In the beginning, there was a wise-cracking, billionaire playboy with a cybernetic suit of armour who set out on a path of redemption. Thirteen years later and the Marvel world has exanded to include wise-cracking magical doctors, wise-cracking galactic mercenaries and wise-cracking insect-based heroes. Man being a hero must be so much fun if these guys are having time to work on their 5-minute set mid-battle.
The quip is a staple of the Marvel Cinematic Formula, lulling audiences into a saftey net of minimal tension and no consequences. As a result, anytime a superhero movie attempts a more high-stakes depiction of superheroics, audiences turn away from the distinguished competition. Another aspect of the MCF, is a lack or watering down of director styles to adhear to a cohesive, washed-out style. There are exeception such as Ryan Coogler with Black Panther, where the main character never cracks wise and the world is full of colour and diverse costuming. But even a director like Taika Waitit's style is lost, with only brief glimpses of his playful style in Thor: Ragnarok. So when Oscar winner Chloe Zhao is announced to director a Marvel movie about a team of alien gods, there was some trepidation. Oh ye of little faith.
Eternals sees a team of immortal, powerful aliens tasked with protecting Earth by their creator, The Celestials. The Eternals are brought out of hiding on Earth to confront the return of their adversaries, the Deviants, and the death of one of their own.
Marvel movies are normal grand in scale, with the fate of the world or universe on the line. Zhao has made a Marvel movie that feels epic. Beings the size of multiple planets create entire galaxies before your very eyes and their words rumble in your ears. Zhao and cinematographer Ben Davis perfectly capture the size of the Celestials, especially in the final act as the Eternals fight around one. The story spans human history, from ancient Mesopotamia to the modern post-Endgame world. It is a lot of story to pack in, making Eternals one of the longer MCU movies and the longest introduction movie, but it isn't felt.
Zhao and writers Ryan & Matthew Firpo and Patrick Burleigh have the difficult task of introducing a brand new team, each with unique powers and a new galactic side to the Marvel universe. As a result, some characters are barely given lip service and are forgotten once the movie is over (one character is absent from the finale for no narrative reason). But, thanks to a Blade Runner-style opening text crawl, the history is conveyed clearly enough and when it focuses on the lead characters, it is some of the most emotional storytelling in the MCU.
Stand-out is Gemma Chan as Sersi, who has mattter changing powers. She is a pacifist in a group of fighters who can craft any weapon they need, shot laser from their eyes or are the greatest warrior alive. She does not belong in this group, and is given the heavy burden of leading them when she and the others begin to have a crisis of faith. The film's analysis of belief and loyalty is mature beyond a lot of what the MCU is willing to address. How Sersi's story resolves is an uplifting commentary on heroism and violence.
Unlike the majority of the heroes in the MCU, the Eternals are superheroes. They are not selfish, assholes who become heroes to resolve problems they create. The Eternals take on the responsibility of protecting Earth and seek no reward. They are the mythic heroes of old, like Greek Gods who are not aspirational but inspirational. The Eternals are also the basis for these legends in the Marvel world; Angelina Jolie's Thena is Athena in Greek Myth and Barry Keoghan's Druig is the basis for the Druids.
Tonally, the movie is unique from the MCF with it feeling more inline with the Distinguished Competition in its presentation and reverance of heroes. It will certainly be divisive amongst audiences who expect another Guardians of the Galaxy but will get something more like Zack Snyder's comic book films (sans slow motion).
For those who had their breath taken away by the natural cinematography in Nomadland, expect nothing less in Eternals. There are some shots that feel like artwork in the lighting and framing, with that "golden hour" sunlight basking over the heroes united on a beach, in colourful and intricately made costumes. Even the action sequences, while brief, are theatrical in their framing. It feels similar to Sam Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy and how each movement felt like a comic book panel, with broad movements and clearly defined character beats.
Chloe Zhao has crafted Marvel's first epic, in both scope and emotion. It is Marvel's most beautiful movie, visually and emotionally with Gemma Chan and Richard Madden shining. While be divisive for fans, and does struggle to give each character development in an already lengthy runtime, but it is bold and powerful filmmaking in a blockbuster that is rarely seen or appreciated.