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Rich Ambition of Eternals and Marvel Studios

Eternals is the first Marvel movie to really emphasize its’ director in the marketing: “Marvel Studios presents, a Chloé Zhao film”.

It almost certainly wouldn’t have if it hadn’t been for the fact Zhao just won a historic Oscar for Best Director. Making clear her involvement is meant to give the film a sense of prestige, something that Marvel is always chasing. And on some level it’s also a boast -after thirteen years they’ve finally roped in an Oscar-winning director. They had her before the Oscar win of course, but the narrative still applies. It suggests this movie is more important, more serious. However there is a flip-side to the image of this esteem: it’s bound to be judged to a higher standard. And that is not something Eternals Marvel movie, needs.

By a significant stretch, Eternals is the least interesting Chloé Zhao movie. Simultaneously, it is one of the most interesting Marvel movies -although “interesting” in this case doesn’t necessarily equate with good. It is true that this movie looks better than a lot of previous Marvel entries -quite frequently it’s shot outdoors in gorgeous locations, lit well, and with colours not so dim as is typical with this brand. It’s also true that the film is ambitious, and less reliant on some of the most annoying Marvel tropes such as interconnectivity -episodes in the larger universe are referenced a couple times, but the narrative is extremely self-contained and no previously established Marvel character makes even a cameo. Zhao’s direction in general is also quite good -and completely wrong for a movie like this produced the way it is.

Eternals is a story about a pantheon of characters, and Zhao works best with small casts and singular character studies. Eternals comes with a great deal of lore to be heavily explained and expounded on. Zhao is most at home with minimalism. And Eternals requires high doses of action and urgency to keep the plot moving, while Zhao is more taken to slow and wistful meandering -it probably accounts for why the movie is more than two and a half hours.

In fairness, the Eternals’ mythos and individual character dynamics are dense enough that any number of directors would have struggled to translate them accordingly. Essentially they are ten immortal aliens sent to Earth at the dawn of civilization by godlike beings called the Celestials to fend off other more monstrous aliens referred to as Deviants (by now a common term for obvious scapegoats in the Marvel universe), and otherwise shepherd human development -though instructed to remain on some matters impartial and unobtrusive. We’re introduced to them arriving and saving a tribe of early humans from these Deviants around 5000 B.C., then reconnect in the present day five centuries after they split up over differences in their purpose.

Honestly, it’s an extremely fascinating idea: these beings who have been witness to most of human history, interacting with and impacting it discreetly while their relationship to humanity grows and changes. It asks a lot of questions, poses a lot of hypotheses relating to free will, human identity, darker themes of playing god and of course the morality of non-interference. Each of these is brought up by the script, because the writers know you’re thinking about them, and then promptly dropped without further inspection. Ajak (Salma Hayek) espouses on how humanity has changed her, but can only identify hollow virtues. While observing the Fall of Tenochtitlan, Druig (Barry Keoghan), a wannabe white saviour, addresses the hypocrisy of where they choose to protect people and whether they have a moral responsibility.

Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), a scientist who is seen grappling with the consequences of technological advancements -it’s implied he worked on the Manhattan Project- spends most of the latter part of the film being a source of wit and frequent posturing to the fact that he’s gay. Lip service is paid to idea of the Eternals confronting their actions and choices, the ways they’ve shaped the world for the worse, but they aren’t permitted to actually do so.

Further interpersonal details are brought up that the film can’t follow through on, like the relationship between Sersi (Gemma Chan) and Ikaris (Richard Madden) that lasted several centuries before falling apart; or the complex loyalties of Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) to both the Celestials and his family. And then there’s the cursed existence of Sprite (Lia McHugh), trapped in the body of a child for eternity and with unrequited feelings towards Ikaris that have to be explained by another character because there’s no room to develop them organically. It’s not hard to see that there could have been though, but Zhao’s priorities are bizarrely not with her characters, or at least not enough with them. We get just enough snippets that draw us to some of them, but others are completely underserved by the script, such as Don Lee’s Gilgamesh, Lauren Ridloff’s Makkari, and most astoundingly of all, Theena played by Angelina Jolie. I never thought I’d see a movie that would shove a star like Jolie into the background, but Eternals does it frequently to the point she is one of the least-developed in a cast full of underdeveloped heroes. Only Druig is all that compelling, though the film seems on some level unaware of how sinister he really is.

I think it’s an issue of that ambition, certainly there’s scale of storytelling here unlike anything Marvel has tackled. It’s an epic spanning time and the globe that must establish three entirely new quasi-immortal cosmic entities. It must address themes related to their eternal life, the personal and broader ramifications of their presence on Earth over 7000 years. Zhao and her fellow writers also choose to make the film about an impending apocalypse event, inviting an ethical quandary and ultimately resistance to the forces that birthed them as well as each other. In the mix is a reveal about the Eternals’ origin and also that of the Deviants, significant challenges on multiple fronts to their worldview and relationships, and a pseudo-love triangle between Sersi and the Stark boys –Kit Harrington appearing in a small role as her modern love interest, there only to set up a future MCU character. In trying to balance all of this, Zhao effectively translates little of it –her personal meditative style, already diminished by MCU mandate, only accentuating the films’ myriad other shortcomings.

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And it’s honestly sad, because there is a lot in Eternals that would suggest it could have been really great. Zhao is certainly pushing more than what Marvel is usually comfortable with in terms of her stated character dynamics and difficult themes, she even put a sex scene in there –a fairly brief and chaste one, but it’s there! And the presence of such a thing indicates that she and Marvel saw this as perhaps a more mature film than what they’ve done previously. It certainly makes less attempts to cater to the MCU crowd, and genuinely seems meant as a kind of nexus point for the series going forward. That’s what is so incredibly interesting about it. It goes out of its way not to be a standard MCU movie and I think Marvel would do well to continue that course.

But it is still an MCU movie, and that in itself may be what keeps it from its’ potential. Try as it might, it still follows a version of the Marvel template, is still beholden to their rules and universe, even as it creates its’ own that naturally clashes with that model. And yet there’s a fundamental absence of humanity to Eternals that distinguishes itself from even some of the worst Marvel movies. Human beings are frequent symbols in the film but have no agency of their own -they exist only in relation to their godlike protectors, but are always removed. Similarly the film itself is disconnected from the values it expresses; it is hollow in spite of its’ lofty precepts.

In the end, I admire the film still. It doesn’t work, its’ empty, discordant, confused, and bites off way more than it can chew, but it is nonetheless oddly transfixing. Bits and pieces of it are exceptional in a way the Marvel machine isn’t usually allowed to be. Eternals is pretty and its’ bold and it’s got a good-looking cast and the seeds of something truly extraordinary. Perhaps its’ failings are a testament to Marvels’ limitations, or even Zhaos’. Indeed, it is unusually fascinating, an instance of Marvel really reaching for the stars, and finding out perhaps permanently, they are incapable of actually grasping them.