Eternals is a breath of fresh air for the MCU.
One of the problems this staggering cross-media body of work now contends with is precedence. We’ve had over twenty films, multiple Disney+ original series, live-action and animated.
This universe is big. Really, really big. How do you serve up something new? Many of the MCU’s best films are those which take a punt on something different.
Black Panther brought in Creed’s Ryan Coogler. Ragnarok had Taika. Winter Soldier had the relatively green at the time Russo Brothers. And the Disney+ originals are explosively good precisely because they took so many chances, on and off-camera.
Eternals is the kind of lofty, floaty, era-hopping fare which until now scared Marvel. The Eternals themselves are a group of godlike directed by The Celestials (giant space deities) to protect Earth from Deviants (scary dog monsters). To be blunt, these Eternals ain’t gonna shift lunchboxes.
There’s a lot of them. They have weird names, and they lack peppy catchphrases. There’s not an Iron Man, Hulk or Captain Marvel in the bunch. But that’s why Eternals slaps so hard. These beings arrive on Earth at the dawn of humankind’s infancy, and by staying here, accrue and develop fantastic personalities.
By the halfway point, you’ll already have favourites. Kumail Nanjiani’s Kingo is an absolute powerhouse, stealing every scene he’s in (alongside his brilliant valet), but every single member of the group feels fully realised. Eternals has been carefully structured to have you fall in love with each team member’s burgeoning humanity just as they grow to fall in love with ours.
One of the reasons the turgid live-action attempts at The Fantastic Four – yes, all three of them – failed so abjectly is because they didn’t feel big enough. Cosmic enough. In the Marvel universe, Earth is a speck. A speck floating in a universe teeming with life, both hostile and benevolent.
Chloe Zhao, the academy award-winning writer and director of Nomadland, has brought a level of artistry and ambition to the table here which makes Earth seem fragile. She also succeeds in making The Eternals themselves deeply likeable, leaving the MCU with some truly unlikely new heroes. It’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but honestly, Eternals feels less like a Marvel film and more like a Villeneuve-style space opera at times.
Sure, it has all the MCU trappings – references to The Avengers, snappy one-liners, CGI slugfests. But Shang-Chi was a film with a brilliant core cast stifled by the obligation of having to spend half the runtime punching things. Eternals isn’t afraid to spend twenty minutes at a time letting these strange visitors just… talk.
There’s some terrific dialogue in Eternals, and it’d be a real shame – and a mistake – to lament these proper cinematic moments as somehow running contrary to what a Marvel film is supposedly meant to be.
Eternals soars. Meditative, ambitious and deceptively intelligent, it’s a strange, wonderful new direction for the MCU.
Paul Verhoeven attended a screening of Eternals as a guest of Disney.