Eternals review: Chloé Zhao’s superhero epic struggles to find its center

Still riding the high of Avengers: Endgame and the breakout success of their many Disney+ shows, Marvel is slowly but surely stacking its ranks to create the next era of superheroes that will inevitably replace the Avengers, and Chloé Zhao’s Eternals is the latest entry in the studio’s roster-building exercise.

While it’s refreshing to see a director maintain their identity as a filmmaker and take risks to break away from the typical Marvel formula, Eternals struggles under the weight of its own lore and the sheer volume of characters present – resulting in a muddy, tepid film that feels like a valiant but ultimately disjointed attempt at striking bold new ground in the MCU.

Starring Gemma Chan and Richard Madden, Eternals follows the centuries-spanning journey of the titular Eternals: a group of 10 supernaturally powerful beings created and sent to earth by the Celestials to protect humanity from the equally as powerful Deviants, a race of power-consuming monsters. After living in secret and watching humanity from the shadows for thousands of years, the Eternals are forced to reunite and emerge once again when the deviants grow eerily powerful, threatening humanity’s very existence.

In many ways, Eternals seems like a film doomed from its very conception: to introduce a whopping 10 new heroes (and a few sidekicks, to boot) in one film while also advancing the MCU’s larger overarching narrative and still remaining a cohesive, entertaining watch on its own is a tall order for any filmmaker – it’s difficult to imagine the script truly working in any capacity, regardless of director. The scale and the scope are simply too massive, and at several points in the film. Eternals threatens to buckle under the sheer amount of exposition, which in turn makes for a dizzying, dense viewing experience: Eternals certainly isn’t a film to be viewed casually.

That being said, to Zhao’s credit, she managed to craft (from the chaos and enormity that is the film’s premise and script) as coherent of a film as can be expected which, though not entirely successful, is a feat that should be acknowledged. Not only does she find a way to anchor such a sprawling concept and find a somewhat cohesive throughline, but she also does so while maintaining her own very clear identity as a filmmaker, certainly a rarity when it comes to MCU directors.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe comes under frequent fire for its films subscribing to the same systematic formula that churns out hit after hit – and Eternals feels very much like a deliberate buck against this idea, both on the part of Zhao and studio president Kevin Feige. That Zhao is able to retain her directorial style and visual flare is commendable, and the stylistic and narrative risks she takes with Eternals certainly break the mold, but the issue is that simply breaking from tradition isn’t enough – the film must also be good in its own right.

Unfortunately for Eternals, this just isn’t the case – it’s a swing and a miss, though we dread to think that Eternals‘ ultimate failure may be pinned on this willingness to break from tradition, in turn preventing future MCU films from taking risks – but this isn’t the case, the real culprit here is the script. From the opening crawl of jargon-heavy exposition, Eternals feels as if it’s introducing a new name or concept that the audience is expected to remember every 15 minutes, regardless of the fact that we’re still struggling to keep the baker’s dozen of main characters’ names straight.

When it comes to the characters themselves, they all show glimmers of personality and promise that makes us wonder how they would’ve fared had Marvel taken the time to give them each their own solo films a-la Avengers, but as it stands, they all feel relatively ambivalent: Not flat out bad, sure, but even the charisma of Kumail Nanjiani or Brian Tree Henry feels muted and unremarkable when each character only gets fleeting moments to develop a sense of identity before the film is zipping away to work on someone else’s backstory.

Eternals boasts a diverse cast that’s riddled with talent, and though the majority of the ensemble is wasted due to the sheer volume of content to work through over the film’s runtime, a few figures do manage to stand out: the ever-statuesque Angelina Jolie as battle-hardened goddess Thena is a particular bright spot, alongside her steadfast protector Gilgamesh (Don Lee). The other dynamic duo worth remembering is the effortlessly endearing Lauren Ridloff as speedster Makkari, and her on-again-off-again paramour, the rough-around-the-edges Druig, played by Barry Keoghan, Hollywood’s go-to guy for shifty figures.

The rest of the cast, though certainly serviceable, struggles to remain memorable among the cacophony of other voices, and the uninspired monochromatic costumes don’t help anyone to develop a personality or sense of self beyond their individual abilities/powers. The CGI is some of the franchise’s shoddiest, and the third act is truly an arbitrary final battle if we’ve ever seen one, which feels particularly jarring when contrasted against the rest of the film’s willingness to break from the franchise formula.

Though it’s unfortunate to have to criticize a film that stands as one of the MCU’s few attempts at originality and genuine auteurism, lest it discourages the studio from taking similar risks in the future, Eternals is a frustratingly dense and heinously overcomplicated film that loses Zhao’s delicate filmmaking sensibilities in its rush to introduce swathes of new Marvel heroes. Though Jolie, Lee, and Ridloff stand as bright spots and the cinematography IS second to none in as far as the MCU goes, Eternals is too overcomplicated to be enjoyable, and too muddled to feel truly daring.

Eternals is now in theaters. Let us know if you’re planning to see it this weekend!