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Eternals Movie Review

Eternals (2021) movie poster Eternals

Theatrical Release: November 5, 2021

Running Time: 157 Minutes

Rating: PG-13

Director: Chloé Zhao

Writers: Chloé Zhao, Patrick Burleigh (screenplay); Ryan Firpo, Kaz Firpo (screenplay & screen story); Jack Kirby (Marvel comics)

Cast: Gemma Chan (Sersi), Richard Madden (Ikaris), Angelina Jolie (Thena), Salma Hayek (Ajak), Kit Harrington (Dane Whitman), Kumail Nanjiani (Kingo), Lia McHugh (Sprite), Brian Tyree Henry (Phastos), Lauren Ridloff (Makkari), Barry Keoghan (Druig), Don Lee (Gilgamesh), Harish Patel (Karun), David Kaye (Arishem), Patton Oswalt (Pip the Troll), Harry Styles (Eros - uncredited), Mahershala Ali (voice of Blade - uncredited)


To the tabloid world, the biggest name attached to Eternals, Marvel's latest movie, is Angelina Jolie and the big story is about her preferring to talk about the movie at a press junket for the movie than publically define her relationship with The Weeknd. To the film world, though, the biggest name is Chloé Zhao,
fresh off her Academy Award wins for Best Picture and Best Director for Nomadland. Plenty of accomplished filmmakers have tried their hand at superhero fare before but arguably no one has done so at the height of their achievements in such a dramatic departure from their signature work, in Zhao's case intimate and understated independent character studies. Can Zhao bring something to elevate the Marvel Cinematic Universe to meet Martin Scorsese's definition of cinema? Perhaps she could, but she doesn't on Eternals and one only hopes what must have been a massive payday here does not discourage her from returning to the smaller dramas she's flourished on.

Both Marvel and Zhao stand to gain from this unlikely pairing. Zhao's name will become more familiar to the masses who missed The Rider and Songs My Brother Taught Me. Marvel, meanwhile, gets to tout not just Zhao's present clout but the fact that they're giving the directing reins that have almost always gone to men to a woman and a woman of color at that. Nobody loses here and it's not like Eternals was a flagship Marvel brand, so the stakes are even lower than usual for the company that has redefined box office success over the past two decades.

There's not really a fair opportunity for Zhao to reinvent the wheel working within the Marvel machine and adapting the tale of characters introduced in a Jack Kirby comic book series of their own in 1976. But the director maintains her eye for capturing natural beauty and manages to get some distance from the formulas of Marvel's other solo and team-up adventures.

Marvel's Eternals in the woods: Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), Sprite (Lia McHugh), Sersi (Gemma Chan), Ikaris (Richard Madden), Thena (Angelina Jolie), and Gilgamesh (Don Lee).

A weighty opening text scroll introduces the Eternals as supremely powerful and immortal beings who have been appointed to watch over the galaxy for centuries but not to intervene except in conflicts involving their antagonist alien race, the Deviants. The film jumps around multiple millenniae, establishing the Eternals as a diverse family who report to Ajak (Salma Hayek), their leader who serves as an intermediary between the Eternals and their galactic superiors, the Celestials.

The ageless group includes Sersi (Gemma Chan), who in the present day is a late-running museum curator with a touch of smartphone addiction; her former love interest Ikaris (Richard Madden), who stands out among the team for his abilities to fly and use his eyes to project cosmic beams; the perpetually tweenaged and pixieish Sprite (Lia McHugh); Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), who has been Bollywood's biggest film star for decades; the brainy and gay Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry); the deaf and speedy Makkari (Lauren Ridloff); the strong and culinarily inclined Gilgamesh (Don Lee); the free-thinking and manipulative Druig (Barry Keoghan); and the fierce and dangerous Thena (Jolie).

You may take a liking to some of these more than others, but there are no Groots or Draxes in this bunch and you may well find the historically diverse group to be less than endearing both collectively and individually. Nonetheless, they still have our sympathy as they fear our world is doomed and have to make choices with huge consequences when the Deviants come to Earth dramatically evolved.

Marvel's Eternals on the beach: Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), Gilgamesh (Don Lee), Thena (Angelina Jolie), Ikaris (Richard Madden), Ajak (Salma Hayek), Sersi (Gemma Chan), Sprite (Lia McHugh), Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), and Druig (Barry Keoghan).

Diversity has seemingly become priority number one at Disney Studios in the past few years and on that basis, Eternals excels. It's hard to think of a group that is underrepresented here (actually, there are no trans characters despite what was reported at the beginning of last year). Of course, for the most part, people don't see movies for a mathematically accurate representation of our universe's always changing demographics.
They see movies to be entertained and on that level, Eternals is a moderate success, although it doesn't reach the same heights of humor, excitement, and splendor of Marvel's best efforts or even some of their middling ones.

We can all agree there are more superhero movies being made than we need. And yet, take a look at 2021's box office numbers. The top three films domestically are Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Sony's Venom: Let There Be Carnage, and Black Widow, all adapted from the pages of Marvel comic books. If you had $200 million to spend on a movie and wanted to recoup it, wouldn't you make a superhero movie too? That's fine for the money men and the bean counters, but what about those of us who hold on to the belief that cinema is an art form and arguably the premier art form of our time, a claim that has been tough to make over the past two years of theater closures? For us, Eternals doesn't provide a whole lot to get excited about. Its cast does little to wow us. Nanjiani adds some much needed pizzazz, but his comedy won't win over all and his virally teased physical makeover seems plainly unnecessary. Others like Madden and Chan are enjoying a stage bigger than most actors ever get and fail to convince us they deserved the parts over thousands of hopefuls, many of whom might have killed for an audition.

Zhao got this job before anyone saw what she was capable of in Nomadland and before she inspired censorship from the Chinese government over quotes she made about her upbringing in China and present nationality. It's clear she has talent both behind the camera and at a computer with Final Draft open. That makes it disheartening that her epic 157-minute Marvel movie is no better than most Marvel movies. Trying to figure out where it ranks among the twenty-six and counting official Marvel Cinematic Universe works, I placed it in the bottom third among fine yet forgettable fare like the first Captain America and Captain Marvel movies, and the Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy sequels. Even a middle of the road Marvel production offers more to admire than a vapid generic blockbuster (like this year's F9, for example), but nonetheless the viewer can't help but wish there was more here to validate the form and give the public a reason to return to theaters en masse.

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Now in Theaters: The French DispatchThe Last DuelAntlersNo Time to Die
Marvel Cinematic Universe: Avengers: EndgameBlack Panther

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Reviewed November 5, 2021.

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