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Eternals Review: Chloé Zhao’s Soulful, Poetic Masterpiece Provides a Refreshing Take on a Superhero Tale

For those who haven’t heard, The Eternals are the most powerful protagonists in the Marvel Cinematic Universe so far. They are Neither humans nor gods but immortal attendants of humanity. During the 7,000 years they have spent living on Earth, they have never interfered with civilisation’s affairs unless told to by Arishem – a colossal cosmic entity who manipulates all energy in the universe. So, no, before you ask, they didn’t do anything about Thanos.

Before we get into it, this review contains minor plot details for Eternals. If you prefer to go into the film without prior knowledge and haven’t seen the trailers, turn back now.

Audiences might expect an all-action showdown with such powerful beings at the centre of Marvel Studios’ latest blockbuster. However, Oscar-winning director, Chloé Zhao, focuses not on her characters’ powers, showing them less like superheroes and more like you and me. In shot after shot, she shows the quiet and poignant humanity of the group. Their story, in her hands, doesn’t examine Marvel’s typical themes, such as the burden of power; instead, it is a tale about everlasting bonds. Through a story focused on reuniting a disparate team at odds over approaching a crisis, Zhao explores a resonant question: When you clash with those you love, should you confront the conflict or overlook it?

As the film begins, the Eternals are scattered across the globe. Some, such as Sersi (Gemma Chan), the team’s empath, have bedded themselves into society, complete with job and boyfriend. Others, like the mind-controlling Druig (Barry Keoghan), live in isolation. When Sersi learns that Deviants, monsters that the Eternals eradicated from Earth years ago, have returned following the events of Avengers: Endgame, she sets out to bring the group back together – except not everyone agrees with her plan.

This communal disagreement, not the presence of Deviants, provides the film’s narrative tension. Most of Eternals explores, through glances and touches, the force of the group’s togetherness. The romances between Sersi and Ikaris (Richard Madden), and Thena (Angelina Jolie), and Gilgamesh (Don Lee) are particularly affecting. Their millennial-spanning relationships are tender even during battles, which by the way, still feel at home in the MCU. Thena moves like a ballerina, conjuring weapons out of thin air to slice away at Deviants that Gilgamesh has stunned. Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), the speedster and the MCU’s first deaf superhero, clears a path for Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) to fire energy projectiles. The choreography during these battles is mesmerising and genuinely some of the best the MCU has produced.

What Eternals seems most eager, though, is to depict how the team bonds with the humans they live beside. The camera lingers on these interactions; Sersi is planting crops alongside farmers, Makkari barters with merchants, Sprite (Lia McHugh) creates illusions to teach children. In these moments, director Zhao channels the humanistic vision that has guided her previous films, The Rider and Nomadland. In doing so, Zhao shows herself as an empathetic and immersive filmmaker, prioritising her characters’ sensual experience, which in turn draws strong performances from actors, capturing their essence in great detail. Eternals feels beautiful, with truly breathtaking visuals and a deep connection to its characters.

Most of Eternals possesses the same reflective magic Zhao has become known for: Natural light bathes the characters and vast landscapes – broad skies, rolling hills and churning seas. The Eternals experience life on Earth across thousands of years. With its strong ensemble cast, probably the strongest the MCU has seen, Zhao documents their shared awe and despair as observers of history.

However, for a film that has to introduce the origin of ten characters, who have been around since the creation of the universe, Eternals has a lot of explaining to do. A lot. Heading into the cinema, even as a seasoned Marvel fan, I’d brace yourself for a lot of exposition. No MCU movie has escaped the broader universe that connects the franchise, fans are accustomed to flashbacks, details and callbacks, but almost every flashback here requires further explanation. The movie starts with an opening that summarises the group’s origins and includes segments in 5000 B.C. and A.D. 1521, not to mention interludes in outer space. At times the immense scope of things and dense lore enhance the story trying to be told: Jolie’s Thena, for instance, suffers from a condition, based on the comics, in which by having too many years worth of memories, she forgets where she is in time. In these moments, repeated assurances from Gilgamesh – “You are safe, you are loved, you are Thena” are heartbreaking.

At times though, too much information slows the narrative. In explaining this new, obscure corner of the Marvel universe, Eternals sometimes loses its focus, shifting away from the thing that makes it great, the intense bond between its characters. For example, whenever Arishem communicates with an Eternal, they are taken off Earth and into space, abandoning Zhao’s signature style, which feels a bit like watching your favourite band live, but the drummer looses time every third song.

Thankfully though, what’s brilliant about Eternals, the delicate examinations of Zhao’s characters, far outshine the more convoluted moments. The climax of the movie centres on the Eternals’ internal strife, and after spending so much time with this family, seeing them fight is both heartbreaking and breathtaking. Buildings don’t fall, there is no alien invasion, and no civilians are shown screaming in terror. The most tragic blow doesn’t come from a fist but from a look exchanged between two characters. It’s an ambitious approach to take a Marvel-size budget into a personal character study and still make it feel like a colossal blockbuster. But Chloé Zhao has made it so.

Eternals releases this Friday, November 5th, in U.K. cinemas.

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