Release Date(s)2021 (February 15, 2022)
Studio(s)Marvel Studios/Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures (Walt Disney Pictures)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: B-
Eternals was always going to be a divisive addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The Jack Kirby comic run on which it was based wasn’t universally accepted by Marvel fans back in the Seventies, and given the current reactionary state of fandom in the 21st century, there was guaranteed to be some pushback against any film adaptation. What’s a bit more surprising is the way that it has divided critics more than any other Marvel film to date. That’s interesting, not simply because it was directed by Oscar-winner Chloe Zhao, but also because it’s an ambitious film that tries to do something different with the standard Marvel formula. There’s a distinct damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t aspect to straying from the familiar template; people will complain if a film is too similar to what has come before, but they’ll also complain if it’s too different. In some respects, making a franchise film is a no-win scenario.
It’s important to understand that this was something of a passion project for Zhao. She’s a lifelong comic book fan who credits the medium with introducing her to the idea of visual storytelling, as she had little exposure to the cinema while growing up in Beijing. Zhao is the one who approached Marvel with her pitch for Eternals, and her vision is what got the production greenlit by Kevin Feige. Marvel had initially considered her for Black Widow, but Jack Kirby’s cosmic storytelling was far more appropriate for her, as it fit perfectly into themes that she had explored since her debut feature Songs My Brothers Taught Me.
Kirby’s series was inspired by Erich von Daniken’s 1968 book Chariots of the Gods, as well as the documentary film that was based on it. Kirby ran with the basic idea that human history was shaped by visitors from space, and raised it to the next level. In his conception, the entire universe was created by grand ancient beings called The Celestials. Their genetic experimentation on prehistoric Earth had created two opposing forces to carry out their will: an immortal race called Eternals, and the genetically unstable Deviants—with the evolution of mankind caught between the two. The Eternals’ involvement in human history resulted in myths of gods and angels, while the Deviants were responsible for legends about devils and demons.
Zhao co-wrote the screenplay for her adaptation along with Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo, and Kaz Firpo. They used elements from Kirby’s run as well as later series from other artists and writers, but they also made significant changes to the basic lore, especially as it relates to the origins and purpose of the Eternals themselves. While those ideas may not have come solely from Zhao, they’re crucial to how they allow her to explore her fascination with the interaction between personal identity and community. In that sense, Eternals is a natural continuation of Zhao’s entire filmography to date. The tension between finding one’s own individual sense of purpose while feeling constrained by communal bonds has been at the heart of all of Zhao’s films, and Eternals is no different.
In Zhao’s version of Kirby’s world, the Eternals have been created by one of the Celestials, Arishem, in order to protect mankind from the Deviants, and he has explicitly forbidden them from intervening in human affairs unless the Deviants are involved. (That fact provides a convenient excuse for why the Eternals were nowhere to be found in the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.) Yet some of them chafe at the role that Arishem has destined for them, and long for something different. That internal conflict ends up dividing the group, especially when they discover Arishem’s true purpose. Interestingly, there may be disagreements and even betrayals in Zhao’s film, but there are no true villains. The strife arises from legitimate differences in belief, and because of the way the stakes are laid out, there’s no “right” answer—there are consequences for stopping the cycle of death and rebirth, as well as consequences for allowing it to continue.
Zhao’s film centers around the Earth, but it takes place on a cosmic scale not yet seen in the MCU—witnessing the actual birth of a Celestial is something far beyond even the glimpses of Dormammu’s dimension in Doctor Strange, and the story revolves around nothing less than the entire evolution and history of mankind. Yet it’s also the most character-driven MCU film to date. Of course, the tired critical trope that Marvel films are nothing more than empty CGI spectacle completely ignores the fact that the success of Marvel’s interlocking universe comes from the appeal of its characters, as well as the actors who play them. (Anyone who sat in a packed theatre and witnessed the emotional reactions during Avengers: Endgame can attest to that fact.) Eternals still feels somewhat different than the rest, however. It may be because of how the story and character development are inextricably intertwined—the narrative in Eternals doesn’t merely affect the characters; rather, it defines them.
