Eternals, the most recent film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is proving to be one of the most divisive in the series. Much of the divide amongst both critics and audience alike can be attributable to Academy Award Winning director Chloé Zhao’s quieter sensibilities. Her penchant for tone poems may have made her a peculiar choice for the action heavy genre, but her more subdued style is a welcome breath of air for a genre that can be frantic at times.
While the film is inherently plot driven, with countless action scenes as Marvel requires in all their films, Chloé Zhao keeps an emotional arch at the center of her film. By the start of the movie, Sersi (Gemma Chan), Ikaris (Richard Madden) and the rest of the Eternals have lived for millennia. In that time, they have experienced countless lifetimes of emotion; they’ve experienced both endless joy and heartbreak. Sersi and Ikaris have spent eons in a loving relationship, and just as much time hurtfully apart. This baggage weighs heavily on Sersi as she begins a new emotional journey with a mortal, Dane (Kit Harington). When the deviants, the creatures the Eternals were sent on Earth to destroy, return, Ikaris and Sersi are thrust back together forcing Sersi to process her emotional baggage so she can fully commit to a relationship with Dane. This is the emotional core that Zhao relies upon to bring something personal and relatable to the loud franchise.
The strongest parts of the film for building these characters are the extensive flashbacks. In these, each of the Eternals in turn experiences a defining moment of their long lives. These often don’t come in battle, but in helping the humans progress and live fuller lives. For example, sitting down with a mortal cooking a simple dinner imbues Sirsi with empathy that guides her life for the centuries to come. These moments are where Zhao’s voice comes through the loudest. She enables her characters to evolve on their own without plot dictating what they should become. While it is still much more restrained version of Zhao’s other work, her auteurial signature pushes through, nonetheless.
Where Zhao’s influence is felt the least is unfortunately in the entire third act during which all character nuance is disregarded so that an overblown fight can take place. This fight sequence could fit in just fine with any other film in the Marvel library, but Zhao was building to something more. Her film deserved a more emotionally driven climax as part of the action. Instead, the film falls prey to the same soulless fight sequences that fans of Marvel fans have seen dozens of times before.
Eternals more than any other Marvel film allowed the distinct voice of its director to shine through the standard formula. Her use of flashbacks allowed her the slower pacing she uses so well to ensure that her characters develop organically. However, a completely disconnected third act leaves the film feeling like two separate entities. Zhao’s influence comes back for the film’s resolution and is strong enough throughout to warrant a recommendation. It would just be nice to see Marvel trust their directors with complete control of a film rather than micromanage all the action sequences.