‘The Eternals’ Review: An Artistic Meditation on Ethics Wrapped in a Marvel Movie

It must be said from the start that director Chloe Zhao is one of the most intelligent directors working in Hollywood today. She managed to trick legions of Marvel fans into sitting through a full length meditation on the nature of humanity and the very existence of nature itself disguised as a superhero movie. The Eternals is unlike any other previous entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and it represents a departure from the superhero genre. 

From the film’s beginning, the mythical imagery was intensely gorgeous. Zhao leaned into the portrayal of gods and aliens as overwhelmingly human-like, with their desires, squabbles, and internal conflicts. Reimagining legends such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, Athena Goddess of War, and Tale of Icarus, and making them canonically part of the MCU was a massive choice that could have only been handled with a director and storyteller of Zhao’s talent. 

Together, this team of heroes embodies the found family that Marvel is so fond of revisiting time and time again. The promotional materials for this movie seemed to be centered around the timeless love story between Ikaris (Richard Madden) and Sersi (Gemma Chan). However, the other relationships among the remainder of the group, including Ajak (Salma Hayek), Sprite (Lia McHugh), Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), Druig (Barry Keoghan), Gligamesh (Ma Dong-seok), and Thena (Angelina Jolie) were often just as if not even more compelling.

(L-R): Ikaris (Richard Madden) and Sersi (Gemma Chan) in Marvel Studios’ ETERNALS. Photo Credit: Marvel Studios

Kumail Nanjiani absolutely shone as Kingo, and Zhao wisely used his comedic talents to their full abilities. We absolutely need to see a full version of Kingo’s Bollywood extensive repertoire spanning hundreds of years. No doubt Bollywood’s The Legend of Ikarus and The Shadow Warrior Trilogy would have Bollywood fans lined up around theatres everywhere. A Bollywood Marvel movie would fit incredibly well into Marvel’s canon, and as Marvel continues to expand to different genres, maybe this is the next genre they need to explore.

My history nerd heart was soaring with the references to ancient civilizations and empires, including Mesopotamia, Babylon, and the Gupta and Aztec Empires. Hearing ancient languages spoken through the movie was a testament to how thoroughly researched this story was. The religious and philosophical imagery was also portrayed in the most artistic way. Ajak’s pierced hand, a meditation on the concept of “grand design” and free will, and Sersi’s questioning of how to connect to a supreme being were surprising inclusions in a film in a franchise that prizes redemption arcs and uncomplicated morality in its characters. 

Unfortunately, even before the film began, the premise was based on questionable ethics. This group of immortal beings sent to protect humans from “deviants”, otherworldly aliens bent on causing destruction, were instructed from the beginning of their existence never to interfere in human affairs. The rationale for this is explained by saying if humans had had the protection and interference of the Eternals over 7000 years, humanity would not have had a chance to develop. This creates a massive problem for the MCU by implying that their characters had the opportunity to stop such horrific human events such as the Holocaust, slavery, and many, many others. 

Druig (Barry Keoghan) in ‘The Eternals’. Photo Credit: Marvel Studios.

Odd choices were made with the character of Druig, a being with the ability to control minds. The character directly addressed the ethical problem of confronting colonizers to the Americas by compelling them to lay down their weapons. After this, however, he seemed to live and fancy himself as a god among this community untouched by violent colonization in the present day.  It was at the very least troubling that he expected to be treated this way as payment for 20 generations of protection. 

Arguably the weakest moments in this movie were the explicitly Marvel story beats. From shoehorned references to the Avengers, to the Marvel third-act fight scenes of faceless CGI monsters, it was sad to see these moments curtail a great filmmaker like Zhao. It is a great challenge when creating these movies to both keep the larger vision in mind of the entire cinematic universe while telling a self-contained story. 

It’s also strange that Marvel seems to continue storylines involving The Eternals essentially featuring an Avengers: Endgame 2.0 storyline. Rather than half of the universe being at stake this time, however, this time it was the fate of every being on planet Earth. It’s hard to keep a story grounded when the stakes are so ridiculously and unbelievably high. It takes viewers out of the story all together.

Gemma Chan, ‘The Eternals’. Photo Credit: Marvel Studios.

What ultimately held The Eternals together, however, were the incredible characters Zhao brought to life. The door was left wide open to revisit them in future installations, and have them be a critical part of the Multiverse saga. It’s also incredible that we live in a world where Kit Harrington is brought into a Marvel movie to play a fairly minor role, with a setup to possibly do some interesting things with the character down the line. 

The Eternals was absolutely a different kind of superhero movie, and the boundaries of the genre have now been pushed further than ever before. A movie like this may not be for everyone, and it may even be many years too early to be fully appreciated. However, fans should go into this with an open mind, and prepare themselves to change their definition of what a movie based on comic books can look like.

The Eternals is in theatres now.

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