When various titles were being announced for Phase 4 of the MCU, one of the titles announced was Eternals, based on one of Jack Kirby’s most gonzo concepts that he contributed to Marvel comics (outside of maybe his expanded comic series based on 2001: A Space Odyssey, which lead to the introduction of Machine Man). With the announcement of Chloe Zhao as the director, the film felt a lot like this was going to be the much more odd and out-there film in the MCU, in ways that were different from how Thor: Ragnarok was. And, well, yeah, it is.
Eternals states what kind of film it is upfront in a way that some viewers could potentially miss – it opens with a silent text crawl, using white text on black, with a serifed font, with important terms highlighted by being in larger colored text, before the soundtrack kicks in with “Time” by Pink Floyd. If you were a fan of a particular stripe of science fiction film from the ’70s and early ’80s, be it Blade Runner, Zardoz, Escape from New York or Highlander, as I was when I started watching it, I got the vibe that the film was setting up.
Specifically, those are films that, though very different tonally, focus on the idea that once they put forward their core plot, they expect you to just role with it. Some of the ideas that are put forward might sound off, or silly (like “Mahd Wr’ry” – pronounced “Mad Weary”), but the movie is going to just keep going. It trusts that if they just role with it, you will too. To be clear, all of those films are cult classics, and were so for a reason. Pauline Kael, one of the defining film critics of the ’60s and ’70s, who is held up on the same kind of lofty pedestal (perhaps even a loftier one) that Roger Ebert was held up on – hated many of those movies (Kael – I’ve noticed, generally held speculative fiction movies in utter contempt). Many of those films did poorly at the box office (with some exceptions – Highlander did get sequels that were released in theaters), so it’s something of a risk making such a significant reference to so many films of that era.
That said, the film also nails that vibe considerably well – flashing between the various immortal Eternals in the present day, and then going back to various experiences in the past, to contextualize where they are now in a manner that is very much like the first Highlander movie. Indeed, probably the biggest comparison here is to Highlander but with superheroes. A group of people with superpowers, who have lived for millennia and watched the growth of human civilization, now gathering together to face a common threat.
The acting performances here are generally solid – it’s a really great cast. Almost every performance in this film is fantastic… except for Richard Madden as Ikaris. He’s… putting on a more wooden performance than the dummies in Shaolin Wooden Men. I get what the goal is – to present the character as being very restrained and conflicted by knowledge that he has that other characters don’t, and that’s eating him up. It’s not a direction issue either, as I kind of had this problem with him in Game of Thrones – Robb was the boring Stark.
Otherwise, the film is great, the writing juggles the different parts of the timeline incredibly well, and the action is very well done, particularly a couple of fights that juggle multiple people in several different locations that are pretty far apart without losing any sense of geography. The majority of the story also has a real sense of warmth, as this is less a “getting the band back together” movie, and more an “awkward family reunion related to a funeral that leads into an action story” movie. These are characters who care about each other and were close to each other, but had separated for various reasons due to time, ideological disagreements, and other issues and are now having to reconcile. The cast has the chemistry (generally) to pull that off, combined with writing that bears that out.
The visual presentation is very good if it’s a little less gonzo than a straight shot of Kirby. I’d almost put this more in the vein of Simonson (visually) instead of Kirby (which is also fine, I love Simonson’s work).
The film’s ending promises more with the Eternals on the cosmic side of the Marvel Universe, and I really hope more comes of that in future films, especially with Chloe Zhao, should she decide to return to do future Marvel movies. After so many films from the Russo Brothers, having more Marvel films from directors with visual styles that go in a more different direction, like Zhao and Taika Watiti, is a step in the right direction.
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