Chloé Zhao’s MCU entry is stuffed to the gills with movie stars, yet it has no idea what to do with all that shine.
Photo: Marvel Studios
It was supposed to be different, wasn’t it, with its commitment to real locations and imagery not wedded to the artificial? Trailers teased as much — lush jungle, water cresting over gnarled rocks, sunsets peaking through outstretched hands. A reflection of the sensibilities director and co-writer Chloé Zhao developed in films like the evocative The Rider and far less evocative Nomadland. Eternals, the latest installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, has been poised as her powerhouse, meant to push this slick, tangled universe further than ever before, into a realm where an auteur’s visuals stick and the characters — played by the likes of Angelina Jolie and Salma Hayek — seem soulful, rather than like action figures with scant interiority beyond what the narrative needs to push a story along. But for all its bluster and its vastness of time, Eternals feels strangely vacuum-sealed.
Spanning 7,000 years of human history, the film follows an immortal superhero group from a faraway planet tasked with shaping humanity’s development and fending off the big bads — the Deviants, a group of colorful CGI monsters that look like countless other colorful CGI monsters— with a variety of matter-manipulating, energy-harnessing, weapons-transmuting abilities. Ajak (a criminally underused Hayek) is the ballast for the group, a maternal font of support leading them through all these centuries. She’s joined by Sersi (the ever-gorgeous Gemma Chan), perennially late and a bit of a phone addict, who, in scenes with her former romantic partner of 5,000 years, Ikaris (Richard Madden), is all clenched jaws and downcast gazes. Thena (Jolie, forever deserving better) is a warrior who physically struggles with the weight of thousands of years of memories curdling in her brain. The dynamic between Thena and the bruiser Gilgamesh (Ma Dong-seok) could have teased out some tender intimacy, but the film doesn’t spend the time to really dig in — to this relationship or any other between its ten or so main characters. There are battles in Mesopotamia and Babylon, and trips to the twilight expanse of outer space. There’s a drably choreographed and shot Bollywood dance number introducing Kumail Nanjiani’s superpowered movie star, Kingo. But as the film grows more convoluted (with references to Celestials and Avengers and even some DC characters, if you can believe it), the actors struggle to bring the world-weariness necessary for us to care about any of them.
You would think this an impossibility, given how effective and charismatic they’ve been elsewhere. But even the best actors among them seem to strain to find a way to stand out and add the touching foibles that make a superheroic character memorable. Perhaps most notably, and despite Nanjiani’s strenuous effort, the comedy in the film doesn’t suit any cast member’s distinct talents. It’s a reminder that asking wildly different actors to do the same thing — deploy the kind of irreverent banter that’s come to define MCU dialogue — only serves to flatten the franchise’s supposedly expansive worlds. Zhao has neither the deftness nor the interest in elevating this homogenous speaking style, but the reliance on quippy humor speaks more to how Marvel and its stakeholders misunderstand the allure of stars in the first place. Here, they are interchangeable; the cutesy, digestible comedy presence of Nanjiani cranes toward the angled glamour of Jolie until there’s almost no distinction between them. Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), Marvel’s first deaf character, has some spunk when she’s given anything to do, but it’s not enough to distract from the banality around her.
The grander Eternals story, littered with MCU plot holes that get carelessly papered over as more and more heroes and villains make themselves known (where have they been?) and the most powerful figures in MCU’s known arsenal remain absent, doesn’t help to ground the stars or dialogue in their cosmic backdrop. In a conversation with her little-seen mortal boyfriend, Dane Whitman (Kit Harington), Sersi explains why the Eternals didn’t help in “all the other wars,” specifically when Thanos snapped half of humanity out of existence. “We were told not to unless Deviants were involved,” she says with that same level, silken tone Chan uses no matter the tension or shape of a scene. (Nonetheless, we get a shot of Phastos, played by Brian Tyree Henry, in 1945 Hiroshima, crying about aiding the technological development that led to genocidal results. Yes, you read that right.) Dane, comic readers might note, is the alias of the Black Knight, but he unfortunately factors very little into this narrative. (That he’s nonplussed by his girlfriend’s status as an ancient alien will give you a sense of how he functions in the plot.) That doesn’t stop him from getting his own end-credits scene. For all the talk about Eternals standing on its own, Marvel still can’t help but tease out upcoming properties. Endless foreplay without climax — this is how Marvel has shaped audiences, to always be eager not about what you’re currently watching but the next thing.
A star is a powerful tool in a director’s arsenal. They bring rich, complicated histories that can be subverted, played with, even alluded to in film. They can bend light, move their bodies in that exceptional way. But if they aren’t used properly, they become nothing more than marketing tools. Zhao and cinematographer Ben Davis’s camera understand that the actors are beautiful, but in a clinical way — the way you might admire a particularly lush red rose in a photograph. Given that the script doesn’t treat the actors as individuals, but rather as vehicles for bland jokes and exposition, one might turn to the action sequences to glean any idea of who these people are. But in the first major set piece, the camera is static, lacking a kineticism to make the punches reverberate. There are minute touches — Thena has a balletic brutality that would be more intriguing if CGI didn’t render her body weightless. But whether the Eternals are fighting in desert terrain or hurtling through space, no one character is permitted to stand out or evoke awe.
A sex scene between Sersi and Ikaris fares no better, filmed from the chest up, chastely focusing on their faces. It’s ten seconds of loving missionary, not exactly the sort of groundbreaking sensuality these films are in desperate need of. For all its commitment to magic-hour sunlight, the film’s quiet gestures at beauty fail the requisite MCU love story. Once again, Marvel has ensembled an undeniably gorgeous array of actors only to have the sexual chemistry between them be slim or nonexistent. Of course, a franchise obsessed with deities and aliens continues to fumble one of the greatest pleasures of being a human being.
Eternals is buoyed along by questions about the worth of humanity. Why do these superpowered aliens care at all about humans, beyond the fact that they were told to? Sure, Phastos has a husband and a young kid. But what about the rest? What drives them beyond a murky desire to do the right thing? There’s gristle to Druig’s (Barry Keoghan) slim portion of the story. He can control people’s minds and has been doing so with Indigenous folks in the Amazon for generations. It’s a queasy turn that the film never unpacks, shuffling it offscreen before we spend too long grappling with what it might mean. Marvel has grown so powerful in part because of how it treats diversity and identity as a checklist; the Eternals characters indeed range in ability, race, and sexuality. But what does it matter to have, say, a gay kiss onscreen, when there’s no heat behind it? What does it matter if the women are of various hues and ages if you don’t care about their interiority?
With Eternals, Marvel proves itself to be nothing more than a staid, lumbering black hole. What’s the point in pulling in Hollywood stars if you’re just going to obliterate them? Jolie is one of the most fascinating, complicated, and high-profile celebrities to have ever existed. Her history can’t help but shape a film — a franchise, even. Her physicality can’t help but bring dimension to an action scene. She can’t help but make a movie her movie. And yet despite the heft of Eternals, it’s marked by emptiness. In the end, Eternals is nobody’s film.