Chloe Zhao’s 2020 film Nomad land begins with a few sparse lines of text that create a whole world of loss. A record factory in the real city of Empire, Nevada, will close in January 2011. Empire’s zip code will be discontinued in six months. It’s a ghost town. It turns out that a seemingly stable environment is constantly in flux, sometimes at a frightening and destabilizing speed.
Eternal, Zhao’s successor to her acclaimed Oscar-winning film, also begins with an explanatory text. This time, however, it is more of a lore than a story, about beings from another planet who were brought to us for a purpose that audiences will not fully understand by the end of the film. It’s low key and uninviting, as if two forces were at war from the start for this type of film Eternal should be.
The latest film from Marvel Studios is equal parts puzzle piece and experiment. Eternal expands the boundaries of the MCU and provides clues as to what its future might bring, while being a project with formal ambition. Zhao deliberately breaks with the established Marvel formula to tell a fuller and more mature story – the kind of story the filmmaker is known for. The script takes the kind of seismic shifts that can happen around us in six short months and explodes them on a geological scale over thousands of years through the eyes of deliberately diverse casts in a superhero blockbuster. Eternal, however, is ultimately haunted by this formula that keeps giving in to the familiar when trying to show us something new.
Eternal is also saturated with one of the densest spaces in Marvel Comics history, a relative anomaly in the great stable of memorable characters created by comic book legend Jack Kirby. Even the heavily streamlined film version cannot lay the foundation stone without a lot of explanation: The Eternals, as the opening text of the film describes, are superhuman champions from a world called Olympia, who are sent to earth by a cosmic god called Arimesh, a heavenly one to defend humanity from the monstrous deviants. Throughout history, the Eternals have been here to help humanity by fighting deviants and slowly enabling technological advancement – up to a point. Because the eternal have a different mission: They cannot interfere in earthly conflicts in which the deviants are not involved.
This is why the film – in an actual conversation between the characters – gets The Eternals to do a rain check on Thanos’ genocidal rampage or one of the horrors and atrocities of the past. It’s a bit hard to swallow, especially when the film goes over to big special effects to portray historical moments of mass destruction. To the credit of the film, part of Eternal Narrative arc is that its characters wrestle with the morals of this mandate. The misfortune of confronting characters who have lived for thousands of years with this dilemma is pretty simple: the longer it takes the characters to make terrible things happen before they do anything about it, the more like fools they appear.
However, these days it’s pretty easy for the Eternals to follow up on that mission. All deviants on earth were wiped out, but instead of being offered a ticket to their home, Olympia, they were abandoned by their god and went their separate ways to live in secret among the people of the earth. The exhibition pauses and the action begins when Sersi (Gemma Chan) and Sprite (Lia McHugh), who live as a teacher and a (eternal) 12-year-old in London, are attacked by a deviant that is no longer so extinct, who is also severely attacked seems enough to kill Eternals. When Superman-esque Ikaris (Richard Madden) arrives to fend off the Deviant, a mini-reunion of the Eternals turns into a full-blown road trip to bring the family back together and find out what’s wrong with the Deviant.
From here Eternal becomes a hybrid travelogue and historical epic. When Sersi, Ikkaris and Sprite reunite with their seven other “siblings” around the world, the film flashes back on crucial moments of their time on earth and reflects on their relationships with one another and with humanity. You are in Mesopotamia in the year 5000 BC. BC, which stimulates the Bronze Age; then they are 575 BC In Babylon and sow the wonders of the Hanging Gardens; then they are shocked in Mexico in 1575 when Spanish genocide colonists murder the people of Tenochtitlan. Cross-sectioning from one era to another, Zhao begins to emphasize the place more than anything – even action scenes seem to fade and take a back seat, a temporary break in the interpersonal drama of the Eternals that cast their role in the places around them Ask a Question . They fall in love and fall in love with each other and with humanity. They meet and are rejected by their god Arishem the Heavenly. They spend most of the film in doubt, unsure of what to do or believe.
but Eternal is contemplative of a mistake. Every time a new character is introduced, those we met before explain the story anew, and the same agreements and disagreements play out. In the best moments, Zhao lets the film breathe around its best-realized characters, like Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), who has settled in as a Bollywood star and joins in because he wants to turn the adventure into a documentary about saving the world with his ridiculously powerful finger cannons. Less bombastic, but just as convincing, is Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), the Eternal Inventor, who retreated to a quiet domestic life with his human husband and son in the suburbs out of guilt about the acceleration of human technology to nuclear war.
The cast of the film is too big to give any character a fulfilling arc, but the film’s script by Zhao, Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo, and Kaz Firpo devotes most of the movie’s runtime to the least convincing characters. Sersi, with her vague ability to transform inanimate matter from one form to another, is most effective when she transforms a speeding bus into rose petals. and torn and pretending to be mortal and to meet with her historian friend Dane (Kit Harington) and her greater purpose that questions her, but only when forced to. It’s almost like the Eternals take their vows of non-interference so seriously that they also refuse to advance the movie’s plot.
Much has been done about what brings Chloé Zhao to the MCU as a filmmaker, largely because Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige raved about her insistence Eternal filmed in real locations, and not mostly on green screen soundstages like many Marvel films are. The result is striking, but also strangely hollow. It’s like, to cater to the needs of a Marvel blockbuster, Eternal could only stage his action in the most barren natural surroundings: a beach, a forest, a desert. Places large and open enough that one could approach a sound stage, albeit reluctantly. When the naturalism of the film has to give way to artificial action, the result is surprisingly restrained – with one spectacular exception at the very end, the action of Eternals is pretty small; a strange contrast to its large size. When the heroes “dress” for their final fight, it almost feels wrong or hesitates.
The pat descriptors that Marvel executives like Kevin Feige attach to MCU films don’t hang that neatly Eternal. Genre shorthand does a bad job of conveying what a viewer should expect. There are no robberies, no spycraft, no strange new worlds or hidden fantasy worlds. Eternal is a meandering film about how hard it is to pick up the stones to finally see them again. It’s two and a half hours full of people who are many thousands of years old and move from place to place talking about the good old days.
After over a decade of dominance by the MCU formula, it’s easy to get confused Eternal‘Deviation for profundity. Films that wrestle with difficult experiences can often be difficult to watch, and deliberately. Regrettably, Eternal is not fat, just inappropriate. The simpler explanation is truer: Eternal is a mess.
It is a film that is concerned with conveying scale, about great ideas and forces that move according to a geological schedule beyond any single life. It wrestles with a morality that transcends the considerations of a person or a planet, with a purpose when time and distance have next to no meaning. The Marvel Edition makes money and protests under these conditions. The company’s action-driven blockbusters deal mainly with the present and probably even more with the future.
Eternal wondering where we are, where we were and how much it has changed us, if at all. These are mostly internal ideas that don’t translate easily into superhuman brawls in a dark environment where the beauty of nature is just a blank canvas for lasers and punching. Every fight is like pulling a rope Eternal back to the ground if it prefers to fly. Each scene that explains the MCU’s cosmology does more for movies we haven’t seen than for the one we’re watching.
Movies can be big enough for ideas like these: difficult conversations of cosmic meaning with no clear answer, angry confrontations with an indifferent God, and whether or not our moral compass should shift with increasing perspective and reach. But a film has to create a world where these questions matter to its characters and audience. In a few short lines, Zhao joined in Nomad land. Eternal, however, is not big enough. Or maybe the Marvel Cinematic Universe is just too small.
Eternal Premiere in cinemas on Friday 5th November.