It’s almost time.
With twenty-five films and a fully realized serial arc already released, I wonder how many viewers checked out of Chloé Zhao‘s singular Eternals before the preamble was even complete. Despite all that context and investment, we’re made to read about all-powerful beings called Celestials, God-like immortals who inspired the cultural epics and heroes we still teach our children today, and other-worldly malicious creatures known as Deviants who’ve threatened humanity’s salvation for millennia. It’s obviously a big ask. One that Kevin Feige and company couldn’t have even suggested without the Infinity Saga’s incremental steps towards making space a legitimate (and necessary) playground for Earthly conflicts. It’s obviously left a lot of people scratching their heads. For me, however, it proves one of the best Marvel Cinematic Universe chapters yet.
It could be recency bias. Twenty-five films about the same characters with grand expectations to connect back to the same catastrophic endgame can get dull after a while. Maybe that’s why I loved the first Guardians of the Galaxy so much. It was new blood. To be able to step outside of the norm and witness something that’s—on first blush—wholly disconnected adds a level of excitement capable of breaking through the inevitable monotony of old guard characters. But while that’s a factor in this story’s success, it’s not the main one. That conversely lies in Zhao and co-writers Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo, and Kaz Firpo‘s ability to imbue this new race of Olympians with something Iron Man, Thor, and even Captain America never quite possessed: uncertainty.
I initially wrote “humility,” but that wouldn’t have been accurate. Those tried-and-true heroes may have been driven by ego, confidence, and (often) hubris, but the franchise has always been quick to present their contrition, guilt, and regret too. They were ultimately forced into possessing humility as a direct result of their certainty. They had to risk themselves for the greater good. They had to act and react in ways that made them second guess themselves in hindsight, but never in the moment. That’s what sets the Eternals apart. While tasked by a Celestial known as Arishem (David Kaye) to save Earth from Deviants, they were also ordered to never interfere in anything else. The instinct to protect humans from themselves that the Avengers live by has been suppressed.
This doesn’t initially pose a problem. When Ajak (Salma Hayek) and her team (Richard Madden‘s Ikaris, Gemma Chan‘s Sersi, Angelina Jolie‘s Thena, Lia McHugh‘s Sprite, Kumail Nanjiani‘s Kingo, Ma Dong-seok‘s Gilgamesh, Barry Keoghan‘s Druig, Brian Tyree Henry‘s Phastos, and Lauren Ridloff‘s Makkari) are dealing with Deviants in Mesopotamia, they don’t have anything but that mission to worry about. They don’t when the area becomes Babylon either since Deviants are still causing issues and their presence as a haven remains integral to the planet’s survival. It’s only when they’ve wiped out their mandated enemy that morality begins to set in for no other reason than exposure. You cannot spend thousands of years fighting to save mankind and then simply ignore their self-destruction. Not when your presence pushed them there.
Part of their mandate for protection was also subtly nudging forward their evolution technologically. As we know from real history, every altruistic advancement will eventually be repurposed as a weapon (and vice versa). Without Deviants to distract from their infinite amount of time, they were made to watch everything burn. That would wear on anyone let alone a hero, so they disbanded and went their separate ways. Some sought to build new lives of their own amongst the humans. Some sought to escape mankind and thus attempt to quiet the demons born from their inaction. And this solitary holding pattern for Arishem to finally send them home might have been enough if not for the Avengers reversing Thanos’ “blip.” The energy surge rocked Earth to its core.
Misguided allusions to global warming aside (saying it’s a result of the “blip” is quite flippant considering much of the population actually believes the phenomenon is fiction), earthquakes and melting ice caps have brought Deviants back to life. And just as the Eternals have learned to be more human, these monsters have taken their own evolutionary step forward. Whether or not Ajak and the others regret not stepping in against Thanos is suddenly rendered moot because their enemy’s resurgence gives them an excuse to suit up and fight once more. Maybe they do it because of duty. Maybe it’s to make up for their mistake. Either way, the band must reunite, work through the issues that tore them apart, and figure out a plan once tragedy strikes them.
Who better to capture these tortured souls that spent the last thousand plus years trying to carve a new path for themselves than Chloé Zhao? Throw all the marketing hype about practical sets, rural landscapes, and widescreen vistas out the window because the aesthetic quality of her filmmaking (no matter how gorgeous) will always pale to her ability to render three-dimensional characters that resonate beyond their specific world to become universally relatable. These are Gods we’re talking about. The comparison made by a child between Ikaris and Superman isn’t hyperbole. He flies and shoots laser beams from his eyes. Druig controls minds. Makkari has super speed. Sprite creates illusions. But none of them are their power. That lesson Tony Stark learns in Iron Man 3? They live it.
It guarantees some heavy drama due to lines in the sand being drawn (How long can you blindly follow an absentee commander before questioning his motives?) as well as some effective humor via rapport and shared history. The sarcasm is second nature and the cutting way it’s delivered an authentically pained response to the sense of betrayal that many feel for the others. Add actual comedy—brilliantly epitomized by the now six-generation-strong Bollywood star Kingo’s endearingly sweet valet Karun (Harish Patel)—and I can’t understand how anyone could think Eternals was too long. I was engrossed from the very beginning with the action, humor, and pathos inhabiting every frame. Because it’s not about urban destruction. It’s about diplomatic intrigue wherein they must decide between status quo and mutiny.
To tell it with ample flashbacks proves the best direction forward too since it allows Zhao to focus on one or two characters at a time. This is a sprawling cast, so throwing them together at once would be a risky proposition if your desire is for audiences to understand and appreciate each for their singular role within the group. The pattern is as follows: present-day Eternal decides which comrade to find next, flashback shows us how/why that comrade lost faith, reunion occurs (with potential action sequence), rinse, and repeat. Exposition is therefore incrementally spread out to not bog us down and so attention can be paid to each “chapter’s” focal point before moving to the next. Only after everyone gets his/her moment does the bigger picture crystallize.
Zhao is quite literally providing us the best of both worlds as a result. Eternals simultaneously feels like an MCU film and a prestige picture with everything that entails whether cinematography, score (Ramin Djawadi returns to the universe after composing Iron Man), soundtrack (Pink Floyd anyone?), and production design (the computer effects are subtle enhancements rather than obstructions). And do not forget the cast. None of that works if you don’t also have the humanistic portrayals that serve as a backbone to Zhao’s oeuvre. They’re all great, but Chan, Henry, Jolie, Dong-seok, and McHugh stand out for me. This is a family fallen apart that’s trying to come back together despite divergent paths leaving many fractured in irrevocable fashion. Some orders shouldn’t be followed, though. Consequences be damned.
 (L-R): Sprite (Lia McHugh), Druig (Barry Keoghan), Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), Karun (Harish Patel), Sersi (Gemma Chan) and Ikaris (Richard Madden) in Marvel Studios’ ETERNALS. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved. Copyright ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.
 (L-R): Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), Sersi (Gemma Chan) and Sprite (Lia McHugh) in Marvel Studios’ ETERNALS. Photo by Sophie Mutevelian. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved. Copyright ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.
 Marvel Studios’ ETERNALS. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. © 2021 Marvel Studios. All Rights Reserved.
 (L-R): Ikaris (Richard Madden) and Sersi (Gemma Chan) in Marvel Studios’ ETERNALS. Photo: Sophie Mutevelian ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved. Copyright ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.