Chloé Zhao ‘s Eternals is Marvel’s most philosophical film to date, teaching us about evolution, humanity, love, and the nature of good and evil.
Halfway through Chloé Zhao’s (Nomadland) Eternals, two of the film’s titular characters have a conversation, and one of them tells the other, Richard Madden’s (Game of Thrones, Bodyguard) Ikaris, that he’s always thought of him as Peter Pan. In this scenario, Ikaris’ love interest, Sersi (Gemma Chan, of Crazy Rich Asians and Let Them All Talk), would be Wendy, and the other Eternals would be the “Lost Boys”, a bunch of eternally young souls who have survived the worst moments in the history of the universe, and gone on many missions accompanied by their flying companion. These Peter Pan metaphors are particularly appropriate to describe the Eternals, and it’s not just because of the obvious similarities between the all-powerful Ikaris and the ageless protagonist of J.M.Barrie’s novel.
Marvel’s “immortal heroes” are aliens who come from the planet Olympia that have been sent to Earth thousands of years ago by the Celestials, a race of cosmic builders whose job is to ensure the correct functioning of the universe. When they were first sent to Earth, the Eternals’ mission was to protect humanity from the Deviants, giant, pastel-coloured, dinosaur-reminiscent predators who have the power to destroy entire planets. But when their mission was completed and there were no Deviants left on Earth, no instructions came from the Celestials as to what the Eternals were supposed to do, or when they would be allowed to return home. And so, our heroes waited for centuries, abandoned to their own fates by the same creatures who sent them to Earth in the first place, and attempting to each live their own life and find purpose while also trying not to interfere with the many human conflicts they witnessed, so as to enable humanity to learn from their mistakes and ultimately evolve.
If we first meet the Eternals in 5.000 BC in Mesopotamia, where they are using their powers to defeat the Deviants and sharing a mutual understanding that is almost spiritual, we soon jump in time to the present day, when they’re all leading separate lives as eternally young human wannabes – “Lost Boys” who are, at the same time, invincible and abandoned, knowledgeable and inexperienced, old and young, strong and fragile, wise and devoid of a purpose. It’s not by chance that the name of one of the most powerful Eternals is Ikaris: it’s a clear reference to Icarus, the mythological figure who ignored his father’s instructions and flew too close to the sun, ultimately causing his own demise due to his lack of experience and self-control. The only paternal figure the Eternals have ever had is the Celestial who sent them to Earth, Arishem (voiced by David Kaye, of Pixar’s Up), a cosmic being who gave them a mission and left them to their own means as soon as it was completed, hence depriving them of a chance to grow up, evolve, realise their full potential, and find their own place in the universe.
Stuck in a perennial state of limbo, Marvel’s “Lost Boys” are both protectors of humanity and pawns to their leaders, and this makes them complex, fascinating creatures. Figures of both unlimited potential and unexpected fragility, the Eternals embody many contrasting issues and ideals, from freedom of choice, power dynamics, and the connection between one’s memories and one’s identity to the very idea of evolution, and this makes Eternals a very different kind of Marvel movie. Chloé Zhao‘s superhero epic might not reflect your idea of what a Marvel movie should look and feel like, but it’s also the MCU’s most philosophical film to date, and a thoroughly enthralling, meaningful journey that will inspire and captivate you thanks to its immersive world-building, exceptional characterisation, and more than one reveal you won’t see coming.
Inspired by Jack Kirby’s 1976 Marvel comic books with the same name and written for the screen by Chloé Zhao and co-writer Patrick Burleigh (Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway) from a story by Ryan and Kaz Firpo, Eternals takes place across two time periods: the past, when the group first arrived on planet Earth to fight the Deviants, and the present—that is, five years after the Blip, when the Eternals are no longer a team, since the Deviants have been defeated, and our heroes have separated to live among humans. But a new threat emerges that makes the humankind-loving Sersi, the eternal child Sprite (Lia McHugh, of The Lodge) and the newly reunited Ikaris decide to go look for the other Eternals: the Deviants have somehow managed to resurface, and, this time, they seem to have evolved into much deadlier creatures. And so, our trio finds the others, and reunites with spiritual leader Ajak (Salma Hayek, of Desperado), cosmic-powered-turned Bollywood star Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani, The Big Sick), genius inventor-turned family man Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse), super-fast, wise old soul (not to mention Marvel’s first deaf superhero) Makkari (Lauren Ridloff, Sound of Metal), slightly disquieting but powerful loner Druig (Barry Keoghan, of The Green Knight), strong and kind combatant Gilgamesh (Don Lee, of Train to Busan), and Thena (Angelina Jolie, of Maleficent), a fierce warrior who appears to be experiencing some issues with her grasp of reality, as a side effect of having lived for so long.
