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Non-Review Review: Eternals

Chloé Zhao’s Eternals is a small, but necessary, step forward for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

There has been a lot of pre-publicity around Eternals, most of it centring on Zhao as an auteur. Zhao has given interviews insisting that she directed all of the film’s action. Kevin Feige has talked about how her work convinced Disney executives to shoot in real locations rather than simply rendering a lot of the movie in post-production. As such, Eternals has become a weird battleground for the idea of authorship within the confines of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

When Marvel saw the breadth of its domain…

It is easy to understand why this is. There have been Marvel Studios movies directed by Oscar-winners before; Joe Johnson won an Academy Award for visual effects on Raiders of the Lost Ark and Taika Waititi recently won a Best Adapted Screenplay award for JoJo Rabbit. However, there is something tangibly different about seeing a big budget blockbuster coming from an artist who won both Best Picture and Best Director at that year’s Academy Awards.

It also makes sense in the context of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There have undoubtedly been Marvel Studios films with strong senses of authorship: Shane Black’s Iron Man 3, Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok, James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy and Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, and Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther. However, those movies all feel quite a long time ago. Although one can perhaps pick up traces of Cate Shortland’s personality in Black Widow or Daniel Destin Cretton’s interests in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, those films feel very familiar and very rote.

Red eyes in the morning…

There is tangible sense of opportunism at play in way that Marvel Studios has positioned Eternals as an auteur-driven project. After all, the studio has a long and complicated history with directors who have distinct visions; Patty Jenkins, Edgar Wright and Ava DuVernay have all suggested that the company’s culture is not particularly welcoming to creatives. In particular, Zhao’s assertion that she oversaw the movie’s action sequences exists in the context of Argentine director Lucrecia Martel, who recalls being told that if she chose to direct Black Widow, she would not be allowed to direct the action scenes.

Again, context is important here. Eternals is really the company’s first director-driven project since Black Panther, which is a big deal given the studio’s history of beginning pre-visualization of scenes and special effects “before the cinematographer or director has signed on to the project.” While movies like Avengers: Infinity War, Captain Marvel, Ant Man and the Wasp, Avengers: Endgame and Spider-Man: Far From Home are all varying degrees of entertaining, none of them feel like the work of a filmmaker who has something particularly pressing to say about the modern world.

Superfriends.

All this tension plays through Eternals, the fine balancing act between a director with a very distinctive artistic sensibility working with a studio that appears eager to launder its reputation by association, while also being anxious that this auteur doesn’t get to go too far. In some ways, Eternals feels like a limit case for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, an example of just how far the studio will allow a creative talent to stretch a rubber band before aggressively snapping it back into the default position.

This is the challenge facing Eternals. It goes further than any Marvel Studios film in recent memory, but that’s still not far enough.

Adapted from the Jack Kirby comics of the same name, Eternals follows the eponymous group of superheroes. These immortal beings have been created by the omnipotent Celestials to guide and shape evolution on countless planets across the universe. They exist to wage an eternal war against the so-called “Deviants”, and to help the species inhabiting these planets to reach their full potential. The plot of the movie truly begins in the present day, centuries after the group went their separate ways, as the fractured family find themselves drawn back together by conspiracy and tragedy to help save the world one last time.

Eternals has ambition and scale – both in terms of its visual storytelling and its thematic drive. It is interesting to frame Eternals as a work inspired by comic legend Jack Kirby. Obviously, the film has a look and feel that exists quite far removed from Kirby’s design aesthetic. Zhao is a more grounded and more naturalistic filmmaker, and so a film like Waititi’s Ragnarok is closer to Kirby’s visual style. However, the film’s big thematic cues feel weirdly aligned with Kirby’s work for the comic book publisher.

