I wrote in my Black Widow review that I’m not going to keep up with every MCU release because the franchise just does’t work as a whole for me anymore. But there are still some projects within the MCU that I am deeply interested in. Take the upcoming Disney+ show, Moon Knight, for example. Whatever convinced Ethan Hawke to jump into the superhero franchise world has me convinced, so I’ll be watching.
And the same went for Eternals because of writer-director Chloé Zhao. Zhao, the now-multiple-Oscar-winner, has made three excellent features in Songs My Brothers Taught Me, The Rider, and Nomadland, all of which I find to be visually stunning and thematically and emotionally rich. They’re each small, personal character studies that feel hand-crafted. So I was hoping Zhao might be able to bring some of that touch to Marvel. And she does… to a certain extent.
Zhao brings her impressive visual instincts to the table with Eternals; she apparently reminded Kevin Feige that nature exists outside of CGI, and it shows. There are a good deal of scenes that just look beautiful and put me at ease watching them because of their peaceful and serene locations. The way Zhao frames her subjects in front of the setting sun — which she does often in her other films — translates well to Eternals. Even some of the action scenes have their own visual flare.
The problem is, this feels like it’s only about three-quarters a Chloé Zhao movie, with the other quarter being a movie-by-committee movie. While certain shots and sections of the action looks great, other parts of it are bland and over-cut like much of Marvel’s fare. And while it deals with all of the themes about humanity — love, human complexity, technology, choice, kinship, and more are all present — it’s so unfocused and tonally dissonant, thanks to the signature Marvel humor being shoehorned in. It’s a shame, because I’d love a completely Zhao version of this movie, sans some of the setup it has to do.
But contrary to popular belief, setup is not the problem within the film itself. The villain and some of the world building can get confusing — it’s a movie about 7,000-year-old immortal beings, after all — but our main cast of Eternals is characterized nicely. I’ve already seen too many takes of people saying that there should have been a Disney+ series first to set up these characters, but for what this movie is, there is enough characterization happening. We know basic things about each one of them, while others are given extra time to shine. In particular, Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Kumail Nanjiani, Lia McHugh and Brian Tyree Henry are each given decent backstory, enough at least to make me care about them. When compared to something like The Hobbit, which doesn’t give you anything on about nine of the 13 dwarves, Eternals really does a good job.
At the end of the day, Eternals won’t give Zhao her second straight Best Director Oscar, but by no stretch of the imagination is it a dumpster fire. It offers more interesting ideas — both thematic and visual — than the typical Marvel movie, but the problem is that there are too many of them. I’ll gravitate towards something unique over something formulaic seven days a week. And when it’s in the sure hands of someone like Chloé Zhao, she always gets the benefit of the doubt.