Marvel is trying to grow up. Like many of us, this is a complicated, weird process that involves a ton of feelings we don’t yet have the capacity and experience to process. This is compounded by the fact that the multi-billion-dollar juggernaut isn’t exactly known for its contemplative storytelling, stunning cinematography and camera work, or characters that are much more than quippy jokesters speaking as though they had professional comedians feeding lines into an earpiece. Marvel opted to hire director Chloé Zhao, who shot her award-winning Nomadland during pre-production on this film. It was an odd choice, one that I fully expected to have no effect on the cut-and-paste style of Marvel films (I enjoy them, don’t get me wrong, but they all look like grey dirt and hit the same story beats), but I’m fairly surprised at the way she took her own style and wove it into the final product.
See, Chloé Zhao isn’t all that interested in the flash and pizzaz that these massive budgets bring. That isn’t to say she doesn’t make use of it. Far from it, in fact, as the clashes between our titular family of Eternals and their mortal enemies, the Deviants, look incredible and feel personal in a way that Marvel action sequences haven’t felt in a long time. No knives are flipped, no shields thrown, and no lighting channeled. Instead, the audience is subjected to what might be their biggest horror – small skirmishes and a lot of talk about feelings. Oh, and a lot of talk about how each character feels about those feelings.
Zhao was always interested in a more grounded, quiet, and human form of storytelling. She’s got a Herculean task ahead of her in the introduction of ten new characters, which is fitting as the narrative tells us they are the basis for most of our myths and legends. You’ve got Ajak (Salma Hayek), leader of the group and mother-figure to them all. She’s been sent with Ikaris (Richard Madden), Sersi (Gemma Chan), Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), Sprite (Lia McHugh), Phastos (Bryan Tyree Henry), Thena (Angelina Jolie), Gilgamesh (Don Lee), Druig (Barry Keoghan), and Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) to defend our planet from the Deviants that have made their way to Earth. This is a huge cast, and one that is diverse and inclusive in ways I had not predicted (the deaf Ridloff delivers and an absolutely incredible performance). These characters will not all be developed as we wish, and I knew that was coming, but it’s simply too many to work with at once. Most will get very little character work, and those that do wind up being two of the more bland characters (Ikaris and Sersi) while those that are far more fascinating (Phastos and Sprite) go with less.
And this is where I start to wrestle with my feelings about Eternals. It’s far beyond time for this franchise to attempt some growth. Zhao has delivered an actual color palette, complete with absolutely gorgeous lighting and framing work, but she’s been saddled with a massive amount of catchup to do. Her wins nearly equal her losses, and it’s oddly frustrating to watch compared to virtually any other Marvel film. She’s brought sex to this world, at long last reminding Hollywood that casting all of the most beautiful people in the industry doesn’t do much if you castrate them. She’s brought sunsets, natural lighting, story rural American and the rainy Amazon, and a wild set of character actors to the screen. The tradeoff has unfortunately been pacing and developing, leaving us a film that touches enough of the series conventions to feel like “Marvel” while at the same time feeling like a cage the director is trying to break out of.
Perhaps the most ambitious idea in the film is the idea of confronting their God for his mistakes and his tactics. The Eternals were sent on their mission by Arishem, creator of the universe and seeder of life throughout it. When the team begins to experience silence from their master, they fall into disarray and scatter across the planet to work out their parental issues. Confronting him for his mistakes is an idea they latch onto early in the runtime, and we spend the rest of the film living in an existential tantrum not unlike that we real people throw every day. It is, perhaps, the most resonant theme in the film for most of the audience in its willingness to join us in screaming at the dark, hoping it responds with some sort of meaning.
Eternals is Chloé Zhao’s most conventional film, but it’s also the most interesting film Marvel has released in a decade. It’s fresh, it’s new, and it’s messy. Growing up can be a difficult time, but we all have to do it eventually. Marvel was the cool kid in class when it was younger, but now that it’s getting hormonal and confused it’s trying new things. Audiences may or may not follow them through this adolescent phase (which it shockingly is after a whopping 22 previous films), but I hope we encourage this type of work from the studio. It’s choppy, but it’s effective and far more fun to wonder exactly what stamp will be left by a creator when they’re given actual freedom to do so.
Eternals will be released in theatres on November 4th.