“He’s got the franchise, in his hands…
He’s got the franchise, in his hands…”

At its core, Eternals is essential a Marvel Studios film about confronting God. It’s about a group of characters pondering the nature and meaning of their own existence, and then literalising all of that anxiety into a confrontation with the manifestation of divine authority in the cosmos. It’s a big idea, but it is also one that traces its roots back to Jack Kirby’s work with Stan Lee on Fantastic Four. Famously, The Galactus Trilogy began with a note from Lee directing Kirby to “have them fight God.” This theme of humanity and divinity runs through Kirby’s work, particularly later works like New Gods and Eternals.

This shouldn’t be a big deal. After all, religion and spirituality used to permeate American popular culture, with films like Gladiator, The Sixth Sense and The Matrix wrestling with religious themes in a very explicit manner. However, modern blockbusters seem more anxious about the topic, more wary of alienating audiences with strong thoughts on the matter. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has largely avoided these sorts of ideas, with Thor painting its literal deities as “sufficiently advanced aliens” and Doctor Strange turning its magic into a sort of “sufficiently advanced science” with its own rules and codes.

What’s over the horizon?

Eternals does bury this theme slightly beneath the surface. The characters rarely use the language of religion. This is not as explicit a spiritual text as something like Midnight Mass. However, the film is best understood filtered through this lens. Kirby named many of his characters – Thena, Ikaris, Gilgamesh – to evoke ancient mythology. The characters are repeatedly challenged about what they believe and how they will follow those beliefs. Crucially, the film’s central dramatic tension comes from the old theological paradox about the existence of God: why does somebody all-powerful allow bad things to happen?

There’s a surprisingly hefty philosophical backbone to Eternals. This is a superhero film where the characters don’t just save the world at the end, they stop and debate the morality of saving the world. The characters in Eternals engage in spirited debate about the power they hold and the authority with which they wield it. This feels very much like an extension of Zhao’s own interests as a filmmaker, particularly her fascination with nuetrality and observation in films like Nomadland and The Rider.

Think fast.

It is, to put it frankly, refreshing in the context of a Marvel Cinematic Universe where power is fetishised as an end unto itself. The superheroes in Endgame never really stop to question their own moral authority, just as Captain America: Civil War never stops to ask whether what its hero is doing is actually heroic. There is something to be said for the charming “… because that’s what heroes do!” logic of films like Ragnarok, but the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been clumsily gesturing at bigger and more self-important ideas for almost a decade, and so it is exciting to see superhero movie that actually questions superheroism.

Indeed, this is perhaps the most interesting thematic aspect of Eternals. At the climax of the film, the characters are honestly divided on what the best course of action is. They aren’t sure whether their plan will work, but they are also unsure about the moral authority they hold to execute that plan. There are disagreements, and they are made by characters acting in good faith. One character makes the conscious choice to walk away from the conversation because he philosophically disagrees with the point that the other characters are making, and Eternals is mature enough to avoid painting him as a villain.

A straight arrow.

This is something that Zhao brings to the film. Eternals is at its best when it leans into the introspective nature of its premise. Like most modern superhero movies, Zhao has stacked her film with beautiful people. Eternals is often structured to allow these stunning people moments of introspection staring out over pretty vistas, often shot in impressive IMAX. Zhao trusts her actors to convey their emotions in silence, and the result is the rare superhero film where the cast has actual interiority. It is too much to suggest that these characters feel like real people, but they feel closer than most modern superheroes.

Indeed, there’s a refreshing and candid intimacy to Eternals. The film is notable for featuring an actual honest-to-goodness sex scene between two of its leads, which is a rarity in this increasingly sterile age of blockbuster filmmaking. Zhao understands the importance of touch and connection to humanity, and Eternals is a film that feels surprisingly tactile by the standards of the franchise around it. It is not Dune. It is not even The Suicide Squad, but it feels more human than Black Widow or Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten of Rings.

Warrior Princess.