It’s in that area that Zhao and her fellow screenwriters diverged the most strongly from Kirby’s books, eliminating and altering characters at will, using different means to the same end. They discarded Zuras and Tode, the leaders of the Eternals and the Deviants, and also got rid of their respective homelands: Olympia and the sunken continent of Lemuria. That removed the distance between the Eternals and the human race, which helps make them more relatable. They also freely changed the gender and ethnicities of many of the Eternals, moving away from Kirby’s lily-white world into something much more diverse. Given the nature of the story, that’s quite appropriate—the human race has always made gods in its own image, and given the diversity of those gods in different cultures, it makes sense that the race of the Eternals who inspired them would be equally diverse.
The cast does a uniformly excellent job of bringing these characters to life, with Gemma Chan in particular bringing much more depth to Sersi than the comic book version. The Eternals may be the equivalent of gods in the eyes of mankind, but their struggles and their interrelationships are entirely human ones. This version of Sprite (Lia McHugh) and Druig (Barry Keoghan) are the most natural outgrowth of the worlds that Zhao has already explored in her previous films; Sprite and Druig both long to be something different than what they are, but walking away from their own community isn’t quite that easy, and the consequences are severe. All of the characters bring something interesting to the table, including Ajak (Selma Hayak), Thena (Angelina Jolie), Ikaris (Richard Madden), Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), and Gilgamesh (Ma Dong-seok). The film also openly interrogates the nature of what it means to be a superhero—Zhao has expressed her admiration for the way that Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel explored the myth of the Ubermensch in what she described as an “authentic and real way,” and so she never lets her version of the Eternals be entirely comfortable within their own skins. That’s a natural outgrowth of her own views about identity and cultural bonds.
Zhao’s films prior to Eternals have all been marked by a highly improvisatory, semi-documentary style, with her scripts rewritten over and over again to take advantage of the personal experiences of her actors, and her cameras appearing to follow the action as it unfolds, rather than guiding it. That’s not really an option for a mega-budgeted Marvel film, and yet she still brought some of that feeling to Eternals. The entire film seems looser and more relaxed, even though it’s actually more carefully planned out than what she normally prefers. While there are plenty of action scenes throughout, the rest of the film unfolds at a leisurely pace, taking its time to let the characters smell the roses. She also found plenty of ways to express her unique visual sense, letting the environments help define those characters and their relationships, much like Anthony Mann did in his Westerns with Jimmy Stewart.
The fact Zhao subverted the Marvel framework in her own way while still working comfortably within it may be a primary explanation for the mixed critical reaction to Eternals. She went too far for some people, but not far enough for others. That’s fine, because she ultimately made the film for herself. She did what she needed to do to satisfy Kevin Feige and the suits at Marvel, while still putting her own stamp on the material, telling the story that she wanted to tell, in the way that she wanted to tell it. Eternals isn’t a true independent personal production like Songs My Brothers Taught Me, The Rider, or Nomadland, but by the same token, it’s not a standard formulaic franchise film, either. For some, that means it will be neither fish nor fowl, and that’s an understandable reaction. On the other hand, for those who are open to its offbeat rhythms and who relate to the universal humanity exhibited by its ostensibly inhuman characters, it’s a rather remarkable achievement.
Cinematographer Ben Davis captured Eternals digitally at 4.5K resolution in the ARRIRAW codec using ARRI ALEXA LF and ARRI ALEXA Mini LF cameras, with ARRI Signature Prime lenses. It was finished as a full 4K Digital Intermediate, framed at 2.39:1 for standard showings, and alternating between that and 1.90:1 for IMAX presentations. Like most Disney discs, this edition is limited to 2.39:1, with the variable ratios reserved for the Disney+ IMAX enhanced version. Unfortunately, this Ultra HD release is a bit of a mixed bag. The native 4K imagery is sharp and detailed, taking full advantage of the higher bit rates compared to the streaming version. The textures of the environmental details are well-resolved, as are the details on the faces and the costuming. It’s in regards to the HDR grade that things get more complicated (the disc is HDR10 only). This is an unusually dark grade, excessively so. While complaints about dark HDR grades are sometimes due to tone mapping variations between displays, in this case, it’s dark by any measure. When viewed on a JVC RS2000, which offers three different tone levels for its frame-by-frame tone mapping in order to account for variations in mastering, the image remains too dark even with the level set to High. The black levels are elevated as well, so the combination of the two means that the contrast remains somewhat flat throughout the film. Eternals wasn’t a particularly bright and vivid film even during its theatrical release, but it wasn’t this dark. The Blu-ray copy is brighter in comparison, and even the HDR10 version on Disney+ appears slightly brighter than this does (though the variable aspect ratios make that more difficult to judge accurately, as the greater image area automatically makes it appear brighter). There may be some variance, but it’s likely that the film will appear too dark on most displays without making some adjustments.
