Eternals, the latest entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is a religious tale. It begins with "In the beginning" on-screen and goes on from there to offer an explanation for all life in the universe. In doing so, it focuses on literal gods and seems to create its own religious text. After dealing with superheroes who are often treated as messiahs, a team of literal gods with immense power seems like the logical place to go. This $200-million, two-and-a-half-hour epic directed by recent Oscar winner Chloé Zhao (Nomadland) has cosmic ambitions, but does it pull them off?
Eternals comes from the mind of Jack Kirby, a noted artist who was known for his anything-goes ideas. At the core, the idea is that Greek mythology legends were ageless superheroes who are here to protect the planet. The religious subtext is apparent everywhere as one character can literally turn water into wine. Interesting ideas abound in Eternals but Disney keeps them mostly unexplored here.
The film first focuses on Sersi (Gemma Chan), whose power allows her to change inanimate matter into anything. She has fallen for a human and grown to love the human race. She has also been in a relationship with Ikaris (Richard Madden), another Eternal whose powers resemble Superman's.
Many other Eternals get introduced. There is Kingo (a very buff Kumail Nanjiani) who can shoot energy out of his hands and who has spent his time on Earth as a series of related Bollywood stars. There is the permanent child Spirte (Lia McHugh), the angsty mind-controller Druig (Barry Keoghan), the super-engineer and inventor Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), the Hulk-like Gilgamesh (Don Lee), the deaf and super-runner Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), the fighting goddess Thena (Anjelina Jolie) and the team lead Ajak (Salma Hayek). That is a lot of characters to juggle, even for the bloated runtime.
Eternals jumps around in time frequently to fill in the backstory of all of these characters. It covers 7000s years or so which brings up a fair amount of questions about why we are only now getting to know these gods exist. Where were they when Thanos came? The film does awkwardly answer this. The Eternals have been told to not interfere with the matters on Earth. The space gods known as Celestials have charged the Eternals with destroying the Deviants, CGI beasts who rampage and kill other species.
Chloé Zhao has made some great films and has a knack for beautiful shots of characters pondering life. When applied to gods, the effect is more pompous. Her signature vistas are here and she does bring sensuality to the MCU that has been missing. There is even a sex scene here. The overall tone is also more somber. All of this seems like the right approach for the story being told. However, Eternals is the slog to get through.
The balance between Zhao's style and the mechanics of a Marvel film never truly mesh. It has her style but not her storytelling. Zhao isn't an action director and it shows in the required CGI battles. Nomadland had a fluid logic to it, like a Terrence Malick film. Eternals feels more like Kevin Feige watched a Malick film and wanted a directly to add the visual language of his films to the MCU. Zhao's skillful storytelling gets lost in the mechanics of a brand.
The other issue is the characters. These gods are not fleshed out very well. This may be due to the fact that there are so many of them. I doubt that we will see spinoffs from the film as a result. The plot moves slowly as the Eternals rejoin after the death in the family. The moody dialogue exchanges in one scene are often preceded by a loud, messy action scene or followed by a poor attempt at humor. The usual wit found in Marvel films is largely absent here.