'Eternals' Is a Bold Leap as the MCU Grows Stale

'Nomadland' director Chloé Zhao brings something weirder than we're used to from the tired franchise.

eternals, richard madden, gemma chan
Walt Disney Pictures
Walt Disney Pictures

At this point, audiences are used to having all the background information they need when they sit down for a Marvel movie. The cinematic universe has been steadily building since 2008, each installment expanding on the one before it. Sure, some exposition occasionally describes whatever Macguffin is being used to drive plot this time, but for the most part, there's not much by way of surprise.

That's why it's jolting that Eternals—the latest film in the MCU directed by this year's Best Director winner Chloé Zhao—opens with a lengthy crawl. "In the beginning," it starts. "Before the six singularities and the dawn of creation." It's a dense text introducing what is essentially an entirely new origin myth for the universe. It's also why Eternals is refreshing even as Marvel fatigue is growing more and more inescapable.

While not without messiness and over-plotting that bogs down and overcomplicates the narrative, Eternals succeeds as a vast and unrepentantly serious bit of world building with a moral quandary at its center. There were questions as to how Zhao, known for her work with non-professional actors chronicling people at the margins in the American West for the Oscar-winning Nomadland, would make the transition to blockbusters, specifically working under the meticulous hand of Marvel's head honcho, Kevin Feige.

Marvel has gotten the reputation for hiring fantastic filmmakers and flattening their styles, and while Eternals certainly doesn't play like anything else Zhao has done, it also doesn't mute her vision. Amid all the magic and skin-tight costumes, Zhao has made a movie that's both humane and earthy, but also wonderfully weird, one where the internal debates between superhumans are more interesting than the punches they throw.

eternals, kumail nanjiani, gemma chan, lia mchugh
Walt Disney Pictures

As that aforementioned opening explains, the Eternals are a group of beings deployed to planets by gods called Celestials to fight beast-like creatures known as the Deviants. The heroes at the center of this story have been sent by Arishem to Earth where they are led by Salma Hayek's Ajak. They are supposed to help human society advance, but not interfere too greatly and stay away when there are any conflicts not involving the Deviants. (And there's your explanation as to why they didn't aid in the fight against Thanos that took up two Avengers movies.)

When the present-day action starts, the members of the team are scattered over the planet. They have been living in hiding for centuries after eliminating what they assumed were the last of their foes, although, of course they are not the last. A Deviant appears in London where Sersi (Gemma Chan) is working as a schoolteacher, dating a nice man played by Kit Harington, and living with Sprite (Lia McHugh), the team's perpetual tween. Richard Madden's Ikaris, Sersi's ex and a Superman-type who can blast villains with his eyes, arrives to help, and they conclude that the gang needs to be reunited to fight back the impending threat. As Sersi and Ikaris traverse the globe searching for their comrades, Zhao jumps back and forth in time showing how the Eternals existed in civilizations like Babylon and Tenochtitlan, as well as how they came to unravel.

Each Eternal is defined less by his or her powers—which range from mind control to running really fast—than the actors that play them. Kumail Nanjiani makes Kingo a vain Bollywood star; Barry Keoghan brings his skittish energy to the wily Druig, who has a bond with Lauren Ridoff's Makkari, the first deaf superhero in the MCU. Brian Tyree Henry is a sensitive inventor as Phastos, while Ma Dong-seok and Angelina Jolie make a sweet odd couple as the warriors Gilgamesh and Thena, the latter of whom is constantly repressing trauma. In fact, it's Chan and Madden, the two most central of the ancient fighters, who give the blandest performances, yet Zhao makes up for that by imbuing their relationship with a sensuality that's often missing from the MCU—lo and behold, there is a very tame sex scene along with some semi-heavy kissing.

While seeing two god-like figures naked on a beach together—with no visible nudity—might seem minor, it's actually a key decision that informs the rest of Zhao's take. These characters might be thousands of years old, but there's a tangibility to these relationships that informs how the protagonists move on screen. At the same time, while the other more galactic Marvel entries have gone for goofy humor to ground the otherworldly elements, Zhao keeps Eternals serious for the most part, allowing intentional aloofness that is only fitting for the subject matter.

When the screenplay—by Zhao, Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo, and Kaz Firpo—does try to wink at the rest of the MCU with jokey asides, the dialogue is jarringly out of place. Those are some of the few awkward moments that weigh Eternals down along with plot holes and some distinctly unremarkable CGI. Eternals, of course, is part of a bigger plan, as evidenced by the much-discussed post-credits scenes that were not shown during the New York screening I attended, but immediately spoiled by some in Los Angeles. It's a movie that's best when it's floating in a more primordial space, disconnected from what came before.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.