“We have loved these people since the day we arrived. When you love something, you protect it.”

The Marvel Cinematic Universe continues to step out into new territory following the end of The Infinity Saga with Avengers: Endgame. Academy award winning director Chloé Zhao was tapped by Marvel Studios to direct Black Widow, but she declined; instead coming to Kevin Feige with a pitch for a film based on Jack Kirby’s high-concept Eternals series; a film that would introduce a new level of cosmic space-god nonsense into the MCU. Can a series like Eternals work on screen?

The Eternals are ready to defend the Earth from The Deviants in Marvel’s Eternals

Thousands of years ago, god-like cosmic entities called the Celestials sent a group of superbeings called The Eternals to assist early humans, who were being hunted to extinction by a group of aliens called The Deviants. Led by Ajak (Salma Hayek), the 10 Eternals each have a unique ability to assist humans with their advancement and are split into two groups. The fighters are Thena (Angelina Jolie), Ikaris (Richard Madden), Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), Gilgamesh (Ma Dong-seok, credited as Don Lee) and Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani); the builders are Sersi (Gemma Chan), Druig (Barry Keoghan), Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), Sprite (Lia McHugh) and Ajak herself. Believing the Deviants to have been eradicated after thousands of years of fighting, the Eternals go their separate ways; but when Sersi and Sprite are unexpectedly attacked by a Deviant in present-day London, the team must come back together to get to the bottom of the re-emergence…

Eternals is an ambitious project, and one which comes with a different approach to previous MCU outings. Zhao clearly approached this project with a specific goal, and the complexity of the Eternals backstory makes this the perfect chance to take some risks with the Marvel format, and the results are… mixed. While it’s not the first time that Marvel have launched a new segment of their universe with an ensemble cast; the Eternals squad is significantly bigger than that of Guardians Of The Galaxy, which is the first obstacle that Zhao has to overcome. For the narrative to work in a reasonable time (and at 2 hours and 36 minutes, reasonable is a big choice of word); not every character can have the in-depth personality establishment that previous Marvel debut films have provided. The result is we have a central POV character in Gemma Chan’s Sersi; and it is primarily her thoughts, actions and relationships which work to drive the narrative forward. In that we get a more nuanced look into her history during the recaps of the Eternal’s time on earth (primarily through her relationship with Ikaris); but when we do return to the action in the present day, she is the catalyst for where we pick up the story, and the driving force of the decisions made as the plot unfolds. Having the team be separated across the world provides an effective method of piecing the narrative together, with their journey to pick up the other Eternals allowing them to further investigate current events, but also providing an appropriate jumping-off point for the next flashback sequence, layering together the modern day action with historical clues as to how they reached this point. It’s also a good method of folding in the history of each new character who is being re-added to the team; with the flashbacks structured to provide a little more character insight on each of the Eternals as we are re-introduced, and expanding on how the team’s relationship, for better or worse, resulted in each team member landing where they did and why (and, in some cases, with whom).

The relationship between Ikaris (Richard Madden) and Sersi (Gemma Chan) is the emotional centre of Marvel’s Eternals.

This method is effective at giving an insight into each character, and the struggles and challenges they’ve faced, without requiring a full movie for each one – and while a full solo movie would obviously give a much greater insight into the Eternals, it would also probably produce a number of pretty dull films, in all reality. The history of these characters is unavoidably woven together; even when they are separated, the places they end up are as a result of who they are as a team, as much as who they are individually. Zhao gives us enough of a taste of each individual Eternal to let us understand their motivations in the present, which is really the most important thing to consider – and as that modern narrative unfolds, the flashbacks to the past continue to deepen our understanding in a way which serves the film well.

The method is supported by the performances, and all of the Eternals put in good work here. The ensemble format takes the pressure off a little, but the 10 Eternals do all have some particular character traits to put across – Ikaris is stoic, Sersi is gentle and considerate, Sprite is mischievous (actually, most of them are pretty mischievous, but in differing ways), Ajak is regal and noble. Everyone is pulling their weight, though Chan and Madden do a lot of the heavy lifting – not just because they’re at the centre of the story, but also because they carry a lot of the emotional weight of the film on their shoulders. Kumail Nanjiani’s Kingo also puts in the work, bringing a lot of the humour of the film; much of it through his back and forth with his valet Karun (Harish Patel); who has been wise to Kingo’s immortality for some time, and his presence on the globetrotting trip to bring the Eternals back together is frequently a comedy highlight. Ma Dong-seok’s Gilgamesh also gets his fair share of laughs, though while Kingo’s comedy is weighted somewhat on his performative arrogance, Gilgamesh also gets to show off his more tender side through the subplot with the tormented Thena. Lia McHugh and Lauren Ridloff also  get their share of gags, though again, with a different angle to Nanjiani and Dong-seok; and Sprite’s distress at forever looking like a teenager also provides some quieter, self-reflective moments for McHugh to play with. Ridloff is perhaps the most under-utilised talent on screen; as she impresses in every scene, and will hopefully get her chance to shine in future MCU appearances.

