‘Eternals’ Movie Review: Source Material Woes Hinder Chloé Zhao’s MCU Installment

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is continuing to grow with each phase. New faces such as Shang-Chi, Black Panther, and Captain Marvel have provided a little taste of the much-needed diversity from the comics. Chloé Zhao’s Eternals is another step in the right direction. Additionally, she directs some great action sequences. However, the story bites off a bit more than it can chew.

‘Eternals’ introduces a new superhero ensemble

'Eternals' 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) standing in superhero poses
L-R: Kumail Nanjiani, Lauren Ridloff, Don Lee, Angelina Jolie, Richard Madden, Salma Hayek, Gemma Chan, Lia McHugh, Brian Tyree Henry, and Barry Keoghan | Marvel Studios/Disney

The Eternals are an immortal alien race. The Celestials created them and sent them to Earth thousands of years ago to save humanity from their evil counterpart species called the Deviants. They have been secretly living amongst humans ever since. 

The Eternals only intervene when the Deviants are the threat. Therefore, they weren’t around for Thanos. Avengers: Endgame sees half of the population return. But, the Eternals are scattered around the world. They want to live normal lives and understand humanity’s developing cultures before they’re called upon to return back home.

Expanding the scope and scale

'Eternals' Ikaris (Richard Madden) with costume and glowing eyes
Richard Madden | Marvel Studios/Disney

Eternals is a big deal for the MCU’s expansion. We’ve officially moved into Celestial territory. Therefore, the scope and scale have just gotten that much bigger, which also means that the threats are going to be that much more powerful. There’s a lot of ground to cover, so Zhao, Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo, and Kaz Firpo’s screenplay has a big task ahead of it. 

Sersi (Gemma Chan), Ikaris (Richard Madden), Thena (Angelina Jolie), Ajak (Salma Hayek), Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), Sprite (Lia McHugh), Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), Druig (Barry Keoghan), and Gilgamesh (Ma Dong-seok) each have different powers. The big ensemble cast has a lot of personalities to explore. But, the screenplay does a good job of giving each one of them moments to shine as heroes and as individual characters. These aren’t the iterations that comic fans will be familiar with, but it’s clear that they each have a part to play. None of them feel like fodder.

Eternals explores what it means to be human, but not without showing the light and dark sides of humanity. The Eternals may be an immortal alien race, but they have become just as human as anybody else on Earth. Knowledge is power, but it’s also pain. The longer that the Eternals experience the world, the more true that becomes. Now, the future of the world depends upon that very knowledge for a future to exist.

‘Eternals’ is as good as it could be

'Eternals' Ikaris (Richard Madden) and Sersi (Gemma Chan) embracing each other in superhero costumes
L-R: Richard Madden and Gemma Chan | Marvel Studios/Disney

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Eternals does several things right. Zhao employs solid direction with the MCU’s most diverse cast yet, including this universe’s first gay superhero with Phastos. It’s really exciting to finally have a gay superhero and Zhao handles him with such love and care. Eternals also includes superheroes who are non-white and deaf, which will allow a more diverse audience to see themselves in the characters on the silver screen. Representation and diversity are important.

Each Eternal serves a purpose to the story. However, Sersi is perhaps the most uninteresting lead in the MCU so far. Chan turns in a bland performance that is consistently outshined by the supporting cast. Madden, Jolie, Nanjiani, Henry, and Ridloff are particular standouts. However, this makes for an awkward finale when Sersi is meant to have the emotional stakes.

The source material here is daunting, as there’s so much ground to cover. The story is covering over 7,000 years, starting in 5,000 B.C. Eternals has a non-linear narrative that jumps back and forth over thousands of years. It works in comic book form, but it’s really tricky to pull off in a single movie. Eternals rushes to introduce a whole new mythology while still trying to fit within the MCU. It ultimately doesn’t really manage to do either with total success.

Eternals is as good as it could have been. The issues stem from the source material and the movie acts as a huge set-up for what’s to come. It’s necessary for the direction that they’re moving in, but it’s simply cramming too much into one movie. The cast and crew’s passion comes through, but the finished product is lacking. The sequel will be the major sign of this superhero ensemble now that the mythology is established.