Chloé Zhao’s 2020 film Nomadland begins with sparse lines of text that set up an entire world of loss. A sheetrock plant in the real-life town of Empire, Nevada, shuts down in January 2011. In six months’ time, Empire’s ZIP code is discontinued. It’s a ghost town. A stable-seeming environment is revealed to be constantly in flux, sometimes with frightening and destabilizing speed.
Eternals, Zhao’s follow-up to her acclaimed Academy Award-winning film, also begins with explanatory text. This time however, it’s more lore than story, about beings from another planet brought to ours for a purpose the audience won’t fully grasp until the end of the film. It is withholding and not inviting, as if, from the very start, there are two forces at war for the kind of film Eternals should be.
The latest film from Marvel Studios is equal parts puzzle piece and experiment. Eternals expands the frontiers of the MCU providing hints about what its future may hold while also being a project of formal ambition. Zhao deliberately breaks from the well-established Marvel formula to tell a more sweeping and mature story — the sort of story the filmmaker is known for. The script takes the sort of seismic shifts that can happen around us in six brief months and blows them up on a geologic scale across thousands of years, through the eyes of the most consciously diverse cast in a superhero blockbuster. Eternals, however, is ultimately haunted by that formula, continually yielding to the familiar whenever it tries to show us something new.
Eternals is also saddled with one of the densest premises in Marvel Comics history, a relative anomaly in the large stable of memorable characters created by comics legend Jack Kirby. Even the considerably streamlined film version can’t lay the groundwork without heaps of exposition: The Eternals, the film’s opening text describes, are superhuman champions from a world called Olympia, dispatched to Earth by a cosmic god named Arimesh, a Celestial, in order to defend humankind from the monstrous Deviants. Throughout history, the Eternals have been here, helping humanity by fighting off Deviants and slowly providing technological advancement — to a certain point. Because the Eternals have another mandate: They cannot interfere in Earthly conflicts that don’t involve the Deviants.
This is the reason the film gives — in an actual conversation, between characters — for The Eternals taking a raincheck on Thanos’ genocidal rampage or any of the horrors and atrocities of the past. It’s a bit hard to swallow, especially when the film goes to great special-effects lengths to depict historical moments of mass destruction. To the film’s credit, part of Eternals narrative arc is its characters wrestling with the morality of this mandate. The misfortune of putting this dilemma to characters who live for thousands of years is pretty simple: The longer the characters take to let awful stuff happen before they do something about it, the more they seem like chumps.
In the present day, however, it’s pretty easy for the Eternals to follow this mandate. All of the Deviants on Earth have been wiped out, but instead of being offered a ticket to their home, Olympia, they’ve been effectively abandoned by their god and gone their separate ways, living in secret among the people of Earth. The exposition pauses and the action begins when Sersi (Gemma Chan) and Sprite (Lia McHugh), who live in London as a teacher and an (eternal) 12-year-old, respectively, are attacked by a not-so-extinct Deviant who also seems strong enough to kill Eternals. When the Superman-esque Ikaris (Richard Madden) arrives to help fend the Deviant off, a mini Eternals reunion becomes a full-blown road trip to get the family back together and figure out what’s going on with the Deviants.
From here, Eternals becomes a hybrid travelogue and historical epic. As Sersi, Ikaris, and Sprite reunite with their seven other “siblings” across the globe, the film flashes back to pivotal moments of their time on Earth, reflecting on their relationships with each other and humanity. They’re in Mesopotamia in 5000 B.C. kickstarting the Bronze Age; then they’re in Babylon in 575 B.C. seeding the wonders of the Hanging Gardens; then they’re in 1575 Mexico watching in shock as genocidal Spanish colonists murder the people of Tenochtitlan. In cross cutting from one era to another, Zhao begins to emphasize place more than anything else — even action scenes seem to fade to take a backseat, a momentary interruption to the interpersonal drama of the Eternals as they question their role in the places around them. They fall in and out of love with each other, and humanity. They meet and are rebuffed by their god, Arishem the Celestial. They spend most of the film in doubt, unsure of what to do or believe.
