★★★★ - STUFF
- This Marvel is a global, inclusive, self-aware swing at the superhero genre -
We are in the “present day”, which, in Eternals means around five years after the events of Avengers: Endgame.
The world's population has been restored, Tony Stark is still incontrovertibly gone and Steve Rogers is, I guess, a deservedly retired gentleman of leisure.
But, you have to wonder what either of those men would have said, when Thanos was mostly kicking their arses from one side of the galaxy to the other, if they had known there was another group of vastly powerful superheroes on Earth, any of whom could have joined the fight against Thanos and maybe made a difference, if they had chosen to. But they didn't because they had orders to only show their faces if their nemeses “the Deviants” should happen to show up.
We are told these “Eternals” have been living among us for seven thousand years. They have been there for pretty much every event that Billy Joel namechecks in We Didn't Start The Fire and a few more besides. Although, to be fair, finding a rhyme for “Tenochtitlan” (y'know, the last great city of the Aztecs) might have challenged even Billy's undoubted genius for the pithy couplet.
However, around 500 years ago, the Eternals destroyed the last of the Deviants – who, it turns out, look like something between a dragon and a Rottweiler, but made out of left-over pasta – and for the last half-a-millennia they've just been kinda hanging, doing their own thing, making their own lives and slowly losing touch with each other.
As you might have guessed, there's a fair bit of talking and exposition in Eternals. Director Chloe Zhao's approach to a superhero film is gratifyingly different to everything that has gone before. These characters are individuals, not archetypes – even though a few of them have made their way into human mythology over the centuries – and they are not always going to act out in ways we have seen in the Marvel universe.
So while Eternals must still stick the big beats of a superhero movie – a group find each other, overcome their differences and endure setbacks and defeats, before learning how to trust their friends and themselves to defeat a planetary threat – the trip to the end credits is a warmer, more human and often more relatable ride than it has been in the past.
Zhao's film might miss the wisecracks and a few of the more pointless fights that distinguished Marvel's journey from Iron Man to Endgame, but, maybe the world has moved on from those days too. And, given the unlikely excellence of what Kevin Feige and his casts often achieved during those heady years, maybe it was best not to try to put lightning in a bottle in exactly the same way again.
Eternals is a global, inclusive and self-aware swing at the genre. Although Zhao – fresh from an Academy Award for the deeply unflashy Nomadland might have been no one's first pick for, y'know, super-beings in lycra, in truth, her deep sense of the rhythms that pass unspoken between people and of exactly how those people can find a place of peace within a vast and impersonal landscape, are exactly what makes Eternals such a memorable, unfamiliar and refreshing film to watch.
Yes, in amongst that lengthy running time, Zhao must make the time for several well-constructed and choreographed fights and battles. But her musings on gods, heroism and our human need to locate them within others and ourselves – are at the very guts of her script and this film.
It's a brave – perhaps heroic – approach to take to this most risk-averse and unbending of genres, but it has yielded, maybe not one of the Marvel greats, but at least one of their most interesting and discussion-worthy films.
Among the cast, Angelina Jolie looks just a bit too much of a mega star to play well in an ensemble, but she finds some lovely moments as a wounded warrior, slowly going insane from an overload of memories. Richard Madden and Kit Harington raise at least one “haven't I met you before” gag from their days as cast mates on Game of Thrones, while Gemma Chan lays waste to them all as Sersi, the leader of the gang. Kumail Nanjiani provides the best joke in the film as Kingo, who has been spending his downtime living as five consecutive generations of Bollywood stars.
Eternals is overlong, overstuffed with character and has too much explaining to do while it lays out its story. But the characters are quite beautifully written, the cinematography – much of it lit by the actual setting sun – is exceptional, and the storytelling is at a depth that very few superhero movies, if any, have ever attempted before.
This might just be the Marvel movie for people who don't ever want to see another Marvel movie. Which, admittedly, does beg the question, exactly who is Eternals really for? Well, me, I guess. Cos I absolutely loved it.
- Graeme Tuckett, STUFF
Eternals is now playing at Light House Petone & Pauatahanui!