This was bound to happen at some point, a filmmaker goes from winning Oscars for Best Director and Best Picture to helming a Marvel Comics movie. The studio did hire Chloé Zhao to make Eternals before Nomadland had even come out in theaters, one of a string of perspicacious director hires that has helped make this film series so successful. If you figured Zhao would do something unorthodox with Eternals, you are pretty perspicacious yourself. This is easily the strangest of the Marvel films, one that uses the formula to ponder cosmic questions about the meaning of human existence. It’s like the Marvel version of The Tree of Life. It should be much worse than it is.
The title characters are a group of 10 ageless, godlike alien beings dispatched to Mesopotamia in 5000 B.C. to aid the development of human civilization by exterminating the monsters called Deviants, which killed the dinosaurs. The alien beings seem to have succeeded by the 16th century A.D., so the one named Sersi (Gemma Chan) is quite surprised in the present day when a Deviant attacks her and her boyfriend (Kit Harington) while they’re walking home through London one night. The boyfriend, who only knows her as a museum curator, is even more surprised when she saves his life by transmogrifying an oncoming bus into a heap of rose petals. To face the new threat, she has to reunite the Eternals from their far corners of the globe: Thena (Angelina Jolie), once the group’s fiercest fighter, is now a PTSD case living in the Australian outback; Druig (Barry Keoghan) has, unsettlingly, become a god to his own cult in the Amazon jungle; Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) is, hilariously, hiding in plain sight as an Indian movie star.
This story isn’t tied down to a single time period or place, which allows Zhao to bring all of Disney/Marvel’s resources to bear in re-creating Babylon in the 6th century B.C., where Sersi and Ikaris (an Irish-accented Richard Madden) fall in love, or the Gupta Empire of Northern India a thousand years later, where they are married in a Hindu ceremony. The group and the marriage both break up in 1521 over the leader (Salma Hayek) preventing them from intervening when the Spanish conquistadors massacre the Aztecs in Tenochtitlán. The Eternals are expressly forbidden from taking sides in such matters, which is also why they didn’t join the Avengers against Thanos, but Sersi soon discovers that her kind aren’t meant to be much better than those conquistadors.
These historical settings are rendered vividly enough to turn you hot and cold, and Zhao films a Bollywood dance number like it’s something she always wanted to do. (This movie has more Indian stuff than you might expect.) Still, her transition from the grit of Nomadland and The Rider to the maximalism of this movie has its rough patches. The pacing is noticeably off during the early going, and the central romance doesn’t hold — Chan shows more chemistry with Harington than with his Game of Thrones co-star Madden. You could fairly say that the Marvel films have never been good with romance, but we saw The Avengers handle the “getting the band together” part of the story more adroitly. The movie takes its cue from Kingo’s personal documentarian (Harish Patel), who says, “We need action sequences!” while filming a fight against the Deviants. Those are dutifully included and executed reasonably well on their own, but they don’t fit the rest of the film’s tone of wonderstruck awe at the history of human accomplishments.
Nevertheless, Eternals enjoys fitful moments of inspiration when dwelling on the latter. It’s a brave thing to take the series into mystical territory, and I can’t help but admire how elastic the Marvel formula has proved, accommodating the racial commentary of Black Panther, the antic comedy of Thor: Ragnarok, and the teen drama of the Spider-Man films. Then, too, having an Asian woman glimpse the secret of the universe (and having Angelina Jolie give her a pep talk about how she needs to be the group’s new leader) is something Hollywood hasn’t given us until now. This crazy ambitious move from the reigning Hollywood franchise is a mess where the Dune remake is tidier, but given the choice between them, I’d watch Eternals again first.
Starring Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Kumail Nanjiani, and Angelina Jolie. Directed by Chloé Zhao. Written by Chloé Zhao, Patrick Burleigh, Kaz Firpo, and Ryan Firpo. Rated PG-13.