While there’s something disconcerting in the extent to which Marvel Studios have been leaning on the fact that Eternals was directed by an actual filmmaker instead of a corporate algorithm, there are moments when it really does feel like Eternals was directed by an actual filmmaker. Indeed, while the comparison doesn’t exactly flatter Eternals, it’s hard not to compare the film to Zack Snyder’s Justice League. It is a movie that exists within a genre that has become increasingly homogenous, pushing for a stylistic sensibility that reflects a particular world view rather than being entirely sanded down to conform to template.

Indeed, even the team of superheroes featured in Eternals invite comparisons to the team from Zack Snyder’s Justice League. Makkari is a speedster, like the Flash. Thena is a warrior princess with a sword and shield, like Wonder Woman. However, it’s Richard Madden’s work as Ikaris that feels most explicitly indebted to Zack Snyder’s Justice League, with the character seemingly explicitly modelled on Henry Cavill’s portrayal of Superman. Zhao references particular shots from Man of Steel, such as an intense personal scream in a moment of grief, viscious mid-air combat, and even the tangible force of the character’s eyebeams.

Simply beaming this morning.

Eternals is very cognisant of this point of comparison. When Kingo makes a point to bring along his manager Karu, Druig likens their relationship to that between Batman and Alfred. When Ikaris visits his old friend Phastos, he briefly attempts to use the alias “Isaac”, but Phastos’ young son immediately recognises him as “Superman.” There’s a very strong sense that Eternals exists as Marvel Studios playing with the idea of making their own riff on Justice League, at least as it existed in the original theatrical release.

One of the lines of criticism on Eternals will inevitably be that that the film isn’t sufficiently colourful, particularly when compared to the Jack Kirby comics that inspired it. There’s a certain validity to that criticism, particularly in the larger context of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. After all, so many of these movies look and sound extremely generic. That said, it is also clear that Eternals looks exactly like Chloé Zhao wants it to look. There are shots in Eternals that wouldn’t feel too out of place in Nomadland or The Rider, of characters contemplating beautiful landscapes.

A God Above, Watching…

Indeed, it’s interesting to contrast Kirby’s very distinctive design of the Celestials with that used in the film. Kirby’s design is very sleek and smooth, all strong lines and clear curves. In contrast, Zhao makes a point to emphasise the tactility of these gigantic computer-generated entities. Arishem the Judge looks like he has been carved out of stone, his facade marked by blemishes and craters, as if his veneer has been scratched and cracked through millennial contemplating the cosmos. It’s not that one approach is better than the other, it’s that Zhao shoots this creature like it is part of this natural world.

Of course, the comparison to Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a double-edged sword. After all, Snyder enjoyed complete freedom on that project. More to the point, that freedom existed in stark contrast to the studio meddling that led to the original release of Justice League. Even compared to something like The Dark Knight, Zack Snyder’s Justice League remains the high watermark for creative freedom on a modern superhero blockbuster. There are limits to how much freedom Zhao can enjoy. Marvel Studios will only let Zhao wander so far from the familiar template.

Still sharp.

Eternals is at its weakest when it punctures its moments of contemplation with the obligatory quips and references to other Marvel films. To be clear, Zhao isn’t making an arthouse film, she’s making a big studio blockbuster, but Eternals often seems incredibly insecure in even the moderate risks that it is taking. The script peppers dialogue with references to Thanos and the Avengers, as if to reassure audiences that this is still a real Marvel Studios film, and that the auteur hasn’t been allowed to wander too far from the template.

At one point, Eternals introduces the character of Kingo, who has essentially transformed himself into a Bollywood star. Much has been made of the fact that Eternals features a full Bollywood dance number built around the character. On paper, that’s a good idea. It is something distinct and different from the twenty-odd Marvel Studios films that have been produced to this point. It is using the film’s platform and its built-in audience to do something new and potentially interesting.

No need to make a song and dance about it.

In practice, Eternals feels uncomfortable trying to deliver on Bollywood spectacle. Much like the Marvel Cinematic Universe coaches anything resembling earnestness in wry and self-aware humour, Eternals cannot embrace the full bombast and spectacle of a Bollywood dance number. The film keeps cutting out of the reality of the dance number to assure audience members that this heightened reality exists on a film set within the film, and that Eternals isn’t actually embracing the language of a cinematic musical. There’s a frustrating level of detachment at play in the film.

