Eternals brings human element to the epic immortals of the Marvel multiverse

·Contributor
·5-min read

Director: Chloe Zhao
Cast: Salma Hayek, Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Angelina Jolie, Brian Tyree Henry, Kumail Nanjiani, Barry Keoghan, Lia McHugh, Lauren Ridloff, Ma Dong-seok

In theatres from 4 November 2021 (Singapore, Malaysia) and 3 November (Philippines)

3.5 out of 5 stars

Many things happen in Eternals. Rob Stark and Jon Snow have a brotherly reunion over fluttering rose petals. Angeline Jolie realises her deepest fantasy of playing footsie with a tentacle alien. Astrid Leong gets to finally be loved for who she is and not for her wealth, with the affair lasting thousands of years. Talk about relationship goals, eh? 

If you understood all these references, then you're officially a TV and movie nerd. Congratulations.

Having been thoroughly moved by Academy Award-winning Chloe Zhao's Nomadland, my interest was definitely piqued to see how she would metamorphose her unique style into a Marvel movie. The result is definitely impressive — scintillatingly vivid sunsets and sweeping, panoramic landscape views are served up abundantly.

As the first woman of colour to direct a Marvel film whose rabid fans span the globe in immense numbers, Chloe Zhao has done it tremendous justice; by bringing diversity and a very human element to one of the greatest beings in the Marvel multiverse.

It bears all the traditional hallmarks of a Marvel movie — the enormous budget (US$200 million) to create the glossy polish and the sleek CGI effects, the tongue-in-cheek comic relief by Kumail Nanjiani as Kingo the Eternal and his sidekick Karun, and the epic marriage of storytelling and world building.

The Eternals. (Photo: Marvel Studios)
The Eternals. (Photo: Marvel Studios)

At times, it felt like a live-action historical documentary as director Zhao takes us on a trip down Earth's memory lane, from early Mesopotamia to ancient Babylon, complete with impressively detailed CGI enactments of cities and wars.

The Eternals are ten godlike beings who've been on earth for, well, an eternity — seven thousand years to be exact. They have watched, guided and nurtured hundreds of generations of humans from cradle to nuclear capability, and were sent down by Arishem, the omnipotent leader of the Celestials, beings which have existed since the beginning of time.

Much like a big, albeit immortal family, the Eternals have very human conflicts and arguments. There's love, regret, sacrifice, devotion and self-doubt, which all effectively and cohesively move the plot forward.

Humanity and diversity of the cast are the jewels in director Zhao's crown. It's almost as if she's re-created the Avengers in her own image (technically, the Eternals are the original Avengers, so to speak), and to her credit it has worked remarkably well. We can count amongst the Eternals a Chinese (Gemma Chan), a South Asian (Kumail Nanjiani), a Lebanese-Spanish Latino (Salma Hayek), a gay Black man (Brian Henry Tyree), a Korean-American (Ma Dong-seok) and a deaf Black-Latino (Lauren Ridloff).

Unfortunately, diversity is among other reasons why Eternals is caught in a swirling vortex of controversy. There is a very frank if not brief sex scene and another where a gay couple openly kisses, which has amped up its movie rating to M18 in Singapore.

Much has also been said that the movie is too big for its britches, that there is far too much going on to wrap your head around the massive mythological lore to explain, which then predictably heads into a very typical 'race to save the world' superhero plot device.

Sersi (Gemma Chan) and Ikaris (Richard Madden) in Eternals. (Photo: Marvel Studios)
Sersi (Gemma Chan) and Ikaris (Richard Madden) in Eternals. (Photo: Marvel Studios)

It is the humanness of it all that Chloe Zhao really brings to bear to counteract the almost mechanical execution of Marvel movies that conspicuously lacks tension and real consequence, as saliently elucidated by Martin Scorsese in his piercing critique of why Marvel movies are the 'fast food' of the movie industry; perfectly manufactured products which are made for immediate consumption.

Yet, the epic scope of the movie and the relatively large size of the cast did work to its disadvantage at times. Many important issues pertaining to the characters felt like a touch and go, and were treated with an almost superficial haste to keep the overall movie run time to two and a half hours.

Ikaris's (Richard Madden) relationship with Sersi (Gemma Chan) felt rather rushed and contrived, and they didn't appear to show very much chemistry in spite of the five thousand years that they were together. Many of the minor Eternals weren't treated to much development, and one of the final scenes conveniently excluded one Eternal, who conveniently came back afterwards without any explanation.

Angeline Jolie's role seemed rather minor and unfortunate despite her star power. Her role was so superfluous in Eternals that The Guardian questioned what an AAA-lister actress like her was doing in a Marvel movie, when she really didn't need such optics at all. Jolie could have asserted her presence as an actress of her standing to add gravitas to her younger co-stars, rather than spend most of her air-time in a hazy, childlike personality disorder.

It was a bittersweet feeling that rushed over me after the lights came on in the theatre. Usually, there would be a rush of adrenaline as the enraptured audience would talk animatedly about the cool scenes that happened in a usual Marvel movie.

Though the muted hush was rather uncharacteristic for such a movie, for me it was one of quiet reverence and respect for Chloe Zhao's work that would hopefully be crystallised in Marvel movies for years to come.

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