08th Nov2021

‘Eternals’ Review

by Matthew Turner

Stars: Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Angelina Jolie, Kumail Nanjiani, Salma Hayek, Brian Tyree Henry, Barry Keoghan, Don Lee, Lauren Ridloff, Lia McHugh, Harish Patel | Written by Chloé Zhao, Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo, Kaz Firpo | Directed by Chloé Zhao

Oscar-winner Chloé Zhao directs the latest Marvel superhero adventure, Eternals, which attempts to make a few subtle-but-important shifts in the MCU. As such, it’s largely successful, though the standard Marvel formula is nigh-on indomitable and remains firmly in place.

Based on characters and concepts created by Jack Kirby in 1974, Eternals posits that alien beings called Celestials created a race of immortal, super-powered humanoids called Eternals and sent them to Earth 7,000 years ago, in order to protect humanity from invading alien monsters known as Deviants. The Eternals extinguished the last of the Deviants some 500 years ago, so it’s understandably concerning when one of them attacks Sersi (Gemma Chan) in present-day London (Camden Lock, to be precise).

Concerned that the Deviants appear more powerful than before, Sersi reunites with super-strong former boyfriend Ikaris (Richard Madden) and pint-sized illusionist Sprite (Lia McHugh) and heads to South Dakota in search of the Eternals’ leader, Ajak (Salma Hayek), the only one in direct contact with their giant Celestial commander, Arishem (voiced by David Kaye).

After assembling the rest of the team – including warrior Thena (Angelina Jolie), power-puncher Gilgamesh (Don Lee), mind controller Druig (Barry Keoghan), flame-thrower Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), super-brain Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) and deaf speedster Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) – Sersi learns the truth behind the Eternals’ true mission on Earth, which leads to some seriously tested loyalties. Meanwhile, the Deviants are getting stronger and appear to be evolving, presenting an ever-greater threat.

It’s no mean feat to pull off a decent super-team movie with ten characters that audiences have never met before. The fact that the film manages that, while still embuing each character with distinct personalities and giving each one of them decent screentime is a direct testament to Zhao’s achievement here.

Zhao’s previous films (notably the Oscar-winning Nomandland and The Rider) are notable for their humanity and their compassion, as well as their stunning use of spectacular landscapes. Those elements are very much present in Eternals too, in both the commendably varied location work (from Babylon to Mesopotamia to South Dakota and Camden Lock) and the love for the Earth and its people that drives the plot.

Zhao’s presence behind the camera is also keenly felt in the inclusion of other elements, from the fact that Gemma Chan is the de facto lead to the richly diverse cast that includes gay heroes and deaf heroes, to the inclusion of both a gay kiss and an actual sex scene. Those are important steps forward (especially in terms of representation), even if subsequent Marvel movies inevitably end up retracing them.

However, Zhao’s influence can only go so far, and to all intents and purposes, the rest of the film is business as usual in the MCU, complete with name-drops of Thanos and dinner table discussions about who’s going to lead the Avengers now that Steve and Stark are both gone (good question). To that end there are a number of exciting set-pieces (the Camden Lock attack is an early highlight) and there’s plenty of humour and emotion flying about, alongside all the laser eye-beams and energy bolts.

Rest assured then that the Eternals bicker and squabble just like the Avengers or the Guardians of the Galaxy or any other Marvel super-team. To that end, the performances are a lot of fun: Nanjiani gets the lion’s share of the laughs as Kingo (who’s become a full-of-himself Bollywood star in the last 100 years, posing as his own descendants), while Henry is very funny as put-upon Phastos and Lee has several amusing moments as Gilgamesh. Elsewhere, Chan makes a compellingly compassionate lead and Jolie gives the film an interesting dynamic, essentially taking a supporting role and keeping her star power largely in the background.

In fairness, Eternals isn’t entirely without flaws (it’s too long, for one thing, and there’s at least one plot detail that you just have to accept and move on), but it’s beautifully made and largely faithful to Jack Kirby’s original vision, while still delivering the winning combination of action, humour and emotion that Marvel have made their trademark. It also name-checks both Batman and Superman and you don’t expect that in a Marvel movie.

**** 4/5

Eternals is in cinemas now.


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