Critics lament the co-opting of such indie filmmakers as Taika Waititi, Ryan Coogler, and James Gunn by Marvel Studios, and there is reason for concern as the studios keep turning their backs on the kind of medium-sized budget, personal independent films they used to put out that are now being picked up and financed by the likes Amazon and Netflix. The fact is that some of the best, most original films of Marvel’s Phase One were directed by these filmmakers even as they followed executive producer Kevin Feige’s grand scheme for his cinematic universe: Thor: Ragnarok, the first Guardians of the Galaxy and, of course, Black Panther, a prime example of Afro-futurism disguised as a superhero movie. Let us not forget that we almost had an Ant-Man directed by Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Last Night in Soho) before he quit the production due to those pesky “creative differences.”
Chinese filmmaker Chloe Zhao, hot off her Oscar wins for Nomadland, her poignant and empathetic portrait of people leading nomadic lives on the margins of society, joins this select group with Eternals, Marvel Studios’ latest entry to their film and television-driven Phase 4 launched this year.
Created by the legendary artist and writer Jack Kirby (co-creator of The Avengers, The Fantastic Four, and X-Men) as a superhero take on Greek mythology—or, for that matter, any creationist mythology—the Eternals’ backstory is one of the most convoluted in the Marvel Universe (cinematic and non-cinematic), and that is saying a lot. It’s basically the story of godlike beings called Celestials, who created humanity and the rest of the universe, and the beings they sent to protect their creation as long as they didn’t interfere in their affairs.
It’s a story with a larger scope than Zhao’s more intimate and humble portraits of American life. But it gives her a large canvass, an equally large palette, and a gigantic box of tools to play with. She is at the mercy of what is basically another origin story and another cataclysmic plot and climax, and yet she balances that need for spectacle, for explaining things instead of telling them, with quiet, more character-driven moments which allow the film to stand on its own and, most of the time, apart from the rest of Marvel Studios’ output.
Eternals opens with a huge infodump: a Celestial named Arisham creates planet Earth, the humans that inhabit it, and a race of monsters called the Deviants that soon decide to evolve on their own. To vanquish these creatures, Arishem then creates the Eternals, a group of godlike beings with specific powers led by the motherly Atak (Salma Hayek); Sersi (Gemma Chan), who transforms matter with her touch; the Superman-like Ikaris (Richard Madden, better known as Robb Stark from Game of Thrones) with whom Sersi has a short-lasting relationship; Sprite (Lia McHugh), the storyteller who uses her words to create visions and is forever stuck in a teenager’s body; Kingo (Kumail Manjiani) who creates fireballs with his hands; Druig (Barry Keoghan) who can control minds; Makkam (deaf actress Lauren Redloff), the team’s answer to The Flash; warrior Thena (Angelina Jolie) who develops a kind of dementia that could prove deadly to her teammates; strongman Gilgamesh (Don Lee); and technical genius and inventor Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry)—a diverse cast of characters (and actors) no doubt and one that doesn’t feel like it’s filling some sort of Hollywood quota.
With their mission of destroying the Deviants completed and discontent running among some of the team members about their hands-off mandate, Ajak frees each one of their obligations and sends them on their way as Tenochtitlán burns behind them 200 years ago precisely (I somehow suspect the choice of scenery for the group’s breakup, the person responsible for it and the actress playing her may not be a coincidence.) Hundreds of years later, Sersi is working in London’s Natural History Museum, is dating Dane (Kit Harington, Game of Thrones’ Jon Snow), and is looking after Sprite. An earthquake hits the city and a fully evolved more powerful Deviant pops up in Picadilly Circus roleplaying Godzilla without the radioactive fire. Ikaris flies in out of the blue and joins the fight against this Deviant; after vanquishing it, the trio decides to head off to South Dakota, where Ajak leads a peaceful life on a ranch.
To avoid any spoilers, let me just say that Sersi finds herself tasked with bringing the group together to fight this new breed of Deviants one last time. Kirgo is now a Bollywood star, Druig has retreated to the depths of the Amazon jungle where he is the leader of a commune, Gilgamesh has been taking care of Thena, Phastos has been living a happy, family life in Chicago with husband Ben (Haaz Sleiman) and son Jack (Esai Daniel Cross), and Makkam has been waiting all this time in the Eternals’ ship reading every single book she can get ahold of while waiting for the call to action. The team soon finds out what led to these creatures coming back, and frankly, those reasons are, to me, the least interesting part of this story as it involves some sort of apocalypse… again.
What makes Eternals stand out above most of the Marvel and even DC films is Zhao’s empathy towards the characters, their camaraderie (or lack thereof), the emotional and ideological conflicts they face as well as the morality of their actions and, in the end, the decisions they have to make. If that makes the film sound too talky and too touchy-feely, good; the genre needs more of that humanism. The plot is not as linear as the above summary implies: Zhao and co-scriptwriters Patrick Burleigh and Ryan and Kaz Firpo weave past and present events together, their story time-traveling through key moments in their characters’ lives as a collective and as individuals. It feels novelistic in scope even if some of the action sequences follow the template established by past superhero movies.
Shot in actual locations in the United Kingdom and the Canary Islands, Eternals possesses a tactility that I find missing in most superhero films. Like Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune (Part One currently playing in theaters and HBO Max with Part Two scheduled to premiere in two years), Eternals is a monumental film with its vast mountains and desert and wintry landscapes serving as more than mere backdrop for the story. Even the special effects, especially when set against such backdrops, feel organic, a natural product of the environment and not just another set of ones and zeroes that may become outdated in a few years.
At 157 minutes, the film may seem too long but I appreciated that it took its sweet time in showing us Phastos’ family and what it meant to him; that it relished Gilgamesh’s jocularity; that it gave Nanjiani room to further spread his comedic wings; that, in its own way, it addressed mental health issues; and that it did not make much ado about its diversity. But most important, Eternals is a movie that has enormous faith in human nature, its capacity to selflessly do good and evolve, even after dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The movie may be named after its mythical figures, but its heart and soul are fully human. Karun (Harish Patel), Kingo’s valet and videographer, may have been conceived as comic relief, a bumbling yes-man to a god. But Patel elevates the character: he is our stand-in, the one capable to see them as more than superheroic while still staring in awe at their prowess regardless of how many cameras he may be carrying with him.
Eternals may not be an entirely successful film but the fact that its humanity comes through, in spite of all the backstory and the by-the-book epic cataclysmic battles against all kinds of monsters, is worth appreciating and cherishing. A short-lived sense of humanity at that if the two post-credit scenes are anything to go by what’s next in the pipeline.
Featured image courtesy of Marvel Studios