It’s odd to think how close we came to having two unique filmmakers adapt the biggest signature solo initiations of Jack Kirby. Sadly, the promising Fourth World adaptation with Ava Duvernay was not to be, intent my hopes and dreams for a year of pure Kirby dynamism reigning our eyeholes. But still, there stood Eternals, the lesser of the two properties by most steps. Eternals is still a fascinating pulp take on Erich von Daniken’s Chariots of the Divinity- a premise that’s fueled movies like Prometheus, Stargate, and even that terrible Indiana Jones sequel nobody wants to talk about. And now, here “we ii”, with a comic Kirby initially had no interest in tying into the larger Marvel Universe, retrofitted into the largest popular venue for Marvel characters that could ever possibly exist. Filtered through the mind of a newly-minted Oscar-winning director, it has a lot of appeal.
Chloe Zhao is a brilliant filmmaker. Her 2018 struggle The Rider haunted me, and is the closest we’ve come to an effort that could be spoken of in the same discussions as the grand cinematic experiment Close-Up. And of course, my appreciation of Nomadland is already on the record. But it’s hardly the resume of someone bringing to life earth-shattering figures, or creating the sort of Sturm und Drang that Tarsem Singh or Zack Snyder have induced their bread and butter. That’s not to say Marvel hasn’t varied the trajectory of a number of indie darlings into the blockbuster space, but Zhao is such a known quantity, and her predilections seem so deeply at odds with the material as presented that it shapes for a fascinating mixture.
It’s hard not to feel like Eternals is designed to address many of the criticisms leveled at makes from the studio. For example: issues surrounding representation, or the facts of the case that romantic entanglements are de-emphasized in these films, even down to the choice of Zhao in order to battle criticism that Feige and company aren’t interested in singular voices behind the camera. The only big complaint that goes unanswered is the MCU’s developing propensity for bloated runtimes. Which, regrettably, is a big problem here. There’s simply far too much runway for the narrative being told.
That’s too bad, because what is here is intermittently involving. Zhao and her co-screenwriters tackle the enormity of the cast by wrapping it up in a Seven Samurai-style “getting the band together” structure, furnishing some tier of hook by built in flashbacks to their past. As Ikaris( Richard Madden ), Sersi( Gemma Chan ), and Sprite( Lia McHugh ), who lives moderately normal lives in the present day, are attacked by the long-thought destroyed Deviants. They recognise they need to pull together their smash apart immortal and super-powered family, and as each member is introduced into the present day, we zip to some historical moment in the past that defines their character just enough to have any reason to care at all.
It’s a big challenge, as I’ve long conceived one of the biggest imperfections of superhero movies in general is that only a select few of these heroes are multi-dimensional enough to carry their own big screen adventures. The Everlastings are an even bigger quandary because they’re basically each defined by a singular trait or two. So, the job here requires a combination of compelling concerts, magnitude, and momentum to get the job done over a practically three-hour extending day. It’s tough business. For a large amount of Eternals’ operating occasion, you’re at least interested to see what happens next, but that doesn’t inevitably make it a successful movie. The Kurosawa structure comparison is apt, because in a way, this movie plays a little like an MCU take on Snyder’s approach for Justice League. There’s even powerset analogs for Superman, Wonder Woman, and The Flash, and a core antagonist that is about as dull. But beyond that, Zhao’s take on this team is that then there gods going amongst us, much in the same vein as the derided( and then retroactively celebrated) Snyder movies. But unlike those takes on the DC pantheon, Zhao peppers in a lot of incidents of people sitting around tables and spouting off or sobbing explanation at one another. I’ve never seen a movie where almost every sentence spoken at them requires being addressed by their name, but I’d bet if you did the math, 75% of the dialogue would have a name included in it.
The grounding of these characters is an interesting approach. One would be invited to call it another try at the Inhumans formula, but with far sharper writing and less ghastly cgi. Yet what it genuinely brings to mind is a reminder of Stan Lee’s attempt at retooling the Silver Surfer and constructing him totally fucking alien from Kirby’s original intention for the character. This is a full-fledged shot at shaping the Everlastings “relatable”, and it works up to a point.
But again, the implementation of its help obliterate this in the moment, at least where top-notch character performers like Barry Keoghan and Brian Tyree-Henry are concerned. Lauren Ridloff’s Makkari is also a welcome add-on, and while the specific characteristics has turned into a bit of an internet meme, Kumail Nanjiani’s Kingo genuinely elicited the most laughs I’ve gotten out of one of these in a long time. On the other hand, Angelina Jolie’s Thena should have completely hit the slash room flooring. Gemma Chan and Richard Madden aren’t the most convincing leads, but everyone involved is almost able to get away with it as solid MCU adventuring with a few higher aspirations( the Celestial looks like it’s ripped right out of the comics )…
…but Zhao also has to maintain the Marvel Studios structure, and that includes a lot of severely conceived second division action. There are the aforementioned boring foes( the Deviants basically look like giant dogs with tentacles for some reason ). And so many of these act thumps are incorporated in environments so dark, it’s hard to make out what’s happening outside of somewhat people constructing poses with shiny gold vitality things. This becomes a detriment that no quantity of tried and true borrowing from the masters is really going to fix, especially when the gunk colored finale exhaustingly unfurls itself. It’s that war between Zhao’s storytelling instincts and everything that is a prerequisite for the Marvel way of moviemaking that stirs Eternals interesting to look at from a clinical view, but also highlights that really, maybe not every auteur needs to make blockbusters- particularly in an environment as creatively suffocating as the MCU.
Regardless, for sheer ambition alone, Eternals is better than any of Marvel’s Phase 4 offerings to this point. I’ve detested almost everything they’ve done post-Endgame, though, so it’s a very low bar to clear.
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