“Eternals” Review: Auteur Filmmaker Chloé Zhao Doesn’t Get to Shine in Marvel’s Latest Installment

Kumail Nanjiani, Lia McHugh, Gemma Chan, Richard Madden and Angelina Jolie in “Eternals.” Photo Courtesy: Marvel Studios

Rating: 5/10

Watching Chloé Zhao’s The Rider (2017) made me want to learn horseback riding and got me thinking about humans’ connection to horses. Her Academy Award-winning Nomadland (2020) illustrated the reality a lot of houseless Americans face and offered a window into the American West in the midst of an exceptionally sedentary pandemic. Both films seamlessly intertwine fiction and reality. I knew Eternals was going to be different.

Marvel’s decision to hire the indie director to helm film number 26 in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has both puzzled and intrigued me since the news broke in 2018. Eternals opens exclusively in theaters on November 5 and is expected to hit Disney+ no earlier than 45 days after that.

The movie packs a lot of exposition. From an opening crawl that establishes who the Eternals are — a group of immortal heroes sent to Earth from Olympia to protect humans from villainous creatures called Deviants — to several conversations among different characters explaining why the superpowered Eternals don’t get involved in anything other than protecting humans from Deviants, hence why they never intervened in wars or when Thanos eliminated half of humanity. And then there are even more bits that explain the nature of Deviants, Eternals and Celestials — don’t ask me about those last ones because even if I was told who they are on several occasions, it escaped my mind.

As with a lot of fantasy, I decided to lean into the suspension of disbelief and not overanalyze the logic — or lack of it — behind anything happening in this story. Also, this movie has a big ensemble cast made of characters with strange-sounding names. I had a hard time identifying all of them and learning what made each one of them special and different at first.

Gemma Chan (Crazy Rich Asians) stars as Eternal-turned-museum-scientist Sersi. Don’t be fooled by all those Eternals promotional materials prominently featuring Game of Thrones‘ Richard Madden as Eternal Ikaris. Sersi is the real center of this story; Ikaris is just her ex. They have around 5,000 years of history together, so it’s complicated. Game of Thrones‘ Kit Harington plays Dane Whitman, Sersi’s current beau. When a Deviant attacks Sersi and the Eternal Sprite (Lia McHugh) in London, the two of them reunite with Ikaris and decide to reassemble the rest of the gang. Salma Hayek is the Eternals boss, Ajak, and Angelina Jolie is the goddess of war, Thena (without the initial A). Then there’s Brian Tyree Henry as Phastos, Ma Dong-seok as Gilgamesh, Kumail Nanjiani as Kingo, Lauren Ridloff as Makkari and Barry Keoghan as Druig.

I appreciated how each actor playing an Eternal was able to use their own native accent. There were Irish-accented notes in Keoghan’s speech, Scottish ones in Madden’s and Mexican ones in Hayek’s. Ridloff, who is deaf, plays Marvel’s first deaf superhero and uses American Sign Language (ASL) throughout the movie.

Chloé Zhao Does Sexy and Inclusive MCU

Richard Madden and Gemma Chan in “Eternals.” Photo Courtesy: Marvel Studios

Zhao has the difficult task of putting together a story of massive proportions that needs to introduce the viewer to an ensemble cast of new characters and follow Marvel’s established formula — the whole movie is interspersed with action sequences that give way to a final CGI-filled battle of the regular epic proportions. There are also a fair amount of puns, mainly dispensed by Kingo (Nanjiani) and his loyal valet, Karun (Harish Patel). But Eternals isn’t funny the way Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) or Thor: Ragnarok (2017) are funny and most of the jokes didn’t land for me.

Where the idiosyncratic Zhao excels is in the little and not-so-little details. The movie not only boasts the inclusion of the first deaf superhero but also that of the first openly gay one. I’m not talking about one of those imperceptible moments Disney movies have a tendency to include for the sake of headlines and appearing to be of-the-times. Phastos is clearly married to another man, Ben (Haaz Sleiman). They have a kid together. Phastos sees the good in humanity in his son and husband. The married couple shares a kiss on screen that you’ll still be able to enjoy even if you blink. Plus, Phastos and Ben have great chemistry.

There’s also a lot of chemistry between Akaris and Sersi and the couple shares what would be the closest to a sex scene we’ve ever seen in a Marvel movie. The whole thing is mostly prudish and not much skin is on display, but still. Progress.

Although probably my favorite couple in the movie was the one that didn’t necessarily happen. Zhao, a filmmaker who tends to work with non-professional actors and encourages improvisation, took advantage in this occasion of the real sparks between actors Keoghan and Ridloff and implied on screen that something was going on between their characters Druig and Makkari. I don’t quite understand how — if they had known each other for literally thousands of years — they didn’t find the time to resolve the palpable sexual tension between them before. Still, I just wish there were more of them and fewer big action sequences. But more character development and less action tend to always be my main complaint with Marvel movies. 

MCU films can be difficult to follow because of how serialized they are and because of the need to have watched the 20+ previous titles to fully grasp everything. Knowing the comics also helps if you want to catch all the hidden references and easter eggs. But Eternals can be particularly challenging just because of the complexity of the story. That got me thinking about if this could have worked better as a Disney+ show, which would have allowed more time to introduce and develop all the characters the way they deserved. And yet again, I’m not so sure Zhao, Jolie, Hayek, or even Madden would have been interested in that.

Ingredients for Devoted Fans

Gemma Chan and Chloé Zhao on the set of “Eternals.” Photo Courtesy: Marvel Studios

I won’t be one of those critics who decide to spoil juicy details. I’ll tell you that you need to stick around until the end of the credits for this movie. Mid-credits there’s a scene with a cameo from a very recognizable name, who’s playing a character that comic book fans will recognize. Those who’ve only watched the MCU films will still be able to connect the dots.

Post-credits there’s another scene that will puzzle the uninitiated but will have bloggers and pop culture journalists writing for weeks. It gives a bit more info about the history of a character introduced in the movie and that we may hope to see more of in a future Eternals movie. I will spoil this: Eternals will return.

Even though I didn’t particularly like Eternals, the movie made me want to see how that Eternals return is going to be, especially now that the big exposition bit is done and we know most of the main players. I guess Marvel made the right choice when hiring Zhao after all, even if she doesn’t get to shine and make the movie completely her own. The studio tends to enlist auteur directors — from Kenneth Branagh for Thor (2011) to Taika Waititi for Thor: Ragnarok (2017), Cate Shortland for Black Widow (2021), Ryan Coogler for Black Panther (2018), and Destin Daniel Cretton for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021) — and not all of them manage to always get it right while putting their signature spin on things. From all the MCU movies released this year, Shang-Chi is the one that gets the best results. But I feel the scale there, at least in terms of characters, was smaller.

I didn’t have any deep breakthrough moments watching the movie the way I had with previous Zhao films, other than thinking immortality sucks. It’s hard to imprint a movie with a filmmaker’s brand when they need to follow so many of Marvel’s guidelines and keep the inevitable sequels in mind. But I’m still looking forward to more Sersi and company in Eternals 2.