'Eternals'—A refreshing take on the culture of heroes
Avengers: Endgame is unarguably the greatest blockbuster movie achievement of this century so far: a culmination of a decade's worth of storytelling throughout the films that have compromised the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Like everyone, I was curious to see what the future had in store for the MCU. Surely, they couldn't just lather, rinse, and repeat the next ten years—not with a vast array of source material to mine from. The past year of post-Thanos content, mostly spread out through new Disney+ series like WandaVision, The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, and Loki, have been mostly reactionary to the events of the past with tiny teases of future storylines.
Now, with the release of Eternals, Marvel Studios has the opportunity to take part of its universe into an entirely new and fresh direction. The film follows the titular groups of Eternals, immortal creatures whose existence dates back to the creation of the universe by powerful, colossal beings knows as Celestials. The prime Celestial known as Arishem sends our group of Eternals to ancient Earth to protect the primitive human race against a dark and powerful species known as Deviants, who seek to feed on the energy of humans. After finally eradicating the last of the Deviants, the Eternals, waiting for further instructions from Arishem, continue to live among the humans for centuries, while being sworn not to interfere in their major events.
From the outset of the film, the tone and scale is wildly different that the majority of MCU movies that came before, from the epic designs of Arishem and the technology wielded by the heroes, to their very portrayals: Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, and Selma Hayek imbue their characters with stoicism and emotional heft, and even when others like Kumail Nanjiani and Lauren Ridloff inject the film with humor and charm, it's within the context of modern humanity. Indeed, it appears that director and co-writer Chloe Zhao sought to explore the deeper mythology of these god-like beings. Sure, their refrain from action conveniently serves as a haphazard explanation for their absence from the events of the Infinity Saga. However, when the audience discovers how one Eternal broke that vow and played a hand in one the largest tragedies in human history, it's also not that difficult to feel the weight of that decision. And as events of the story reveal themselves, the Eternals must decide how they really see their role in our universe. I wish that Zhao had been able to dig a little deeper into those emotions of the story, but with no less than ten heroes to introduce and familiarize the audience with, it's an accomplishment that I even connected with them as much as I did.
Much has already been written about the divisiveness of the film's reception. Richard Newby of The Hollywood Reporter noted how a similar division happened with the release of the original comic series, The Eternals. Much like the movie, the series deviated from the fun characterization of superheroes and sought to explore the complexity of super-powered beings through a darker and more dramatic tone, and audiences found themselves divided about where the series belonged. Some fans wanted The Eternals to exist outside of the larger Marvel universe, and oddly enough, that's where I find myself overall with the film. Eternals is undeniably connected to the MCU, and as expected by now, the endings serve up connections to other characters and stories. But Zhao's film is a breath of fresh air in the Marvel formula, and with all its literal world building, I wouldn't mind if future installments of the franchise mostly kept to themselves. At one point, characters debate who should be the new leader of the Avengers. I'm thinking, maybe the Eternals don't need them at all.