'Eternals': An Interesting, Messy Outing for Chloé Zhao and the MCU
Updated: Jan 23, 2022
I find it fascinating that Marvel, one of the biggest, most profitable forces in modern mainstream cinema, decided to hire Academy Award Winning director Chloé Zhao to direct a film for them. I personally am a fan of Zhao's work, and I love the quiet, meditative style found in each of her films up to this point. What's strange about the choice to bring her into the MCU fold, is that there is hardly anything in her films that just screams "Give her a Marvel movie!" If you look at some of the other directors that Marvel has brought on to direct for them, you can see at least one reason why. The Russo Brothers have a long career in television, which lends itself to the interconnected structure of the MCU. Taika Waititi's was brought in to add a sense of humor to the Thor franchise. Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck are known for their character studies, and were likely hired to give Captain Marvel more dimension and depth. You can usually find something that each director brings to the table, even if their distinct voices are a little muted by Marvel's uniform way of filmmaking. So when it was announced that Chloé Zhao was directing Eternals, I couldn't help but wonder what it was that drew her to them. But as I was watching the film, it dawned on me that the answer was right under my nose the whole time. It all boils down to how Zhao works with her actors and the care she puts into developing characters.
If you look at Zhao's other films, you'll quickly see that she takes a naturalistic approach to filmmaking. In films like Songs My Brother Taught Me and The Rider, you might see shades of Terrence Malick and Charles Burnett, as her films have that same poetic quality that theirs do. One element of Zhao's work that makes her stand out is her use of non-actors, who are often featured in primary roles. This is more prominent in Songs My Brothers Taught Me and The Rider, although Nomadland features many non-actors in the supporting cast. It's clear from these three films that Zhao seeks to show a sense of humanity and realism in her work. So when she signed on to direct Eternals, it was unclear what kind of movie we were going to get. Would this be a sad case of her sensibilities being stifled by Marvel? Would this be a radical departure from the MCU's typical fare? Or would this perhaps be a mishmash of both Zhao's style and the Marvel formula, leading to some strange hybrid?
I suppose, at least for me, that the latter is likely the closest answer to what we see in the finished product. Zhao's distinct filmmaking style is not fully erased, but at the end of it all, it's still very much a Marvel movie. That being said, this film takes its time to get to know the characters, which is likely why it clocks in at over two and a half hours. The film has a pretty large ensemble, and a fair amount of time is spent getting to know each character. With Zhao's other work, the cast is much smaller by comparison, and the plot is looser, so it's easier to get to know the characters in those films. Here, it's a bit more complicated. Plot tends to take precedence over character in the MCU, and action sequences and special effects seem to be even more of a priority over both of them. When you have a large audience almost conditioned to the specific formula that Marvel has crafted, you can't expect the same response when it is tweaked. So when a large portion of the film is dedicated to getting to know each character and delving into the extensive lore and expository nature of The Eternals themselves, it's easy to see why this film has garnered such an adverse reaction by some.
This is a film caught between being a blockbuster and being something more naturalistic. And if that sounds strange and off-putting, it's because it kind of is. This film is pretty heavy on exposition, and about half of it feels dedicated to essentially getting the band back together. This functions as the introduction for each individual character, and while I get why the film takes this approach, it does feel slightly tedious at times. Also, with so many characters to introduce, it does mean that some don't get the development they need. On top of that, the lore surrounding the Eternals is quite extensive, and while I think the film gives us what we need to know about them, it does feel a bit overwhelming. I do appreciate that the film takes its time, and I'll admit that I found most of the characters to be pretty memorable and likable, but it comes at a cost. The time spent on character and exposition means that the film has a lack of momentum. By the time we reach the big battle in the third act, it feels like most of the film hasn't really the build-up or the tension that it needs in order to work. The stakes are high, but we don't feel the full extent of them, which might be the film's biggest downfall to me. I will say that one of the choices made in terms of heightening the plot's conflict did genuinely surprise me, but it still wasn't enough to fully save the film.
