After her Oscar win for “Nomadland,” indie director Chloé Zhao delivers with the Marvel action film ETERNAL her first major studio production and can remain true to her style for the next MCU like no one else before her. We reveal more about this in our review.
OT: Eternals (UK/USA 2021)
The Eternals are a species of immortal aliens from the distant planet Olympia who came to Earth thousands of years ago to protect humanity from a race of interstellar predators called the Deviants. The Eternals were warned about this threat by the Celestials, a race of cosmic creators. The Eternals’ mission is to live on Earth for thousands of years to protect humanity and civilization, but also the planet. And when they are not appearing as rescuers, they live a more or less inconspicuous life among people. But a threat arises that forces them all to regroup and fight against her…
At the beginning of the year, Marvel’s “Black Widow” had the difficult task of breathing new life into the MCU after the fourth phase had been completed and standing in line for the comic book heroes of the next generation. Something that the Scarlett Johansson vehicle unfortunately only achieved moderately. Above all because the film is set before the events of “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Endgame” – told a story whose outcome had long since been sealed for the main character. “Black Widow” was undoubtedly a nice treat for Marvel fans, but “Berlin Syndrome” director Cate Shortland was unable to spark a new MCU hype. So Chloé Zhao, recent Oscar winner for best director for “Nomadland,” has to fulfill that part; At least in the ideal. Before a few old guard heroines and heroes are allowed to get to work again in the next few months, which is unlikely to trigger a rousing feeling of departure into new realms. The fates of the well-known Marvel faces are simply too closely linked to their earlier stories. “Eternals” now has the great fortune of actually breaking new ground. Scenario-wise, visually and with a previously completely unknown cast of characters who will be able to populate the MCU from now on. There are many, many new characters that the audience is confronted with in the lush two and a half hours. Just like with a style that makes Zhao’s involvement in “Eternals” obvious at all times. And that applies not only to their preference for backlights and beams of light, as seen in “Nomadland” and “The Rider,” but also to a narrative casualness that never allows the intimate core of this extremely opulent heroic epic to fade into the background.
Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), Sersi (Gemma Chan) and Sprite (Lia McHugh) on a joint mission with the Eternals.
When large film studios announce the commitment of a person previously known from the indie sector to direct a large-scale production for the general public, the initial euphoria is often followed by a certain degree of skepticism. To what extent is he or she allowed to include his or her own signature in the film? How much say does the studio allow itself to have a say in the production? And how much of the individual style does it allow the makers? In the case of “Ant-Man,” for example, in the middle of the production process there was a falling out between Kevin Feige and Edgar Wright, who was originally hired as director, who was supposed to restrain himself in his vision, didn’t want to and ultimately had to vacate his position. “Ant-Man” still feels like an Edgar Wright film for long stretches. In short: Anyone who joins the Marvel family knows in advance that they have certain requirements to meet. Also Chloé Zhao, who didn’t even wait until she was approached with the task of directing a Marvel film, but – as a major comic film maker – expressed the wish herself. The fact that she has now been assigned “Eternals” suits Zhao in terms of content. In her previous films, the relationship between nature and people, people and society as well as society and our demands on it or on individual (sometimes deadlocked) positions always played an important role. These are all topics that “Eternals” also touches on. Which Zhao can’t always tell to the fullest satisfaction, as she also has to establish a huge number of characters. But the direction and the associated importance of the Eternals characters in the MCU becomes even clearer. The creative people behind the scenes are thinking a whole lot bigger than for their previous films.
“The fact that Chloé Zhao was assigned to ‘Eternals’ suits Zhao’s content. In her previous films, the relationship between nature and people, people and society as well as society and our demands on them or on individual (sometimes deadlocked) positions always played an important role in her.
