A Film Review of
Directed by Chloé Zhao
Chloé Zhao, Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo, and Kaz Firpo
Ryan Firpo and Kaz Firpo
Distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2021
**Editor’s Note: This article contains spoilers for Eternals.**
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The back half of 2021 ushered in a new wave of subversive blockbusters in the aftermath of COVID-19. No Time to Die made a series of unprecedented choices with the character of James Bond, while Dune began a quiet, methodical deconstruction of the science fiction epic. Now, along comes Eternals to stand apart from the Marvel Studios catalog as the most interesting and solemn film of Marvel’s cinematic universe. Watching this film — and, apparently, the critics agree — feels a lot like watching Man of Steel (2013), Zack Snyder’s infamous subversion of the Superman mythos. If that nebulous Rotten Tomatoes score is to be trusted, it seems critics are split right down the middle regarding whether Eternals is worth your time.
One thing is abundantly clear when it comes to Eternals: everything you think you know about how Marvel movies operate, just like everything you think you know about Superman before watching Man of Steel, should be checked at the door, and failure to do so will likely result in disappointment. And if you think it unwise to draw parallels between these two films from these wildly different and rival comic book companies, consider the fact that Chloé Zhao, director of Eternals, cited Snyder’s film as a direct inspiration for her approach to the character of Ikaris (Richard Madden), by far the most nuanced and intriguing tragic superhero Marvel has ever put to screen.1 How interesting that Snyder’s powerful and seditious take on the most iconic superhero of them all proves, in hindsight, to be weirdly prescient in anticipating the future of the genre.
The Quiet Moments. Marvel films are known for their kinetic energy, sharp wit, and bombastic action — the chaotic, CGI-fest ending of Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) has the distinction of being the only sequence of film to actually put me to sleep in the theater. Eternals, by comparison, is a much quieter, reflective piece. Sure, there are major action scenes and no small amount of digital wizardry, but the frenetic pacing and snappy dialogue have been toned down in favor of lingering shots and nuanced emotion. Critic Robert Abele, writing for The Wrap, sums this up well when he writes, “On a granular watching level alone, it feels temporally different.”2
This approach will not work for every viewer and, frankly, it isn’t meant to. Even when Thanos snapped half of all life in the universe out of existence, the stakes never felt as cosmically high as they do in Eternals, and that has everything to do with how the writers and directors have chosen to tell their respective stories. Where previous Marvel movies trade on emotion, Zhao’s film deals earnestly with its characters, resulting in a picture that feels jarringly mature when you realize it is set in the same universe as a talking racoon who is best friends with a tree that can emote only by inflecting the same three words with different tones.
Sure, the film is not without its absurd moments. I laughed quite loudly when a character spoke sign language to an ancient people that were thousands of years from electricity, and pointed to her wrist to indicate “time,” and these people kept talking as if they understood her. And there are some humorous beats in the dialogue that land a little awkwardly, that feel quite out of place in a movie with such gravitas. But, overall, the tone of the film is fairly consistent, and all the actors turn in good performances.
The Power of Choice. One of the more interesting narrative decisions in Eternals is to condense what could have been its own series of stories into a less-than-three-hour runtime and weave those stories into the narrative through flashbacks that also chronicle Earth’s history. The Eternals came to Earth thousands of years ago, at the dawn of civilization; in fact, they are more or less responsible for helping early man develop civilization. For anyone familiar with History’s popular Ancient Aliens series, this concept is nothing new, as it pulls straight from the “ancient astronauts” hypothesis, which basically explains the sudden burst of civilization in Mesopotamia in roughly 4000 BC as the result of intelligent extraterrestrial intervention.3 As a result, the Eternals become the original archetypes with which most world mythologies are concerned. The ancient stories of great heroes fighting monsters all stem from their actions.
The Eternals were sent by the Celestial entity Arishem (David Kaye) to protect Earth from a race of beings known as Deviants. What the Eternals don’t know is that, as they walk with mankind through the ages of history, they are actually paving the way for the birth of a new Celestial, Tiamut. The birth of a Celestial, which occurs within the heart of a planet, destroys the planet, and absorbs all life there. Throughout the course of the film, the Eternals learn their true origins as artificially created life forms that, upon the destruction of the planet they are assigned to, are reincarnated and sent off to another planet to repeat the process and birth a new Celestial.
But this time, the story plays differently. The Eternal named Sersi (Gemma Chan) has developed a powerful empathetic connection with human beings on Earth. And when their true purpose is revealed, Sersi refuses to sacrifice the humans of Earth to birth a new Celestial, putting her at odds with overlord Arishem and the Eternal named Ikaris, her one-time partner, though that one-time partnership spanned thousands upon thousands of years of history. This revelation, and Sersi’s choice, forms the core dilemma at the heart of the film: should the Eternals carry out their mission, now that they know their true purpose? Since they themselves are artificial lifeforms, is it even right for them to consider rebellion against Arishem? Do they even have a will of their own?