I have always been a belief that the first film of any hopeful franchise largely exists to lay down the groundwork of what it wants to be, should it get a sequel. This film seems to take that to an extreme, and is almost entirely groundwork. That being said, I can't help but be curious as to what would happen if another Eternals movie gets made. There are some interesting ideas and characters here, and I feel that they just didn't get explored as fully as they could have for one reason or another. I also was quite impressed by the large scope of the film, as I feel it has a lot to dig into, and has the potential to go to some interesting places. I truly feel that this is at least a step in the right direction for Marvel, even if it is a bit of a clumsy one.
At the very least, the film does look pretty good compared to other Marvel films. It still has moments where it has the wet concrete aesthetic, but the way Zhao and cinematographer Ben Davis shoot the film, is at least a bit better than what we normally see in the MCU. The use of natural light and scenery helps with this, and you truly feel the expansive nature of the world of the film. Ramin Djawadi's score isn't half-bad either, but it does feel a bit more generic than it should in some moments. I honestly felt that Chloé Zhao's direction was pretty strong, and I like that she was at least able to get some of her distinct voice into the film, but I'm still not sure if she was the right choice here. Again, I like Zhao quite a bit as a filmmaker, but I feel that this needed someone who could handle the larger than life qualities of the film, and still juggle all the characters in the film. Zhao does a fine job, but I just don't know if she was the best fit. As for the script, it's a bit of a wash. I appreciate how it is trying to step away from the MCU formula, but it feels held back by elements of it at the same time. It does end up being a bit imbalanced because of this as a result, which also leads to the issues of momentum and pacing I discussed earlier.
I've spent a great deal of this review talking about how the characters are used, but what about the people that portray them? The film assembles an ensemble of great actors, some of whom are used well, and some that I wish had been used more. Gemma Chan is an interesting choice for Sersi, who is essentially the central character of the film. This is more of an ensemble piece, but she arguably gets the most screen time of the bunch. Chan isn't bad in the role, but I feel that she gets overshadowed by the rest of the cast. Richard Madden is pretty good, and I liked the direction his character takes, but he feels maybe a tad underwritten. Kumail Nanjiani was one of the film's highlights for me, as he serves as the comic relief. He is as funny as always, and my one complaint is that we don't see all that much of him. I feel that the choice was deliberate and makes sense for the overall film, but I still wanted to see more of him. Brian Tyree Henry is also excellent, and further proves himself to be one of our most consistently great actors working today. He isn't given all that much to work with in the grand scheme of things, but he still makes the most of it. I also felt that Barry Keoghan, Don Lee, and Lauren Ridloff were great, but woefully underused. As for Salma Hayek and Angelina Jolie, they both aren't used all that much, which I think works for Hayek's character, but not for Jolie's. It leaves Jolie feeling underdeveloped, and like she's here as a bit of stunt casting. I hope she gets a better chance to play the character in the future, as she is good here, but I couldn't help but be a bit disappointed we didn't get more of her. The one great thing about the ensemble as a whole, is the large amount of representation on display. This is a team made up of POC, women, LGBTQ+ people, and disabled people. It is refreshing and exciting to see all of them have their moment in the spotlight, and to make it count.
I can see why this film has received such mixed reviews, but I must say that despite its flaws, I can't help but like this film a little. It's far from perfect, and probably would land somewhere near the middle to lower end of my overall MCU ranking, but I appreciate what Chloé Zhao and company are going for here. This takes more risks than your average Marvel film, and while they don't always pay off, I'm glad to see Marvel trying new things, and actually letting the filmmakers they work with have more of a presence. My biggest fear is that Marvel will take the wrong lessons from the way Eternals has been received, and will be less likely to stray from the norm in the future. I think that they should still be willing to take some bigger swings, and explore new territory. While there are things in this film that don't exactly work, I would argue that it is more interesting than what we have been getting, and I hope that we can see more risk taking in the future of the MCU, even if does make the fans a little angry.