It seems only fitting that, following a year-long drought, Marvel Studios would come back with more theatrical releases than ever--three, to be exact, all within a seven month window, all interspersed with the new streaming TV shows set within the MCU. There is more Marvel content in 2021 than there's ever been and the risk of running into superheroic burnout is higher than ever. Thankfully, with this latest big screen release Eternals, Disney and Marvel are showcasing a willingness to break their own mold more than ever and bringing some much needed changes to the traditional Marvel Studios formula.
Like Shang-Chi before it, Eternals tells the story of a brand new cast of characters, never before seen or even hinted at within the MCU. They're a band of ancient immortals who have existed on Earth for thousands of years on a mission to keep an onslaught of monsters called Deviants at bay. Unfortunately for them, they were able to eradicate the Deviants pretty early on in Earth's history so they've mostly just been hanging out in secret since then. The reason for this secrecy is a strict order given by their creator, a Celestial being named Arishem, who insists they must never interfere with any human conflicts unless the Deviants are involved.
It's all a little contrived, to be sure, but fans of Marvel comics and superhero history at large will appreciate the decadence of it. The Eternals, Deviants, Celestials, et all, were the brainchildren of the godfather of American superheroes, Jack Kirby, who's contributions to not only Marvel and DC but to the genres of sci-fi and fantasy as a whole are as massive as they are underappreciated. Though the MCU has made a conscious effort to skew more towards an overt Kirby inspiration in recent years (Thor: Ragnarok is a great example of this), the studio's house style of pseudo-realism and formulaic action has largely trumped the bombast and eccentricity Kirby's characters frequently brought to the table.
Eternals, however, meets this challenge head on, leaning in and leaning in hard to Kirby's trademark styles, both visually and narratively--which, if you're clued in to the intention here, is a ton of fun. If you're not, unfortunately, it can all feel a bit nonsequitur at best and confusing at worst. There are moments when the action of the story literally grinds to a halt to allow someone to deliver exposition directly to the audience, dropping scary, capitalized words like "The Emergence" and "The Prime Eternal" and "Mad-Weary." It's a lot of new information to take in all at once, on top of a cast of new characters, and it causes more than one pacing issue as things progress. If you're not already fully on board for the experience, the risk of breaking immersion is acute.
That said, if you are already fully on board, you're in for a treat.
The first thing you'll notice when you watch Eternals is that it absolutely doesn't look like a Marvel movie. Director Chloe Zhao was committed to using location shoots and practical sets, meaning the strangely uncanny reliance on VFX for everything from minor props to entire costumes and rooms, is almost completely avoided. Sure, there are a handful of scenes with the requisite CGI ragdolls being flung around, shooting energy blasts while fighting monsters, but at least the rest of the set is real. The end result is one of the most visually stunning MCU movies ever, and one that is sure to stand the test of time better than any of its predecessors.
These practically shot scenes are made all the more charming by an impeccable ensemble cast. Eternals had the monumental task of introducing not one or two, but ten new superheroes to the MCU and it met the challenge with grace and good humor. Each Eternal has a moment to shine--though you'll definitely leave wishing that some of them had even more. Standouts are unquestionably Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) who has some of the best punchlines in the movie, Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) Marvel's actual, for real this time, first queer superhero, and Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), Marvel's first deaf hero. But don't worry, everyone else--Don Lee, Angelina Jolie, Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Lia McHugh, Salma Hayek, and Barry Keoghan--all have their spotlight moments.
[Marvel's Eternals] is at its absolute strongest when it allows the cast the space to showcase their family dynamic
The movie is at its absolute strongest when it allows the cast the space to showcase their family dynamic, which reads as deeply authentic and believably flawed without exception. By the end, you'll have at least one new favorite hero to root for in the future of the MCU, even though the story coyly avoids answering any real questions about the state of the next big superhero team-up now that the original Avengers' ranks have been largely decimated.
Frustratingly, these charming character building scenes and practically shot moments often feel directly at odds with the more expected superhero conflicts. As far as villains are concerned, Eternals has one of the most forgettable in the entire MCU and the main conflict feels strangely convoluted at times thanks to his inclusion--it probably wouldn't be too outlandish to assume that the entire villain subplot is the vestigial remnant of some earlier script draft that was forcibly made to stay by some studio executive. It really is that unnecessary.
Still, at the end of the day, the strong points of Eternals are able to outweigh the missteps. There is plenty of forward momentum to be found here and Marvel's willingness to deviate from its own formulas is a hopeful trend that Phase 4 continues to double down on. With any luck, these characters will continue to grow and evolve as they return in future movies and the techniques Zhao was able to include as a director won't be one-offs.