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Film review: Marvel’s ‘Eternals’ features stellar cast but disengages viewers with dense plot

Marvel’s “Eternals” brings together a new group of superheroes, featuring plenty of familiar Hollywood faces. (Courtesy of Marvel Studios)

"Eternals"

Directed by Chloé Zhao

Marvel Studios

Nov. 5

By Saba Sharfuddin

Nov. 6, 2021 3:46 p.m.

A group of new superheroes is here and planning to stay for a while, possibly for eternity.

On Friday, Academy Award-winning director Chloé Zhao released her latest embarkment, “Eternals.” As part of phase four in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the film features a celebrity-studded cast including Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Kumail Nanjiani and Angelina Jolie. While the main plot remains similar to most Marvel films – superheroes saving the world from aliens and mass destruction – Zhao’s directional touch is what makes the newest release distinct from others.

Following the events of “Avengers: Endgame,” the film introduces ten Eternals – gods with superpowers from the planet Olympia – who are sent on a mission to Earth by the leader of the Celestials, Arishem the Judge, to fight the evil Deviants. As the group protects humans over the course of centuries, they begin to fall in love with the idea of humanity. In the present day, lead superhero Sersi (Gemma Chan) reunites the Eternals after 500 years of separation to stop the Deviants that have returned, in addition to bigger conflicts arising.

[Related: Film review: Metatextuality meets memory in sequel film ‘Souvenir: Part II’]

With a potential sequel in the future, Zhao was tasked with creating the long and complicated exposition of the new and lesser-known superheroes. The film does its best to keep its setup exciting through a series of flashbacks, jumping through a timeline of history. Yet, the drag creates an incoherent and confusing plot in addition to its various unnecessary subplots.

But there are moments that pick up the dullness of the plot in a way only Zhao could. Her eye for shots of natural scenery creates wide visuals the audience can immerse themselves in, such as the imagery of the colorful Babylon surrounded by nature. She uses a broad range of bright colors throughout the film as well, many of which assist in developing the characters, such as Sersi’s green outfits reflecting her compassionate and soothing character.

In addition, the packed cast is filled with new representation for the MCU, including deaf, super speed hero Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) and Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), a gay Eternal who has the ability to create intelligent weapons. But this time, the inclusivity doesn’t feel forced.

Instead, the diversity is subtly powerful in that it uplifts the characterization of each hero, showing the vulnerability of humans that the Eternals love. For instance, even though she does not say a single word, Ridloff’s character is one of the most appealing of the Eternals as she allows her difference in the cast to build her powerful character rather than have it be her weakness.

But despite delivering powerful individual performances and being some of Hollywood’s leading actors, the cast falls short in its attempt to connect to each other and the audience in the way most other MCU films do. In addition to an already busy story, designing a cast with so many well-known actors leaves viewers without knowing the story’s characters at all by the end as each one gets broken screen time and no room for character development. This disconnection keeps the movie from falling into place with other successful MCU movies, especially as Marvel fans relish relatable characters that can comfortably carry banter with each other.

[Related: Film review: Wes Anderson’s ‘French Dispatch’ provides whimsical view of newsroom]

The film picks up its pace toward the end with a surprising twist as the heroes learn their true purpose of being sent to Earth was to actually prepare it for an Emergence, an event where energy from populated planets can give birth to a new Celestial – destroying Earth in the process. After some team conflict, the Eternals set their differences aside to fight the Deviants and save their loved ones.

While the action is fast-paced and the graphics are appealing with new weapons and powers, the fight scenes feel empty compared to other Marvel films, and in the few that there are, Chan’s character lacks intensity. In addition, she has no time to develop the backstory of her empathy and gentleness that makes her such an uncommon superhero. As a result, her many scenes of awkward standing and constant hesitancy characterize Sersi as weak, rather than the quiet, compassionate superhero Zhao was looking to create.

Zhao’s storytelling is powerful in that it evokes a completely new message from other Marvel movies – appreciating simple human life. Through intimate scenes of moments on Earth and the vulnerability of superheroes wanting to live normal lives, Zhao chooses to focus on the differences of her characters and the themes of love and humanity. While not necessarily a bad thing, this new way to tell a superhero story feels out of the ordinary at first for Marvel fans who are used to the wit and fast-paced action. Yet, as the movie shows, the world is vast, but it’s the small parts in life that end up being the most precious.

So maybe slowing down is exactly what the MCU needs.

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Saba Sharfuddin
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