ETERNALS Review: Chloe Zhao's Earnest Superhero Odyssey Is The Most Ambitious MCU Movie Yet

Chloe Zhao's Eternals is set to hit theaters this weekend, and it's officially the most negatively reviewed Marvel Studios movie so far. Are the criticisms valid? Find our verdict right here...

What makes us human? Do we all have a purpose? Are we doomed to follow a path that will ultimately lead to our destruction, or are we capable of forging our own destinies?

These are not the sort of existential questions you'd usually expect to see posed in a Marvel Studios release, but Eternals is not your average superhero movie. In fact, if Chloe Zhao's intriguing, audacious film is guilty of anything, it's attempting to explore a few too many lofty ideas at once.

We begin with an opening crawl (another MCU first) explaining that the cosmic heroes of the title were created by god-like beings known as the Celestials before being sent out into the universe to protect various sentient races from the Deviants. We then see the ten Eternals assigned to Earth demonstrate their respective abilities while taking down one of these monstrous creatures, hastening human evolution and carving their names into legend in the process.

When we catch up with these immortal beings 7,000 years later, most of them have grown weary and disheartened, and since they are not allowed to interfere in human conflicts that don't involve the Deviants (convenient, perhaps, but it will make more sense later), many have chosen to live relatively normal lives. Sersi (Gemma Chan) has embarked on a relationship with Dane Whitman (Kit Harington), still doing what she can to help as a teacher in London with Sprite (Lia McHugh) for company. When the re-emergence of a powerful Deviant brings Sersi's ex lover Ikaris (Richard Madden) back into their lives, they decide to get the team back together in an attempt to figure out what's going on.

Eternals assemble... right? Not exactly. You may think you have a pretty good idea of where the story is heading from here, but Zhao is not interested in spinning the standard superhero yarn. Some of the usual boxes are ticked (this is still a Marvel Studios movie at the end of the day), but Eternals is more concerned with character than spectacle, and takes a surprisingly thoughtful approach to the material.

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Introducing ten new heroes while establishing their different powers and personalties is no easy task, so it's a testament to Zhao and her writing team that pretty much everyone is given their moment to shine. Some obviously have more screen-time than others, but they all feel like fleshed out, fully-formed characters with their own individual arcs. Sersi and Ikaris remain the focus throughout, and while Chan and Madden do an admirable job with slightly bland roles (on the surface, at least), Kumail Nanjiani (Kingo), Brian Tyree Henry (Phastos) and Harish Patel as the former's valet pretty much run away with the movie, bringing warmth and humor to what is undeniably one of the franchise's more serious instalments. Thena (Angelina Jolie), Ajak (Salma Hayek), Druig (Barry Keoghan) and Gilgamesh (Don Lee) also fulfil important roles, and if Sprite and Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) get lost in the shuffle somewhat, they still leave an impression.

Eternals may be more character-driven than previous MCU entries, but that doesn't mean the action is lacking. There are some exciting, brilliantly crafted set pieces, but these sequences are informed by the drama and never feel like they've been added just for the sake of it - even with all the CGI monster-punching going on.

In some respects, one does get the feeling that Zhao was forced to compromise in order to stay within the confines of the established MCU, but the filmmaker's signature style is still plain to see, and Eternals is a gorgeous looking film. Cinematographer Ben Davis deserves just as much credit, and the breathtaking visuals are complemented by Ramin Djawadi's powerful score.

As the story progresses, the movie does get bogged down while attempting to juggle a few too many plot points, and some interesting ideas are introduced without being satisfactorily explored (the true nature of the Deviants as represented by the evolution of their leader Kro, for example). This means that, even with a runtime of over two and half hours, certain aspects can feel a little rushed, and the ending is bound to frustrate.

Everything comes together for a tense, emotional final battle, but the closing scenes seem a bit thrown together and unnecessary. Epilogues are important, but there are ways to set up a sequel while still delivering a proper conclusion, and the point at which Zhao chooses to end this film is, frankly, baffling.

Eternals can be heavy-handed and its ambitions arguably exceed its grasp, but at least it's reaching. Chloe Zhao has delivered a convoluted, but refreshingly earnest and philosophical superhero odyssey which might well be destined to be embraced as something of a flawed masterpiece.

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