divulge here) also speak directly to why these Eternals — who were created millennia ago by Arishem to serve as secret protectors of planets (like Earth) from intergalactic rogue predators called Deviants — never interfered with previous global crises, ranging from World Wars to genocides to the Infinity War with Thanos. 

More substantially, those reasons go well beyond the strict order that Arishem gave to the Eternals (i.e. to never interfere with human activity unless Deviants are involved) because the purposes of Arishem for intergalactic existence go well beyond even the most cataclysmic stakes that we, as Earth dwellers, could possibly imagine. 

In short, there’s something much bigger and more significant at play, and on a cosmic scale —  yes, even bigger than if Thanos had ultimately succeeded.

Suffice it to say, Eternals redefines the Marvel Cinematic Universe in truly consequential ways, ones that are far more compelling than what the pending Multiverse has to offer (i.e. a slight-of-hand mystical cheat that provides, at its essence, fan-serving variations of characters and their inter-dimensional crossovers).

Yes, even with Zhao’s indie micro-budget bona fides, Eternals still has all the bombastic overkill you’d expect from Marvel (digital and otherwise), but it’s an entirely different kind of overkill, a clear and present reboot that feels refreshing, even invigorating.

Its mythology is dense but never confusing, unfolding in a back-and-forth structure between present day and past (reaching back 7,000 years and more), but the flow is fluid and clear, even smart, including how each flashback is sequentially closer to the present, thus creating a linear (and easy to track) narrative. Eternals is ambitious without biting off more than it can chew, and never feels as if it’s straining to make its ambitions work. 

For Zhao, it’s an assured, visionary effort that succeeds, in part, because of how patient and contemplative she allows it to be, having been given the kind of creative, auteurist license rarely granted by Marvel honcho Kevin Feige.

The cast is uniformly up to the challenge, with roles, ideas, conflicts, and fateful (even grave) choices that legitimately demand something of their talents, their range, and their depth. Several of these characters face the most complicated, morally-challenging and personally devastating decisions than any Marvel movie has required of its heroes before. 

The script takes genuinely surprising turns, too, the kind you’d never expect from a Cinematic Universe that, for well over a decade, spent half its time spinning its wheels in risk-averse melodramatics because it had a gargantuan and lucrative IP to maintain.

Yet for as weighty as Eternals can get, it’s thoroughly entertaining as well, including a witty comic sensibility that’s rooted in how the characters are drawn, not merely born of clever quips that feel culled from a writer’s room. (This includes inspired supporting roles, like the loyal valet of Kumail Nanjiani’s Kingo.)

Much of the buzz surrounding Eternals involves its notable breakthroughs in sexuality, from the saga’s first sex scene (in an homage to From Here To Eternity, no less) to its first gay couple. For a series that has been largely sexless, that’s a shift — especially for parents who have appreciated how the franchise has avoided culture war issues or PG-13 depictions of romantic intimacy. Though each element is tastefully done here (or, at least, not beyond anything seen on Prime Time television), mileage and patience will vary.

Also of note: the general ethnic diversity of the cast, and the inclusion of the first deaf superhero (who communicates exclusively through sign language). Knee-jerk reactions of “wokeism” are short-sighted on both counts, as ethnic diversity is essentially necessitated by the fact that these Eternals are covert global guardians. Plus, the deaf character feels organic to the group rather than didactically elevated.

Eternals comes at a pivotal crossroads for the MCU, perhaps even its defining one, and it doesn’t wilt under the pressures of such a daunting burden. It throws punches rather than pulling them; a rare Marvel entry that doesn’t feel pre-packaged with assembly line beats or ultimately neutered by the cynical, suspense-killing obligations of interconnecting itself within a larger corporate machine. Even with a cliffhanger and two bonus end-credit scenes, this Marvel movie stands on its own.

For those experiencing Marvel fatigue in particular or superhero burnout more broadly, Eternals is the bold, audacious shakeup you’ve been waiting for.

Leave a Reply