Pictured: '4,000 years I wait for a wedding and we turn up in our Eternals uniforms?' Ikaris (Richard Madden) and Sirsi (Gemma Chan) in a scene from Marvel Studios' 'Eternals', directed by Chloé Zhao. Still courtesy of Marvel Studios/Disney
Before she started shooting Eternals in July 2019, Chloé Zhao was just another indie director given her first chance to helm a big budget movie, with only two completed features to her name, Songs My Brothers Taught Me and The Rider, and a film, Nomadland, in post-production. By the time Eternals was released in November 2021, she was only the second woman to win an American Academy Award as Best Director for her road movie starring Frances McDormand. Zhao shouldn’t be judged against her Academy Award success for her fourth film; it is what she does afterwards that will prove significant. It is fair to say that she will never have another film as widely seen as Eternals, as it represents Marvel Studios’ latest attempt to extend its Cinematic Universe. It is also fair to say that after its initial splash ($71 million opening weekend, domestic), Eternals won’t be too fondly remembered, being a little too hectoring in tone, a little too much, ‘we must save the humans’.
Formally, Eternals is the antidote to Guardians of the Galaxy - ‘Guardians of Earth’, you might say. No one in it looks like a superhero, or even particularly extraordinary. The titular characters reminded me of the X-Men, Marvel superheroes who haven’t yet been admitted to said Cinematic Universe. Each Eternal has a special power - sometimes two, in the case of Ikaris (Richard Madden), the token Scottish Eternal, who can fly and shoot laser beams out of his eyes. At one point, I was surprised to hear him described as Superman; in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, they know about DC comics? There is, in fact, a direct visual homage to Superman – The Movie.
I also could not shake the notion that Eternals sounds like an ‘Eighties pop band, who entered the charts at number five with ‘Babylon’. They even look like a cut-and-paste supergroup in body hugging outfits and an almost equal blend of men and women. I could certainly see Thena (Angelina Jolie) and Ajak (Salma Hayek) as lead singers, with Sprite (Lia McHugh) on bass, Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) on lead guitar and Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) tinkling the ivories on keyboards. Druig (Barry Keoghan) and Gilgamesh (Don Lee) as backing singers and Ikaris himself on drums. Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) would be on the scratch deck. If they are a band, they have been on tour for 7,000 years, and darned if they are going to change their set list.
Eternals begins unusually for a Marvel Studios film with an opening crawl. We are told there are two types of being: Celestials and Deviants. Celestials do great things – although we are never told what they are. Deviants are a scourge. To protect the Earth, one Celestial, Arishem (voiced by David Kaye) created the Eternals, a just-in-time hero force who all speak, for utterly unexplained reasons, with different accents. Arishem himself looks like a double set of red traffic lights – and you don’t jump a double set of red lights.
Salma Hayek as Ajak has the honour of speaking the first line: ‘it is time’. She and the other Eternals are standing in a circle in what I can only describe as an aborted game of musical chairs. Her delivery is rigid, and it sets the tone of the film. This is about a group of people who narrate their seriousness. Ajak is the nominal leader – she has what looks like a golden marble embedded in her larynx, which, we are told enables her to speak to Arishem – not that she says what’s on her mind, or else Ajak would ask Arishem to give her a green light. (‘Come on, it’s Marvel.’) The Eternals leave their floating intergalactic monolith to do battle with some Deviants on a beach, who have decided to attack some young children, because that’s what Deviants do. There is a certain amount of repelling the hell-hound-shaped Deviants with their weapons and a certain amount of self-congratulatory looks as they do a pretty good job. At the end of the encounter, Sirsi (Gemma Chan) gives a child a colourful spearhead, because they hadn’t invented Cabbage Patch Dolls in 5,000 BC. Cut to present day and Sirsi in modern dress sees the spearhead on a digital screen in Piccadilly Circus advertised as being on display at the Natural History Museum, where she has a teaching job. I should point out that this is a Marvel Studios movie and realism is not expected. Moreover, as she goes to work, she addresses a statue of Charles Darwin as if she knew him, though the moment is gone before we have time to react.
Sirsi takes over the lesson from Dane (Kit Harington), her handsome colleague with whom she spends quality time outside work. Cue some ‘oohs’ from the front row. Her lesson is about apex predators – we remember those from Wonder Woman 1984. ’An apex predator is a hunter who doesn’t expect to be hunted in its own habitat,’ says Sirsi before being interrupted by an earthquake, which we expect is London’s sewers being backed up. Water companies in the UK put profit before investment. (Look it up: it’s a thing.) In the evening, Sirsi and Dane have a night out in Camden Lock, together with their third wheel, Sprite, who pretends to be an older woman in order to get served in a pub. They are interrupted by a Deviant who appears from the North London canal, because where do you think Deviants come from? Sirsi and Sprite try to contain it, with Sprite creating multiple versions of herself – a tomboyish fourteen-year-old - while Dane arrives late to the party. We see him try to do a superhero leap, then think better of it. In the end, Ikaris comes to the rescue – this involves a London bus being turned into pixie dust (so that’s why there’s never a number 31 when you need one). Triumphant but not smug, Ikaris fixes his gaze on Sirsi. A long time ago – several centuries, actually – they were married in India. They even looked together longingly at the planet Earth from their spaceship, Sirsi remarking, ‘beautiful, isn’t it?’