The fact that – with the exception of the “Avengers” films – every solo film in the MCU has so far focused on a single character or, as with the “Guardians of the Galaxy”, at most on a small, homogeneous group of characters, made the tonality of the Films always depend heavily on the characters themselves. The driving force behind the appearance of “Eternals” is above all the director, whose attention to visual detail is reflected in the film from scene one. Of course, it’s easy to reflect on Zhao’s passion for the genuine. Her preference for natural light sources, her penchant for scenes in semi-darkness or for placing people in dazzling cones of light. All of this can undoubtedly be found in “Eternals”. But her production style leaves a much greater impression in the way she lets characters interact with one another. Dialogues here always seem to be filmed casually. Rarely have a clear beginning and end point or a recognizable dramaturgy. Zhao also once again refrains from making any stage-related prejudgment. Quite a few “Eternals” characters have individual views on various topics that clash with those of the troupe. However, Zhao does not take up the potential for conflict in the production itself. Instead, it is the script co-written by Zhao that scatters the breadcrumbs of possible conflicts that will take place at a later date, although it is still far from possible to estimate to what extent these will take place. “Eternals” allows its characters the greatest possible individuality and creates believable friendships and connections from this. It’s obvious that an extroverted character like the always in a good mood (and therefore fittingly a Bollywood star in his life) Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) somehow gets along with everyone. Nevertheless, clearly reserved characters like the young Sprite (Lia McHugh) tend to feel overwhelmed by this. With Sersi (Gemma Chan), who moves into the narrative focus from the beginning, and the introverted Ikaris (Richard Madden), the key word takes effect “People of the same kind stick together”. And Thena (Angelina Jolie), who floats through the scene like a god and aloof, acts primarily as an observer from the outside and leaves few scent marks of her own – but according to her character interpretation, she doesn’t have to.
Ikaris (Richard Madden) and Sersi (Gemma Chan) have a very special connection with each other.
Nevertheless, even the two and a half hours of running time are clearly not enough to do justice to every Eternal. Especially among the figures in the second row, a lot remains on the surface. Instead, the characterization here is limited to their function within the action-packed conflict. The fact that Zhao does not allow himself to be guided by the different impulses of the characters when designing the fight scenes, but instead uses an opulent style that is more reminiscent of the large, CGI-filled battles from DC (although staged much more delicately here), robs “Eternals “ Moments of stylistic variation. What I particularly like, however, is that the finale of the film – especially compared to recent Marvel film final battles – turns out to be pleasantly restrained; And one motif (keyword: hand) even leaves one behind the lasting impressions of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. This also applies to opening up new horizons. Such a diverse cast has never been found in a large studio production. The relationship between male and female characters is balanced, and the makers approach homosexuality and inclusion with a casualness that ensures that it doesn’t feel like ticking off an agenda. It’s simply self-evident. Just like one often seen in the media “First sex scene in the Marvel Cinematic Universe” titled moment in which Sersi and Ikaris become physically close. This has actually never been seen so directly under the Marvel logo. Nevertheless, even in the first “Iron Man” film, it was never made secret that Tony Starck really enjoys the womanizer role that gets laid with women.
“The fact that Zhao doesn’t allow himself to be guided by the different impulses of the characters when designing the fight scenes, but rather uses an opulent style that is more reminiscent of the big, CGI-filled battles from DC (although staged much more delicately here), is surprising.” Eternals’ moments of stylistic variation.”
At the end of the day, “Eternals” is above all the sum of its individual parts. Nevertheless, Chloé Zhao manages to fill the space in between. There is still a lot of room for improvement in the characterization of the individual characters. Not everyone will like the very open ending either. But the path there reveals a glimpse of a Marvel era that – in the truest sense of the word – includes new narrative dimensions. The balance between the individual elements still has to be established. An important task of the upcoming Marvel films will be to combine godlike characters who are above any conflict with the much more grounded characters of the MCU. What a challenge this can be was demonstrated by the introduction of Captain Marvel. And the typical “Marvel formula”? Although Chloé Zhao has visibly internalized this, she makes sure to only attribute entertaining humor to those characters whose characters allow it (and that over so many centuries-old, fundamentally different roles, all of them are consistently as wise, serious and reserved as the majority of them). the production itself would have simply robbed the film of its authenticity). In short: Even in “Eternals” you can laugh from time to time. Not as loudly as in an “Ant-Man” or “Spider-Man”, but in such a way that “Eternals” never runs the risk of slipping into meaninglessness. Because this is still a film in which characters close laser beams from their eyes and fight against monstrous creatures.
Conclusion: There are a few bumps in “Eternals”. Some of the characters remain superficial and it is not yet entirely clear to what extent godlike creatures like the Eternals will fit into a film universe that has so far lived primarily from the humanity and relatability of its characters. But Chloé Zhao reconciles many seemingly incompatible components, stays true to her (not just visual) style and ensures that her humor is compatible with the basic tonality. “Eternals” makes you want more, even if you can’t yet estimate where exactly the journey will go.
“Eternals” can be seen in USA cinemas from October 3, 2021.