Jack Kirby was nothing if not ethereally driven. The comic book legend responsible for co-creating Fantastic Four, Iron Man, the X-Men, and Hulk (all with writer Stan Lee), among others, helped change the way we thought about expanded universes and crossovers, beginning all the way back in the early 1960s. His enthusiasm for science-fiction and metaphysics broadened the scope of these characters and their lore. He left Marvel Comics for their rival DC in 1970, where he created an esoteric series called New Gods, which dealt with celestial beings, finding the artist fully in his own wheelhouse, perhaps for the first time.
New Gods was canceled after 11 issues and eventually Kirby returned to Marvel years later where he would spiritually succeed his previous series with one called Eternals. Similarly inscrutable for most casual comic readers, that series, too, didn’t live long. However, the characters – and the concept about a powerful, immortal alien race placed on Earth to protect humanity against creatures called Deviants – couldn’t stay away. Throughout the years Marvel has gone back to the enigma of Eternals, now with a feature film adaptation directed by Chloé Zhao.
If you ever wanted to watch a Best Picture/Best Director Oscar winner immediately helm a big budget superhero blockbuster, you might not get another chance. At least not to this degree. Zhao isn’t your typical award-winning director. With verité, genteel tendencies that utilize small, yet impactful acting choices and a lot of natural lighting, the director is definitely a perfect model of the modern-day, arthouse-centric Oscar winner, which undoubtedly yields interesting results when guided by the hand of Marvel uniformity.
Filmed right after wrapping her award-winning Nomadland, Eternals sees much of the same visual style bleeding over even if, narratively, the two couldn’t be more different. Still forced to adhere to the cohesion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Eternals has big action sequences and an awareness of its high concept. Yet, this is still a very different Marvel outing than we’re used to.
The 45-minute first act is a little wonky as it employs a non-linear narrative to set up the backstory and its characters. After 7,000 years on this planet, the powerful group of Eternals, who have been separated now for the last half a century, slowly reunite after their leader, Ajak (Salma Hayek), is killed by a Deviant. Since they thought they had destroyed the last of the beasts hundreds of years ago, the alien heroes, now led by Sersi (Gemma Chan), must slowly come back together to formulate a plan.
Zhao’s script (co-written with Patrick Burleigh and Ryan and Kaz Firpo) perfectly captures the spirit of Kirby’s writing, which always explored both Bible and mythology, science and spirituality; the perennial conflict that, instead of cowering under the weight of it, he chose to imbue into his comics. There’s a Christian allegory at the center of this Eternals story built around Greek mythology, and somehow the hypothetical crossover becomes momentarily reconciled without feeling discordant. Zhao also includes tinges of spirituality in Nomadland, but uses it as a tool to undergird Frances McDormand’s character rather than directly pointing to it. Here, her grip on Kirby’s original themes is notable.
Featuring moments of masterful filmmaking and a core philosophical dilemma that’s about as abstract as a blockbuster movie would allow, Eternals is perhaps the closest thing a Marvel installment has come to feeling like high-brow Oscar bait, but Zhao doesn’t quite abandon the familiar superhero conventions long enough to fully go all-in in the other direction, almost like she’s pulling away from an artsy, cerebral think-piece to inexplicably remind us that it’s still part of this obsessively constructed world.
Eternals possess that typical Marvel bounce, but you can tell the material is begging to be something a bit more austere. Suffering from tonal woes with the shoehorned humor, the jokes are also some of the best and most authentic in the MCU – and not as ubiquitous as in their other films. The comedy is almost solely relegated to two characters: Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), an Eternal who’s taken advantage of his immortality to become a generational Bollywood star, and his valet Karun (Harish Patel), who humorously documents everything that happens. The film struggles with finding its audience surrogate, but also doesn’t forcibly accentuate the singular one it has in Karun, the only human of the bunch.
Exploring ideas of agelessness and the celestial hierarchy, Eternals covers some truly complex themes, brought on by Kirby’s highly unique and intricate premise; introducing a new angle on the superhero genre, celebrating free will, the beauty of humanity’s fallibility, and the necessity of making mistakes – even when you have powerful beings who can manipulate all of that if they so choose. There’s a distinction made between sacrificing yourself for the sake of humanity – even if it means an inevitability of their continued failures – and destroying all life to make way for billions of new lives that don’t exist yet.
The performances are serviceable, with standouts being Nanjiani, Barry Keoghan as the mind-manipulator Druig, and Don Lee as the super-strong Gilgamesh. Angelina Jolie also has a notable role as Thena, an Eternal suffering from a psychological condition that’s thought to be a result of the weight of too many memories (thousands of years worth). Easily the biggest star in this film, the A-list actress’s humble role creates a unique experience as we watch her on the side with barely any lines, yet lighting up each frame that she’s in.
One of the most thought-provoking films in Marvel’s cinematic oeuvre, Eternals might feel slightly foreign for longtime fans – even weird amidst a world filled with green Hulks, talking racoon antiheroes, and regenerating anthropomorphic trees – but it’s that very deviation into the conceptually peculiar that makes it so welcomed. Growing her story and its characters rather than strictly plotting them out with distinct beats, Zhao continually finds ways to unnerve us through skewing familiar conventions with one or two new risks, the director always barely within her range at the far ends of filmmaking mastery, but mastery nonetheless.