By: Amanda Guarragi
Chloé Zhao’s Eternals dives into the story of celestial beings that have been defending Earth for centuries. The reason why Zhao was the perfect choice to bring these characters to life is because of her humanistic lens in grounding her characters. She takes these literal gods and cements them in the humanity around them. Whether it is through the script, or the stunning visuals, Zhao makes sure to make their connection to human life the most important aspect for these characters. That being said, Eternals is not perfect. The main issue the film suffers from is the pacing and the overall structure in executing the story. Despite of this (or perhaps because of this), it is one of the most ambitious Marvel films and it feels like it should be on its own level, away from the rest of the cinematic universe.
Without getting into too many details, the fact that the story spans centuries held Eternals back. The disjointed narrative constantly takes the audience out of the present day storyline and it tends to be a lot to digest. It felt like a very beautiful history lesson with no concrete story to tell. It is a by-the-books superhero film masked by its theoretical analysis of gods living among humans. For instance, some of the celestials struggle with the restriction of not being able to interfere with human conflicts and wars, especially Druig (Barry Keoghan), who has mind-control powers and can stop the conflict within seconds. To emphasize these struggles Zhao goes through centuries of human conflicts and shows how each member of the Eternals has had their fair share of doubts about what role they’d play on each. These plot points tend to show their leader, Ajak (Salma Hayek), keeping this celestial family together and in check, but that plotline is told through the perspective of how this struggle affects each of the characters.
There are three characters that really stood out to me, who carried the emotional weight of the film through their story arc; Thena (Angelina Jolie), Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), and the abovementioned Druig, all of which had the most interesting journeys. If it weren’t for Jolie’s acting chops as Thena, this could have been a different film entirely. For me, even though Thena was cast aside majority of the time, she really stole the spotlight from everyone else. Her arc was emotional because of how her memories affected her present mental state as the goddess of war. I also appreciated how everything about Thena’s fighting style was graceful and effortless. She truly shined out of the entire cast and I connected with her the most.
After 26 films, the MCU finally has some clear LGBTQ+ representation with Phastos and his family. Brian Tyree Henry brought so much of his natural charisma to Phastos but also presented his connection to humanity through his vulnerability. Phastos is a tech whiz who planted seeds for many mechanical inventions humans would eventually create. Not only did Phastos struggle with the man-made weaponry, but he is also mentally affected by how his technological advancements led to human conflicts and war. How can a god sit idly by and watch the destruction of humanity if it was caused by his own technology? The complexity of Phastos is unmatched in Eternals.
While the characters in Eternals all had their time to shine, some were underwhelming and underused. Ajak is an important character and Hayek portrayed a stern, gentle leader with maternal energy quite well. As much as I adore Gemma Chan, her Sersi did not work for me, and she lacked chemistry with Richard Madden’s Ikaris. If their love for each other is supposed to transcend centuries, and be the central issue in the third act, there needed to be more. There were two other couples in this movie that had more chemistry than they did and that shouldn’t have happened. Thena and Gilgamesh (Don Lee) made me feel their genuine love and respect for each other more so than two lovers who are supposedly selling the love story that holds this film together.
Is Chloé Zhao’s Eternals more mature and different than other MCU films? Yes, it is. Does it suffer from overly explaining the mythos of the celestial beings and disjointed narrative trying to piece centuries together? Yes, it does. I did not walk out of this movie in awe of what Zhao did with these characters because the story wasn’t as engaging as it should have been. Sure, it was emotional and refreshing but I left feeling underwhelmed. It felt like they were going through the motions of a comic book film, while elevating it through the technical aspects, to mask the fact that the story is choppy. Zhao’s style was made for characters like these, and it worked on a more emotional, intimate scale, but handling the scope of this story and how it is supposed to be integrated in the MCU did not work.