For a film ostensibly about the humanity, the film often brushes aside any actual humanity in favour of blunt exposition. Early in the film, Dane Whitman discovers that his girlfriend Sersei is an immortal superhero. His first questions aren’t personal. They aren’t rooted in a human reaction to that revelation. Instead, Dane is preoccupied with the prospect that he has just discovered a plot hole in Infinity War. He asks, “Why didn’t you help fight Thanos?” It’s a nonsense question that completely undercuts the emotional reality of their interaction in favour of a continuity reference, and it’s indicative of larger problems.

Phastos and Furios.

Later on, after Cersei has reunited with most of her family members, the group gathers to share a meal together. This is the first time that all of them have been together in half a millennium. There is clearly a lot of stuff to work through, both inside and outside the family. However, the group’s primary focus seems to be discussing Endgame spoilers. “So, now that Captain Rogers and Iron Man are both gone, who do you think is going to lead the Avengers?” asks Sprite. Her framing of “Captain Rogers” rather than “Captain America” seems eerily concerned with international markets will react to the line if it appears in a trailer.

There’s something disheartening and disillusioning in all of this. It often seems like Marvel Studios cannot conceive of human beings who are not obsessed with the mechanics and the continuity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. At one point, when explaining why humanity deserves special treatment, Ajax doesn’t point to art or culture or dignity or morality. She instead argues that Earth deserves to be saved because it’s the place that produced Endgame, telling Ikaris, “Five years ago, Thanos erased half the population of the universe, but the people of this world brought everybody back with the snap of a finger.”

Shady behaviour.

These elements are distracting on a number of levels. Most obviously, they all feel shoehorned in and don’t add anything to Eternals beyond patronising confirmation that the audience haven’t accidentally bought a ticket to a movie that isn’t produced by Marvel Studios. More fundamentally, though, they undercut Zhao’s exact strengths as a filmmaker. Eternals is at its best when it feels human and grounded, when it believes that two people making a connection is a profound experience. However, these exchanges are quick to insist that what’s really important is all these power fantasy strongmen who do great things.

It also taps into another significant structural problem with Eternals, which is the weird eugenics subtext that is woven into the core premise: the idea that these perfect people were bred specifically to guide and shape humanity while fighting deformed monsters known as “Deviants.” Jack Kirby was a Jewish artist who served in the Second World War, fighting the Nazis. The subtext is undoubtedly unintentional, but it does lean into the more uncomfortable fascistic subtext of the superhero genre – particularly when it’s framed alongside the other power fantasies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Deviant behaviour.

To be fair to Zhao, she’s a smart enough filmmaker to realise this. Like a lot of modern creators who have worked on Eternals – like Neil Gaiman and John Romita Jr. or Kieron Gillen and Esad Ribic – Zhao understands that there needs to be a rather critical eye applied to the premise. The underlying assumptions of the concept cannot be taken at face value. This cannot be a movie about physically perfect specimans waging genocidal war against deformed monstrosities based purely on their genetics.

However, the film still feels too beholden to the formula. Eternals clocks in at over two-and-a-half hours, and a lot of that is completely unnecessary. Most notably, the film has an entire subplot built around the “Deviants”, including a leader played by Bill Skarsgård, that could easily have been streamlined or removed without losing anything of significance. Indeed, it would actively help focus the movie’s thematic and character arcs. The “Deviants” seem to be featured in Eternals out of a sense of obligation – a weird sense that it wouldn’t be an Eternals movie without them.

Lightening the mood.

Eternals also has the Captain Marvel problem of essentially starting an hour too early. The film burdens its first act with unnecessary and overly detailed exposition that any savvy audience member will realise is window dressing on the actual story the film wants to tell. As a result, Eternals spins its wheels for an hour to actually start constructing its own narrative. There is a lot of meat in that narrative, and there are some great scenes as the characters get to sink their teeth into it, but it arrives far too late.