As our reunited heroes try to understand why these new Deviants seem to be able to heal themselves and constantly evolve into stronger creatures, their understanding of their role in human history becomes clearer, and this leads them to question their very existence, and ultimately face the choice of whether to follow their orders or their hearts. Meanwhile, we get to see them in action centuries in the past, from ancient Mesopotamia 7000 BC and Babylon 2500 BC to the fall of the Aztec Empire in 1521 AD, and in the present, from London to Mumbai, South Dakota, Chicago, Alaska, Australia and the Amazon forest, and not only do we understand just how much of human life they have observed and experienced throughout the years, but we also instantly build a connection to them. Though all ten Eternals are introduced to us at the same time and right at the beginning of the film, and each of them comes with their own set of powers and sensitivities, it’s not hard for us to remember every single one of them and immediately find them familiar, and that is due, in part, to a script that values character development and world-building and to the tangible chemistry between all cast members, who all deliver memorable performances with just the right amount of emotion. At the same time, it’s the universal issues approached by the film that really draw us in, turning this fantastical story about immortal aliens with god-like powers who fight superpowered beasts into an incredibly relatable tale that touches upon many themes, from the importance of family to the struggle to “remember who [we] are” when we’re lost and without a purpose; from our obsession with technology to our relationship with nature; from how evolution can turn preys into predators and leaders into followers to the nature of good and evil itself.
Eternals is not devoid of twists, and there’s one in particular that is bound to get you even more invested in both the narrative and our characters’ fates, but all of that is best left unspoiled. The film is not the kind of Marvel movie you’re used to watching, as it’s a much more meditative, almost spiritual experience that asks you to pay attention to its subtext, valuing what’s left unsaid as much as what’s actually happening. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for action, laughs, and surprises. The humour mainly comes from Kumail Nanjiani’s Kingo and his butler-turned-cameraman Karim (Harish Patel, of Run Fatboy Run), whose many gags are bound to keep you entertained, together with more than one unexpected moment featuring the Eternals using their powers in inventive ways. The movie’s most shocking twists come at unexpected times, and though a couple of choices made by the film’s protagonists can feel, at first, a little out-of-character, it all makes sense by the end, and credit goes to the filmmakers for presenting us with heroes who might be immortal but who are also imperfect, reflecting the very essence of humanity.
The narrative does feel a little muddled at times, and there are several scenes towards the end that could have been cut, but it’s never boring or not rewarding, as most of the fun comes from watching the characters simply be with one another. And though every single cast member turns in impressive performances, the standouts are undoubtedly Gemma Chan, Angelina Jolie, and Lia McHugh, who will move you to tears at times and give you many epic, unforgettable scenes at others, also thanks to a script that gives them plenty of screentime and enables them to shine. Though Kit Harington‘s (Game of Thrones) Dane’s scenes in the film are very limited, they are also meaningful, and Harington imbues one of the few non-superpowered characters in the movie with such authenticity that it will stay with you long after the credits roll, making you think about what might happen next in the MCU.
Eternals is not your typical Marvel movie, but that isn’t a bad thing. What Chloé Zhao and the team behind the movie have crafted is a truly impressive, ambitious epic that is huge in scope and scale, with a screenplay that values emotion just as much as it values action, and mesmerising world-building and clever character development that will keep you enthralled throughout. The film has been shot almost entirely on location, with the use of wide-angle spherical lenses and deep focus that give us insight on the characters and make for an even more immersive experience, and the naturalistic style of Zhao’s filmmaking is reflected in a script where at least eight different languages are spoken, and those include ancient languages such as Sumerian, Babylonian and Sanskrit, but also Hindi, Arabic, Spanish and even sign language. It’s a film that invites us to connect deeply with one another, and to reflect on the issues that affect humanity as a whole. Eternals is drenched in mythology, but it’s also unmistakenly real, and that is the strength of a film that isn’t perfect, but that still manages to stay grounded to our own reality, keeping us entertained while asking all the right questions, and showing us the real monsters of an individual-centred society that seems to have forgotten how to establish authentic, meaningful connections. Eternals might not be what you expect it to be, but it’s exactly the kind of film we need in our day and age, and it’s not to be missed.
Marvel’s Eternals opens in theaters in select countries on November 3, and everywhere on November 5, 2021.