If, as some fans argue, superhero comics represent a modern, secular mythology, few properties better support this claim than Marvel’s The Eternals. The result of a decade-long attempt by legendary comic book artist Jack Kirby to tell a sprawling epic about warring gods, the series offers up a psychedelic creation story involving an alien species. In Kirby’s story, the universe was forged by giant, ageless beings called Celestials, who create humans along with superpowered demigods called Eternals and, in a mishap of genetic engineering, aggressive and highly efficient creatures called Deviants.
Chloé Zhao’s Eternals does its best to simplify and rework the bedrock of the comic series into something that can reasonably fit into a standalone film. But it’s arguably impossible to introduce a team of superheroes who are unfamiliar even to casual comic book fans and establish the nuances of their long-standing relationship to human civilization and their overarching and underlining conflicts without resorting to one of the most exhausting exposition dumps in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date. The film aspires to paint complex, emotionally nuanced relationships between its characters, often via flashback, but every time it does so, there are momentum-shattering effects on the narrative.
To the credit of Zhao and her three co-writers, Eternals tries to differentiate its cast of characters in ways that go against the grain of the typical MCU style of flattening every hero into a sardonic, reluctantly responsible figure weighed down by daddy issues. These heroes even have an overriding streak of earnestness that runs counter to the glibness of most other Marvel movies: The empathetic Sersi (Gemma Chan) exhibits only tenderness toward humanity, and the Superman-esque Ikaris (Richard Madden) smolders with an intensity that feels far removed from the snark that the average MCU A-lister tends toward.
Even the characters that are closest to the franchise’s usual mold of wisecracking, pop-culture-referencing cut-ups are complicated by underlying neuroses. Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), for one, uses his quips to mask his cowardice, while Sprite’s (Lia McHugh) own sardonic one-liners act as pressure releases for her agony at being trapped in a body of perpetual adolescence, cursed with eternal youth that withholds the pleasures of adult life.
Still, Eternals suffers from spending much of its 157-minute runtime introducing us to characters that have little in the way of mainstream recognition. And for a film in which the heroes have only a few days to avert the destruction of Earth, a shocking amount of scenes consist of them sitting around tables talking out their less-pressing personal disputes.
Kirby’s Eternals marked the culmination of his avant-garde artistic style, a bombastic showcase of electric colors, dizzying scale, and minutely detailed panels. Zhao’s film, by contrast, is defined by earthen tones, subtle grades of light and shadow, and a reliance on natural vistas over epic-scaled CGI spectacle. Its delicate compositions were shot by Ben Davis, who lensed Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain Marvel, two of the most visually flat MCU films, but Eternals marks the first time that one such film has taken any interest in soaking up the beauty of a planet that its characters are always trying to preserve.
That care extends to the action, which leans into pans and arcing camera motions over kinetic editing to capture the ebb and flow of battle between the Eternals and the Deviants. It’s a style remarkably similar to Zack Snyder’s approach to staging combat across his DC films. There’s a real weight to these superhumans’ movements, especially the speedster hit-and-run combat style of Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), that also feels indebted to Snyder’s conception of how such beings would defy mere mortals’ ability to fully process their speed and power. But the clean, lucid layout of the action scenes is such that it may make you wish that more of the film were given over to them and not the more sedentary conversations that propel the narrative.
Zhao is genuinely trying to bring something new to the increasingly moribund Marvel formula, tackling philosophical and political ideas that have been sprinkled across the larger franchise but rarely approached with serious interest. This isn’t the first Marvel movie to throw in a narrative twist that challenges the idea that the heroes are unambiguously working for the good of the universe, but Zhao takes more time than others to study how such a revelation might shock characters who’ve never questioned their impact on the world.
Marvel’s well-publicized cooperation with the United States military has worked to undercut the studio’s critiques of state power in such films as Captain America: Winter Soldier and Black Panther. Which makes it all the more remarkable to follow the arc of the Eternals’ engineer, Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), whose centuries-long quest to aid humans in their technological development ends with him standing in the ashes of Hiroshima, utterly disgusted with the atrocity that mankind could so callously unleash with his gifts.
And yet, at every turn the formula that Eternals seeks to challenge only reasserts itself, as the film is constantly given over to exposition and, with a few notable exceptions, ultimately absolving its characters of the fraught revelations of their culpability in the evil that threatens the world. At once bloated and rushed, Eternals suffers from frequent lurches in tempo that dispel its occasional moments of tranquil thoughtfulness by rehashing plot information ad nauseam until the simplest of details start to feel convoluted. Where Synder’s Justice League displayed a far greater grasp of the grandeur of Kirby’s work, Zhao ultimately robs the artist’s comic of its sweep by constantly turning a space opera into a repetitive character drama, one where demigods with the fate of the world in the palm of their hands spend far too much time sitting around a table attempting to work out their own personal issues.
Compared to most entries in the MCU, Eternals is notable for its impressive sense of scale, and the clarity of Disney’s 2160p/HDR presentation does justice to that grandeur. The range of fine details is exceptional throughout, in everything from clothing to faces. At the same time, what the HDR color grading giveth, it also taketh away. Specifically, the presentation is quite dark, resulting in a more broodily cinematic experience but also one where those aforementioned fine details are not always so easy to appreciate. The Dolby Atmos soundtrack boasts excellent clarity throughout, and while the separation of elements is solid and dialogue is clear and natural-sounding, the more action-forward sequences want for more subwoofer action.
That the commentary track featuring director Chloe Zhao and visual effects supervisors Stephane Ceretti and Mårten Larsson doesn’t appear on the 4K UHD will only make sense after you pop in the Blu-ray and realize just how much brighter the presentation is on the latter. All the better, one imagines, to appreciate the work that Zhao, Ceretti, and Larsson tout, but they’re focus is so strongly on the effects and matters of location, location, location that even those who came to the film’s defense during its theatrical run may find it difficult to justify that it was an especially personal project for Zhao. Rounding out the extras is a couple of puffy behind-the-scenes featurettes, four deleted scenes offered without context, and a gag reel.
Eternals makes a brooding impression on 4K UHD, but don’t expect the extras to make a case for it as some misunderstood triumph.
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