But Eternals is contemplative to a fault. Every time a new character is introduced, the ones we’ve previously met re-explain the story, and the same agreements and disagreements play out. In the best moments, Zhao allows the film to breathe around its most well-realized characters, like Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) who has settled into life as a Bollywood star and joins up because he wants to turn the adventure into a documentary about him saving the world with his ridiculously powerful finger guns. Less bombastic but equally compelling is Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), the Eternal inventor who, out of guilt for accelerating human technology to atomic war is possible, has retreated into a quiet domestic life with his human husband and son in the suburbs.
The film’s cast is too big to give every character a fulfilling arc, but the film’s script by Zhao, Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo, and Kaz Firpo devotes most of the film’s runtime to its least compelling characters. Sersi, with her vague power to transmute inanimate matter from one form to another, most effectively shown off when she turns a speeding bus into rose petals, is the de facto protagonist, but also a listless one: She is torn between her life pretending to be mortal and dating her historian boyfriend Dane (Kit Harington) and her grander purpose, which she starts to question, but only when forced to. It’s almost like the Eternals take their vow of nonintervention so seriously that they also refuse to drive the film’s plot.
Much has been made about what Chloé Zhao brings to the MCU as a filmmaker, largely stemming from Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige gushing over her insistence that Eternals be filmed on real locations, and not largely on green-screened soundstages, as many Marvel films are. The result is distinctive, but also strangely hollow. It’s as if, in order to accommodate the needs of a Marvel blockbuster, Eternals could only stage its action in the most barren of natural environments: a beach, a forest, a desert. Places big and open enough that a soundstage could be approximated, however begrudgingly. When it’s time for the naturalism of the film to give way to artificial action, the result is surprisingly demure — with one spectacular exception at the very end, Eternals’ action is quite small; a strange contrast to its grand scope. When the heroes “suit up” for their final fight, it almost feels wrong, or reluctant.
The pat descriptors Marvel executives like Kevin Feige append to MCU films don’t hang so neatly on Eternals. Genre shorthand does a poor job of conveying what a viewer should expect. There are no heists, no spycraft, no strange new worlds nor hidden fantasy realms. Eternals is a meandering film about being estranged from your family, and how difficult it is to get the stones up to finally see them again. It’s two and a half hours full of people many thousands of years old going from place to place and talking about the good old days.
After over a decade of the MCU formula’s dominance, it’s easy to mistake Eternals’ deviance for profundity. Films that wrestle with difficult experiences can often be difficult to watch, and intentionally so. Unfortunately, Eternals isn’t bold, merely incongruous. The simpler explanation is truer: Eternals is a mess.
It’s a movie concerned with conveying scale, about big ideas and forces that move on a geologic timetable beyond any one life. It wrestles with a morality that stretches beyond the considerations of one person or one planet, with purpose when time and distance have next to no meaning. The Marvel output bucks and protests under these conditions. The company’s plot-driven blockbusters are overwhelmingly concerned with the present, and to an arguably greater extent, what’s next.
Eternals considers where we are, where we’ve been, and how much it’s changed us, if at all. These are largely internal ideas that are not easily translated to superhuman brawls in dim environs, where the beauty of the natural world is just a blank canvas for lasers and punching. Every fight is like a tether pulling Eternals back to the ground when it would rather fly. Each scene expounding on the cosmology of the MCU does more for movies we haven’t seen yet than it does for the one we’re watching.
Movies can be big enough for ideas like this: difficult conversations of cosmic import with no clear answer, angry confrontations with an uncaring god, and whether or not our moral compass should shift as our perspective and reach grows. But a film must create a world where those questions matter, to its characters and to its audience. In a few short lines, Zhao did that with Nomadland. Eternals, however, just isn’t big enough. Or perhaps the Marvel Cinematic Universe is just too small.
Eternals is out now in theaters.