The director of “Eternals,” the new Marvel extravaganza, is none other than Chloé Zhao, the indie auteur whose last film was the microbudgeted “Nomadland.” The road movie about rural itinerants won Oscars for both best picture and director, and for star Frances McDormand. In style and substance, I can’t think of two more disparate films. Unlike some of my colleagues, however, I don’t regard Zhao’s Marvel makeover as a simple case of selling out. But before I elaborate on that, here’s a more pressing question: Is the film any good?
I’m not a big Marvel person, but I recognize the need for these films to exist; they’re the cinematic equivalent of the circus coming to town. A few of them, such as “Iron Man,” “Black Panther,” and “Avengers: Endgame,” were good. “Eternals” is subpar in comparison. It comes across like the B side to the “Avengers” movies, with almost none of their star power or CGI pizazz.
The Eternals are shadow warriors sent to Earth thousands of years ago to save it from the monstrous Deviants, who resemble befanged supersize renegades from “A Quiet Place.” Thanks to the Eternals, earthlings have never heard of Deviants but, alas, they’ve returned – after 500 years – more ferocious than ever.
Why We Wrote This
If Oscar winner Chloé Zhao pivots from her indie roots to make a big-budget Marvel film like “Eternals,” does it make her a sellout? The Monitor’s film critic weighs in on that – and the new movie.
The Eternals include Sersi (Gemma Chan), first seen in modern-day London and looking happily human paired with her earthly lover (Kit Harington). Her Eternals lover, Ikaris (Richard Madden), with whom she has had an off-and-on romance for millennia, suddenly shows up to complicate matters. He and the other superheroes, scattered around the globe in their various guises, are roused to once again decimate the Deviants.
It’s noteworthy that the Eternals are, by Hollywood superhero standards, remarkably diverse, with several other Asian actors besides Chan – including Don Lee’s rollicky Gilgamesh and Kumail Nanjiani’s wisecracking Bollywood heartthrob Kingo – in starring roles. Brian Tyree Henry’s genius inventor Phastos not only is an openly gay Black man but also is married and a father. Lauren Ridloff, who is deaf, plays the deaf speedster Makkari.
But, except for Angelina Jolie, who plays the warrior Thena, none of the film’s performers is especially luminescent. Even Jolie, in her too-brief role, seems a bit distracted. She periodically goes murderously rogue against her helpmates, which turns out to be more tiresome than thrilling. Even if Zhao and her co-screenwriters were more adept at establishing the family-style togetherness of the Eternals, the emotional continuity is shattered by the incessant time tripping and globe hopping. Just when you think you’ve got your bearings in South Dakota, you suddenly find yourself in Mesopotamia.
Still, I don’t think Zhao should be chided for attempting a film so seemingly outside her comfort zone. (She has professed a love of manga.) No director – least of all a female director, for whom job opportunities are particularly unplentiful – should have to commit to a career of specialization. The only qualm I have about “Eternals” is that it’s not better. (And, for the record, I was mixed on “Nomadland” and her earlier indies.)
Is Zhao perhaps the victim of a double standard? There was no big selling-out hoo-ha when Ryan Coogler, who made his name with the powerful indie “Fruitvale Station,” graduated to “Creed” and “Black Panther.” The combined budgets of Christopher Nolan’s first two films, “Following” and “Memento,” wouldn’t pay for the caterer on his “Batman Begins.”
It’s also quite possible to achieve moments of emotional intensity in superhero movies matching anything in the indie realm. Case in point: Tony Stark’s death scene in “Avengers: Endgame,” which features Robert Downey Jr. at his most moving. In an ideal world, I would wish for filmmakers to mix it up micro and macro, the way, say, Steven Soderbergh does. But that’s just me. If indie filmmakers want to exit the byways and enter the circus tent, there will be others to take their place. In the end, the only thing that really matters is that the movies be good.
Peter Rainer is the Monitor’s film critic. “Eternals” is rated PG-13 for fantasy violence and action, some language, and brief sexuality.