Marvel Studios’ Eternals (2021) Review

Marvel Studios is no stranger to taking huge gambles on indie filmmakers to direct their big-budget tentpoles, often with varying degrees of success. This includes Anthony and Joe Russo (Avengers: Endgame), Ryan Coogler (Black Panther), Cate Shortland (Black Widow) and Destin Daniel Cretton (Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings), just to name a few.

Adding to the list is Chloé Zhao, fresh off her historic Oscar win after she went home with the Best Director award for Nomadland. Just like her indie filmmaking peers, Marvel Studios’ Eternals marks her first foray into big-budget filmmaking and here, she is reportedly granted a US$200 million at her disposal — a far cry from what she got in her last three indie films (Songs My Brothers Taught Me, The Rider and the aforementioned Nomadland) combined.

Chloé Zhao‘s fourth title refers to The Eternals, an ancient race of 10 god-like humanoids led by Ajak (Salma Hayek). The rest of them includes Sersi (Gemma Chan), Ikaris (Richard Madden), Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), Sprite (Lia McHugh), Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), Gilgamesh (Don Lee), Druig (Barry Keoghan) and Thena (Angelina Jolie). Each of them possesses its own unique superpowers such as Sersi, who can manipulate any kind of matter regardless of molecular and atomic structures while Ikaris has the ability to fly and shoot cosmic beams from his eyes. Other Eternal members, namely Gilgamesh possesses superhuman strength while Thena is a warrior, whose expertise includes fighting with golden spears shaped from cosmic energy.

Sersi (Gemma Chan) and Ikaris (Richard Madden) in Marvel Studios' "Eternals" (2021)

What you need to know is that they are created by the Celestials and sent to Earth to protect mankind from vicious monsters known as The Deviants. We learn they have been around for 7,000 years as they survived every human history, spanning centuries from Mesopotamia circa 5,000 BC to ancient Babylon and present-day eras of London and South Dakota. After successfully eliminating every last one of them or so they think, the Eternals have since gone their separate ways and lived their own lives. However, something happens that triggered an event called “The Emergence”, which prompted the group to reunite once more for a mission.

No doubt that introducing ten new characters in an ensemble superhero film is a monumental task. Sure, previous Marvel helmers including Joss Whedon (The Avengers), James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy) and of course, Anthony and Joe Russo have successfully proved their worth in handling multiple characters in their respective films. I really wish Chloé Zhao could pull it off in Marvel Studios’ Eternals, given her filmmaking prowess seen in Nomadland. But she is somehow out of her element here as she struggles to juggle multiple character arcs throughout the ponderous 157-minute length.

And while the length should be justifiable for an ensemble film that focuses on 10 characters, the film drags on and on, relying on exposition-heavy scenarios to make her point. It’s not to say the film is devoid of action and there are plenty of them. But the CGI-heavy action sequences are strangely lacking in cinematic vigour, even though I have to admit that Zhao knows well how to utilise fluid camera movements that are thankfully free from incomprehensible shooting style.

Still, good camerawork alone barely means much if the characters are poorly developed (more on this later) and the stakes are surprisingly low. I find the latter is kind of hard to believe since the scope of the film is supposed to be something epic and significant within the interconnected Marvel Cinematic Universe event (yes, the film references the Blip at one point and mind you, this information is not a spoiler). Maybe because the fact that witnessing the Eternals battling against the monstrous Deviants aren’t as emotionally and physically visceral or impactful as say, the Avengers vs Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and his army of Chitauri or Thanos (Josh Brolin).

It doesn’t help either that the Deviants are just animals of sorts and if that’s not enough, the film doesn’t possess a level of catastrophe-level threat involving human lives. For the record, the film is about saving mankind but then again, Zhao’s decision to keep it as personal as possible often diluted the necessary impact of the storyline. Speaking of the storyline, Zhao — who also co-wrote the film alongside Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo and Kaz Firpo — tries to mesh indie-style grounded drama and Hollywood blockbuster spectacle but the result is disappointingly uneven. The drama part, which spends time exploring each character’s personal lives and their point of view involving various themes from love to responsibility and humanity. The would-be emotional and epic love story between Gemma Chan’s Sersi and Richard Madden’s Ikaris, in the meantime, is sadly undermined.

A scene from Marvel Studios' "Eternals" (2021)

Zhao may have gathered one of the year’s best ensemble casts and especially the ones that are culturally diverse. The film also includes talented deaf actress Lauren Ridloff, best known for her TV roles in The Walking Dead and New Amsterdam and last year’s acclaimed drama Sound of Metal. She portrays Makkari, who possesses super-speed power similar to Quicksilver, both marking the first time we get a deaf superhero and also a refreshing change of pace to see American Sign Language in a Marvel film. Too bad Zhao squandered not only her acting talent but other cast members as well, reducing them mostly with underwritten roles. While some of them do deliver decent performances (e.g. Gemma Chan and Lia McHugh), others like Salma Hayek is wasted in her forgettable role as the leader of the Eternals, Ajak.

Visually speaking, Marvel Studios’ Eternals is blessed with Ben Davis’ stunning globe-trotting cinematography and Zhao certainly has an eye for gorgeous real-world visuals. Ramin Djawadi’s soaring score deserves equal mention as well, particularly during the action sequences.

If you manage to sit through this lengthy film, don’t forget to stick around for both mid and post-credits teasers.

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