It's no fault of Zhao, who was tied to Jack Kirby’s comic book for inspiration, but I object to the character names being misspellings of characters from mythology. Sirsi is named after Circe, the daughter of Helios the Sun God, who, according to her Encyclopaedia Britannica entry, could turn humans into wolves, lions and swine. (That’s no way to neutralise a threat.) Ikaris is named after Icarus, who famously flew too close to the sun, melting the wax that held his wings together. Ajak is a misspelling of Ajax, who fought in the Trojan War, a man of colossal stature – at least that is how he preferred to be described. Thena is Athena, goddess of war, who dropped the ‘A’, as if the marquee with her name on it got damaged. Sprite is named after a well-marketed lemon and lime drink that is a market leader, ahead of 7-Up. Marvel is helping people misremember the great myths and fail their Classical Civilisation exam. (Confession: I needed no such assistance.)
The Eternals went their separate ways long ago. After the incident in Camden, Sirsi decides, Blues Brothers-style, to get the band back together. They go in search of Ajak, whom they discover to be dead, slaughtered by Deviants (because that’s what they do). After her cremation, they seek out the others.
You might be thinking: why did Hayek sign up for a role in which her only line is, ‘it is time’? Actually, there are a series of flashbacks. We discover why the Eternals broke up (hint: it isn’t that they wanted more money) and how Ajak met her demise.
Pictured: Salma Hayek as Ajak in a scene from Marvel Studios' 'Eternals', a superhero film directed by Chloé Zhao. Still courtesy of Marvel Studios/Disney
With Kit Harington out of the picture, the film is sorely missing some comic relief. Fortunately, Kumail Nanjiani reappears, with much enhanced biceps. Kingo has made it big in Bollywood and we see Nanjiani in a dance sequence, apparently enjoying the absurdity of being a matinee-idol. His physical transformation is impressive. Once Nanjiani appeared in The Big Sick. Now he looks a bit sick. Kingo has an assistant/business associate, Karun (Harish Patel) who decides to make a documentary about him. Karun becomes the default comedy relief, though every so often, he pauses and says it is an honour.
Some of the other Eternals are very serious-minded indeed. Druig has the power to get men to stop fighting, forget their differences, hug, and live harmoniously with one another. Sports franchises hate him! The Eternals prevent Druig from exercising his gift. ‘We must not interfere with human history. We should let them develop on their own,’ Druig is told. This has spawned a popular meme. Captioned ‘the Eternals during the Holocaust’, we see a bunch of young people checking their phones.
Phastos is the science guy. During 500 AD, he proposes giving humans the combustion engine. Too early, he is told. Instead, he offers them the plough. In a flashback, we see Phastos in Hiroshima in 1945, looking at the aftermath of a nuclear explosion. ‘I did this,’ he concludes. Science pushed mankind to commit a cruel act of devastation. Interestingly, at no point do the Eternals discuss climate change. Some subjects are taboo even for a Marvel Studios film and this is a movie that features a sex scene, a gay kiss, and a rude gesture – though not all at the same time.
Pictured: Putting on a Sprite show. Sprite (Lia McHugh) in a scene from Marvel Studios 'Eternals', directed by Chloé Zhao. Still courtesy of Marvel Studios/Disney
Sprite, who has been likened to Tinkerbell, has an issue with looking like a fourteen-year-old. ‘I will never be like them,’ she complains, as if that’s a bad thing. Sprite has a case of human envy. I think if she settled in Sweden, she would be okay, in a Let the Right One In kind of universe.
Makkari, named after the Scottish footballer, speaks through sign language. She doesn’t have any issues, though she admires Druig. Gilgamesh likes his food, because the writers were somewhat short of character traits.
The most interesting of the Eternals is Thena, who has memory and anger management issues. At certain points, Thena’s eyes roll back in their sockets before she fights with her colleagues. Thena’s memory is described as ‘cracking’, but really most of them in their tight outfits look rather spectacular. The editing does not allow the camera to linger on them, but we get the general idea.
As the band regroups in far-flung places such as Iraq and the Amazon, with the occasional interruption of a Deviant attack, they debate why Sirsi was chosen as leader – I mean, she does not even turn up to class on time. You would have thought that the scientist would have been picked, especially as they are modelled on the X-Men. However, there is a perfectly logical reason, otherwise known as the late movie twist, with Arishem revealing the real reason why the Eternals stuck around on Earth. I have to tell you that it is rather random.
Eternals is notable for being inclusive, with the aforementioned gay kiss, a deaf protagonist and Marvel’s first South Asian superhero. I’m not sure exactly how much this is down to Zhao, who exercises her penchant for scenes in vast open spaces. I’m not sure she had the special effects budget of her contemporaries; some of the effects are unconvincing by Marvel Studios’ high standards. Some reviewers have complained that the movie is rather dull, but don’t they realise that The Blues Brothers was a cult hit?
At one point, a child waves a Star Wars magazine, and you grimace at the ‘we’ve got intellectual property and we’re going to shove it in your face’. The climax is action-packed though it is also a little confusing. The Deviants and the Eternals find themselves on the same side, yet still they fight.
Tiny bit spoiler alert. Marvel Studios movies are noted for their post credit sequences, to the extent that you should skip the film and watch them instead. Eternals has two. In the first, a reasonably well-known pop star turned actor appears as a relative of a significant Marvel character and I confess that I didn’t recognise him. In the second, Dane, last seen on Parliament Hill Fields (maximising those locations in the London Borough of Camden), addresses a crate in his digs, having hinted that he has a complicated family history. Doubtless, he is supposed to be another misspelt hero from ancient yore.
Reviewed at Ashford Cineworld (Kent, UK), Screen Twelve, Saturday 6 November 2021, 12:30pm screening.