Over the past 13 years the MCU has gained a steady stranglehold on Hollywood. The saturation of superheroes has brought an entirely new landscape to the box office. Highly militarized caped heroes saving Earth from weaponized threats, often at the cost of the very people they claim to save. While there are exceptions to that framework, the MCU has thrived on doing the expected. It has taken Marvel from a near-bankrupt comics company to a worldwide box office smash-making studio that’s now, of course, owned by Disney. But the MCU’s 26th movie offers something entirely different. It’s a story about family, friendship, and love of all kinds. With Eternals, the MCU changes forever but not in the way we expect.
Based on Jack Kirby’s esoteric and mythological superhero comic of the same name, Eternals is not a fan-favorite title, which affords the movie freedom. Most comics readers have attempted to break into the Eternals but few are die hard fans. There’s no Eternals run comparable to the success of say The Winter Soldier or The Infinity Saga. In that way, Chloé Zhao can reimagine the heroes and their world without the pressure of fan expectation. But that’s not to say this is a film that ignores the man who created its universe. In fact, Eternals is undoubtedly the most Kirby-influenced MCU movie yet. Not only is this his imagination playing out on screen, but Zhao has an understanding of the themes, explorations, and notions that made Kirby tick, the same things that make his work so unendingly influential.
Introducing eleven new characters is no easy feat but Zhao always makes it an engaging and enjoyable ride. We meet the Eternals on a mission to Earth, led by Ajak (Salma Hayek). The massive beings known only as Celestials send the immortals to our planet to protect it from the monstrous Deviants. Gemma Chan’s Sersi is our in-character as the Eternal most closely connected to humanity. Chan is a sterling lead, charming, brave, complex, and at the center of a fun love triangle. She’s torn between Ikaris (Richard Madden), the Superman-like Eternal who she’s known for centuries, and Dane Whitman (Kit Harrington), the human museum worker who she loves in contemporary London. Sersi and Dane’s world turns upside down when Ikaris reappears during a Deviant attack.
From there we head out on a globe-trotting time-hopping adventure and reunite with the rest of the crew: Sersi’s roommate and eternal child, Sprite (Lia McHugh); technopath inventor Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry); speedster Makkari (Lauren Ridolff); Earth’s greatest warrior, Thena (Angelina Jolie); charming and powerful fighter, Gilgamesh (Don Lee); finger guns wielder and Bollywood star, Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani); and mind manipulator Druig (Barry Keoghan). In this sprawling cast, what should be Eternals’ biggest struggle is where Zhao finds its secret power. Each character shares a unique relationship with their fellow Eternals. There’s complexity and nuance built into the dynamics between them. It’s here that the movie truly stands out from its MCU counterparts. Tropes be damned, Zhao carves out unexpectedly human immortals who actually care about each other. They love and hate and fight and forgive and feud and feel together. It’s a refreshingly emotional take.
Zhao’s human touch and interest in stories about characters first and action second brings a humanity and emotion that’s often lacking in the realm of superheroes. Sure, these are mythological figures, but they’re also people going on journeys of self discovery, trying to find their place in the universe whatever that means. Even with that at its center, Eternals features some incredible action. The cosmic nature of the Eternals brings a new life to the choreography and styling of the fights. Each character has a defined fighting style that interacts differently with their teammates, and together they’re a formidable team.
Their relationships are what really make it work, though. Keoghan is brilliant as the dramatic and troubled Druig. His friendship with Ridolff’s energetic and hopeful Makkari is pure magic. Jolie and Lee shine whenever they’re on screen together in one of the film’s most surprising pairings. Harrington and Chan are at the heart of the adventure even though the latter is barely in the film. When the two are together, sparks fly. It makes us incredibly excited for wherever we see Dane pop up next. McHugh and Chan are also dynamite together as Madden looms over them in omnipotent power and struggle. He’s brilliant as both foil and friend to Sersi, and their centuries long romance is believable and heartbreaking.
It’s not just a vibrant new team that Zhao introduces, however. This is a dense, esoteric piece of sci-fi that manages to be accessible and fun while always staying weird. The trailers do not do Zhao or Ben Davis’ stunning cinematography justice as we explore the globe and far reaches of space. The much maligned MCU three act structure is nowhere to be seen. This is an ensemble family drama flung deep into the cosmos. Even the final act belies the classic MCU trope—there are no giant objects falling out of the sky—and offers up an exciting cliffhanger twist when all seems to be calm.
With the magnificent Eternals, Zhao joins Ryan Coogler and Taika Waititi in the realm of MCU directors who have managed to bring something new to the bombastic superhero world. In Zhao’s case, she’s created a truly international roster of heroes, each and every one a joy. But she’s also taken Kirby’s expansive and experimental sci-fi concepts and brought them to the screen in a way we’ve never seen. If the MCU can foster the weirdness and beauty that Zhao has worked so hard to bring, we’ll be lucky. And if those who follow her can keep the heart and soul that makes these characters so special, the MCU will be all the better for it.
Featured Image: Marvel Studios