On the other hand, the English Dolby Atmos track is an improvement over both the Blu-ray and the streaming versions. It’s still mastered below reference level, but turning up the volume does restore some (though not all) of the dynamics. The bass is deeper and more powerful than on most Disney UHDs—there’s a satisfying rumble in many scenes that’s been lacking in their Atmos tracks. This mix is fairly immersive as well, with all channels including the heights being used aggressively to surround the viewer in the film’s environments. Those channels are also used in unexpected ways, such as whenever Arishem is speaking. His voice comes from all channels at relatively equal levels, so the effect is as if he’s speaking directly from inside the viewer’s head. The score from Ramin Djawadi sounds appropriately robust, and there’s a particularly clever use of a familiar piece of source music that slowly sneaks into a scene without drawing attention to itself until an appropriate time. Additional audio options include English 2.0 Descriptive Audio, French 5.1 Dolby Digital, and Spanish & Japanese 7.1 Dolby Digital Plus. Subtitle options include English SDH, French, Spanish, and Japanese.
Like most of their Marvel releases, Disney’s 4K Ultra HD release of Eternals is branded as a Cinematic Universe Edition (which does beg the question of what exactly a non-cinematic universe edition could be). It’s a 2-Disc set that includes a Blu-ray copy in 1080p, a slipcover, and a Digital code on a paper insert. All of the extras are on the Blu-ray only, all in HD:
- Audio Commentary by Chloe Zhao, Stephane Ceretti, and Marten Larsson
- Immortalized (10:45)
- Walks of Life (5:01)
- Gag Reel (2:29)
- Deleted Scenes: Gravity (1:16)
- Deleted Scenes: Nostalgia (1:06)
- Deleted Scenes: Movies (:42)
- Deleted Scenes: Small Talk (2:36)
The commentary features Zhao, along with visual effects supervisors Stephane Ceretti and Marten Larsson. They naturally spend time discussing the visual design of the film, but they also examine some of the film’s themes. Zhao admits to having been influenced by Terrence Malick, and so she tried to make Eternals look like she was capturing things on the fly as they happened. She also wanted to mimic the way that his characters feel like they’re part of something bigger. She identifies less obvious influences, like Ron Fricke’s Samsara, and spends time explaining the ways she drew from Jack Kirby’s run of the comics—she appreciates the way that he used myth to tell human stories. Like Zhao’s films, this is a pretty freewheeling commentary track, but there’s interesting details to be gleaned from it. Note that the disc offers subtitles for this track in English, French, and Spanish, but must be selected using the player’s remote since they aren’t listed on the disc’s menu.
Immortalized and Walks of Life are both fairly typical EPK fluff, with the former examining the production, and the latter focusing on the diverse cast. The Gag Reel is a standard combination of genuinely amusing moments less amusing mugging for the camera. The Deleted Scenes are mostly sequences where it’s easy to understand why they were cut, especially the Small Talk moment between Sprite and Dane Whitman, which was easily dispensed with by a single line of dialogue in the finished film. Nostalgia is the only cut scene that seems like a loss, as it’s a nice moment between Makkari and Sprite.
Eternals wasn’t a big hit at the box office, even by pandemic standards, and it seems to have divided audiences as much as it did critics. It’s not the first ambitious film to have done so, and it won’t be the last, either. Like many ambitious failures, hopefully it gains wider acceptance as the years go by.
- Stephen Bjork