The content of Eternals is surprisingly philosophical. These ruminations alongside wide-angled shots of vast landscapes with Sersi and Ikaris standing together contemplatively in the foreground would not feel out of place in a Terrence Malick film — a director whom Zhao also cites as an inspiration for this picture.4 The juxtaposition of intimacy and the vast, cosmic scope of things makes for compelling, unsettling viewing. It calls to mind what writer-director Paul Schrader calls the “transcendental style” of cinema, a kind of filmmaking that withholds spectacle and asks the audience to participate, to lean forward into the world of the film, to invest in the complex emotions of the characters, when there are no easy answers to be found.5
A Film with Skin. Despite all the subversive tendencies of Eternals, however, there was one scene that stuck out to me more than any other — Eternals features a sex scene. Considering the steady expunging of these kinds of scenes from Hollywood blockbusters in recent years, the clip in Eternals might come across as downright shocking, despite how tame it actually appears. A youth pastor friend of mine said he went with his church to a viewing of the film, and comments were made when the scene came up.
The moment made sense in the context of Sersi’s relationship with Ikaris, a relationship that is the backbone of the film. The movie opens with their first meeting upon awakening and ends with their final goodbye. In fact, it is his recalling his ages-long, monogamous relationship with Sersi and his unyielding love for her that enables Ikaris to choose to spare humanity over obeying his directive to ensure the birth of the Celestial. Now, I am sure there are those who will argue that showing an intimate moment between these two characters adds nothing to the film, and I will respectfully disagree.
The sex scene in Eternals is one of the most realistic and intimate moments Marvel has ever put to screen. After being lulled to sleep by the lack of anything real on screen in Age of Ultron, I was surprised by the quiet, understated humanity Zhao found within her inhuman characters in Eternals. In an article for The Washington Post, critic Ann Hornaday argues for the inclusion of a sex scene “that, when choreographed with sensuality and sensitivity, can be memorable as genuine entertainment — maybe even great art — and not just a lascivious clip on Pornhub.” When certain films are devoid of such scenes, or the scenes are mishandled, she writes, “you’re pretending to build a world grounded in realism that is completely devoid of one of the core elements — and joys — of the human experience. It’s as if Hollywood — fixated on families, teenagers and global markets — has given up on American adults as anything more than arrested adolescents interested only in revisiting the distractions of their youth.”6
This is a topic sure to generate much debate among Christians — not least because the scene and story violate biblical sexual ethics.7 Personally, I do not think the scene in Eternals warrants Christians to write off Zhao’s film as trash; in fact, as far as Marvel films go, this is arguably the most thoughtful and emotionally complex film Disney has put out under the Marvel brand. Eternals has more on its mind than loud action scenes, and films that deal in such philosophical notions as predestination and free will offer Christians the unique opportunity to participate in a broader discussion on which the Bible most definitely has some interesting perspectives. Moreover, the fact that audiences — even Christian audiences — find it jarring that a film looking for nuance and complexity in intimate human relationships dares to include such a scene as the one between Ikaris and Sersi suggests that Hornaday is really onto something in her analysis of the culture. And, as a Christian, perhaps that is something worth paying attention to. —Cole Burgett
Cole Burgett is a recent seminary graduate. He is also a graduate of Moody Bible Institute, and an author for the website Christ and Pop Culture.
- Olivier Portnoi, “Les Eternels: Superman chez Marvel? La Réalisatrice Chloé Zhao s’Explique et Cite Zack Snyder,” FilmsActu, November 3, 2021, https://cinema.jeuxactu.com/news-cinema-les-eternels-superman-chez-marvel-la-realisatrice-chloe-zhao-s-explique-34878.htm.
- Robert Abele, “‘Eternals’ Film Review: Chloé Zhao’s MCU Movie is Colossal, Cosmic, and Refreshingly Close Up,” The Wrap, November 4, 2021, https://www.thewrap.com/eternals-film-review-mcu-chloe-zhao-angelina-jolie/.
- Editor’s Note: For a brief evaluation of the ridiculous ancient alien astronauts hypothesis, see Robert Velarde, “Did Ancient Extraterrestrials Visit Earth?,” Christian Research Journal 37.06 (2014), https://www.equip.org/article/did-ancient-extraterrestrials-visit-earth/.
- Angela Watercutter, “Chloé Zhao Upends the Marvel Formula with Eternals,” Wired, November 2, 2021, https://www.wired.com/story/chloe-zhao-eternals/.
- Malcolm Thorndike Nicholson, “Paul Scrader and the Cinema of Transcendence,” Art in America, June 20, 2018, https://www.artnews.com/art-in-america/features/tempo-paul-schrader-cinema-transcendence-60110/.
- Ann Hornaday, “Sex Is Disappearing from the Big Screen, and It’s Making Movies Less Pleasurable,” The Washington Post, June 7, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/sex-is-disappearing-from-the-big-screen-and-its-making-movies-less-pleasurable/2019/06/06/37848090-82ed-11e9-933d-7501070ee669_story.html.
- Editor’s note: For discussion about depictions of sinful behavior and paganism in film, see Brian Godawa, “Sinning at the Movies,” Christian Research Journal 24.4 (2002):60; and Brian Godawa, “Avatar: A Postmodern Pagan Myth,” Christian Research Journal 33.2 (2010): 8–15. For a clear explanation of the biblical sexual ethic and why forbidden sex is forbidden in Scripture, see Matthew Kennedy, “Marriage Is about the Gospel: Clarifying the Boundaries of Christian Orthodoxy,” Christian Research Journal 45.2/3 (2022):10–15.