The film’s momentum is also staggered by a series of somewhat indulgent and over-extended flashbacks, some of which verge on extremely poor taste. Again, a lot of this is carried over from a very literal approach to the source material. Kirby was riffing on the classic “ancient astronauts” trope, imagining powerful beings that guided and shaped humanity across millennia. In Eternals, the film includes an interlude set in Babylon, as Phastos argues with his colleagues about whether mankind is ready for the steam engine.

A healthy glow.

Historically, these sorts of stories focus on non-white indigenous communities, as a way of rationalising or justifying their technological advances. There’s a decidedly colonial subtext underpinning these fantasies, a belief that these societies could not have made these social leaps on their own without outside interference. Eternals plays the drama of this frustratingly straight, having its heroes stand idly by as the conquistadors ransack Tenochtitlan. (“This is genocide!” Druig rightly protests.)

To be fair, this is far from the first time that superhero movies have dabbled in this sort of imagery. The entire opening montage of Watchmen was built around it. The original X-Men and X-Men: First Class both featuring openings that introduce Magneto in Auschwitz. It is a very delicate line to walk, and it’s easy to veer into distasteful territory, like the camp absurdity of Magneto’s return to Auschwitz in X-Men: Apocalpyse, using very real tragedies for very cheap drama.

Kingo the World.

Eternals crosses that line. It’s particularly notable during a sequence set in the aftermath of the detonation of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. Phastos sits, sobbing, in the ruins. “I did this,” he cries, as Ajax comforts him. It’s a staggeringly tasteless scene on a number of levels. It reduces a real life tragedy to cheap emotional angst for these fictional characters. It also raises the question of the extent to which Phastos actually cared about these human beings, given that Nagasaki happened just a few days later.

And, yet, there is something strangely appealing in all of this. Eternals takes big swings, which feels refreshing following a string of movies, from Infinity War to Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, that feel like they might have been written by a computer algorithm. Zhao’s Eternals is not afraid to roll up its sleeves and grapple with big ideas, even when safer choices present themselves. In particular, the movie presents a brutal critique of Social Darwinist narratives of history, suggesting that war and slaughter don’t necessarily lead to a better future, but simply nurture and feed something monstrous and evil.

Floating some ideas.

To its credit, Eternals features the strongest third act of a Marvel film since Black Panther, in large part because Zhao manages to juxtapose the obligatory computer-generated spectacle with both genuine scale and tangible emotional stakes. In practical terms, there’s very little novel or exciting in the climax of Eternals. However, Zhao uses the impressive resources at her disposal to create an apocalyptic confrontation that feels suitably large. Playing off Zhao’s strengths as a filmmaker, the threat at the end of Eternals feels truly big, in a way that many modern superhero movies struggle to convincingly convey.

Similarly, the film has spent enough time with these characters – and explaining how and why they feel the way that they do – that the final confrontation feels earned. The characters do all the things that superheroes are supposed to do in these sorts of climaxes – they punch each other, they shout pseudo-philosophical rhetoric, they hover menacingly in the air as energy beams flow – but there’s always a strong understanding of how and why each of the characters is acting in the way that they are.

Above it all.

The film takes its time getting there, but it sticks the landing when it needs to. Eternals is flawed, messy and clumsy. But it is actually pushing itself. The results aren’t out of this world, but they do rise above many of the film’s contemporaries.

2 Responses

  1. Hi Darren, Sorry to be demanding but I am really missing a review of Dune. This is not to say I don’t enjoy your covering of certain aspects of that movie. Is there a chance of a concentrated review?
    Thanks for all your texts! Really insightful.

    • Ahoy! It really is a time thing, sadly. I only have so much time. That said, I did do a podcast on it you can find on this site, so that might be of interest or use?

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