Lauren Ridloff impresses as Makkari in Marvel’s Eternals

While there is humour to be found, Eternals does step away from the more gag-filled Marvel fare to adapt a slightly more lofty tone; something reflected in the excellent score from Ramin Djawadi, but also in the structure of the narrative. At its core, this is a film by Chloé Zhao, and it is important to remember that – Marvel give this job to her because they wanted a Marvel film by Chloé Zhao, and not a Marvel film by anyone else, or else they would have hired someone else to make it. The result is a different scope, and the overall narrative of Eternals and the origins of the characters presented (which, while changed from the original Jack Kirby origin and even from the reworked Neil Gaiman version, is still pretty faithful to the comic origins) requires a different tone to some of the more recent Marvel outings – although that is a trend we are beginning to see, as Black Widow and Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings also allowed themselves some time to deal with some pretty heavy concepts, as have most of the Disney+ MCU shows. Aside from dealing with some more intimate representations of love (all of which were handled wonderfully by Zhao, and some which we’re seeing in the MCU for the first time), our heroes are seen at the centre of some of humanity’s most destructive moments, and are heavily implied to have been partially responsible for them, which at times is controversial – here lie spoilers, but I do want to talk about this. Phastos’ supposed involvement in the creation of the atomic bomb being heavily hinted at during a short scene set in Hiroshima, which perhaps went a little further than was absolutely necessary in terms of the technological interventionist plot. While it’s not specifically stated that Phastos helped develop that particular weapon, he does blame his assistance in the creation of advanced weaponry for the attacks, so even the more passive interpretation does lay the blame of human conflict at the feet of an alien race, rather than on the hands of those who implemented it – and though it does ultimately feed into certain revelations towards the end of the film, it could perhaps have been presented a little differently. It’s also an interesting position to take, given that the Eternals are forbidden from interfering in human conflict – so surely Phastos should be bound to not help create weapons? The scene creates confusion where none needed to be found, even if the emotion at the centre of it is poignant to Phastos’ character.

A globetrotting and time-hopping film like this brings with it some pretty fantastic scenery, and the combination of real world locations and the more CGI-based locales is well-balanced and carefully crafted; the film as a whole is beautiful. Ancient cities rise out of the desert in beautiful colourings, contrasted with scenes hidden in the darkness of South American forests; and one particularly charming sequence on the set of a Bollywood film. The sets use plenty of colour to offset the slightly more muted appearances of the Eternals themselves; who when they aren’t in their full superhero regalia (beautifully realised in deep colours, offset by gold) tend to just be in casual, everyday human clothes; with the notable exception of Thena, whose costumes take full advantage of the fact that they’re on Angelina Jolie. The Eternals powers are also well-realised, not just in their impressiveness on screen, but also in that they have a common colour despite doing different things and emanating from different places on each character; that coordinated colouring helps drive home that these characters are a team who are intrinsically linked at a level beyond the conscious, and also helps sell them as an alien race, as opposed to a group of people who happen to have superpowers. The character designs of the Deviants are also noteworthy; while they all have physical shapes that appear to be influenced by Earth’s most notable predators, their design is so otherworldly that there can be no doubt that they are from another planet. The contrast between these hulking beasts and the humanoid Eternals is excellent; but also the fact that a number of them look like mythical beasts, such as the Minotaur and the Chimera, adds further subtext to the Eternals presence throughout ancient civilisations, with the battles of these heroes becoming myth in the societies they fought to protect.

Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) throws down with a Deviant in Marvel’s Eternals

Eternals is certainly a Marvel Cinematic Universe film, but not really like one we’ve seen before. With a different pace, tone and structure to the standard MCU film we’re used to, Chloé Zhao has refreshed the concept of what a Marvel superhero can be, and introduced a number of interesting and exciting concepts into the wider MCU as a whole; as well as a crop of fresh characters who it would be interesting to return to. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s certainly different; and it’s a spectacle worth watching – especially if you enjoy the more cosmic side of superhero comics.

Dave McGuckin is a theatre graduate, bar manager, former comedian and eternal film lover from Northern Ireland, now living in Canada. He began writing film reviews in 2016 for The Grade and then Great Central, both based in Leicester, England.

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An Irishman in Toronto who feels like his thoughts about modern media should be inflicted upon others, for some reason.

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