The Most Poetic Marvel Film Yet

Chloé Zhao, the director of Eternals, prioritizes humanism over action. The result is a soulful, refreshing superhero tale.

The silhouette of a person crouching next to a tree
Marvel Studios

The 10 members of the Eternals are the most powerful protagonists in the Marvel Cinematic Universe so far. They are neither humans nor gods, but immortal attendants of humanity. And during the 7,000 years they’ve spent living on Earth, they haven’t interfered with civilization’s affairs unless Arishem—a colossal cosmic entity who manipulates seemingly all energy in the universe—told them to. (So, no, they didn’t do anything about Thanos.)

In a new Marvel blockbuster centered on these titans, audiences might expect an all-action showdown. But Eternals’ Oscar-winning director, Chloé Zhao, treats her characters—whose powers transcend the usual superhero’s—like they’re mere flesh and blood. In shot after shot, she mines a quiet and poignant humanity from the group. Their tale, in her hands, doesn’t examine Marvel’s typical themes, such as the burden of being powerful; instead, it’s about the nature of everlasting bonds. Through a story focused on reuniting a disparate team at odds over how to approach a crisis, Zhao explores a resonant question: When you clash with those you love, do you confront the conflict or overlook it?

When the film begins, the Eternals have scattered across the globe. Some, like Sersi (played by Gemma Chan), the team’s empath, have embedded themselves in society, complete with a job and a boyfriend; others, like the mind-controlling Druig (Barry Keoghan), live in isolation. After Sersi learns that Deviants, monsters that the Eternals eradicated from Earth ages ago, have mysteriously returned following the events of Avengers: Endgame, she sets out to bring the group back together—except not everyone agrees with her plan.

This intra-communal disagreement—not the presence of Deviants—provides the film’s narrative tension. Much of Eternals explores, through glances and touches, the force of the group’s camaraderie. A pair of romances—between Sersi and Ikaris (Richard Madden), and Thena (Angelina Jolie) and Gilgamesh (Don Lee)—are particularly affecting. Their millennia-spanning relationships are tender even during battles—which, by the way, still feel superheroic. Thena moves balletically, conjuring weapons out of thin air to slice at Deviants that Gilgamesh has clobbered. Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), the playful speedster (and the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first deaf superhero), clears a path for cocky Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) to fire energy projectiles. Their choreography can be mesmerizing.

A group of Eternals walking in the desert
Marvel Studios

Zhao seems most eager, though, to depict the Eternals’ bonds with the mortals they’ve lived beside. Her camera dwells on these interactions: There’s Sersi planting crops alongside farmers. There’s Makkari bartering with merchants. There’s Sprite (Lia McHugh) creating illusions to teach children myths. In these moments, Zhao channels the singular humanistic vision that guided her stunning indies such as The Rider and Nomadland. In those movies, Zhao established herself as an empathetic and immersive filmmaker, prioritizing the sensual experience of her characters, drawing strong performances from actors and nonactors alike, and capturing people’s essence in minute details and lush photography. Her work feels like poetry.

Much of Eternals possesses the same meditative magic: Natural light bathes the characters and sublime landscapes—broad skies, rolling prairies, churning seas—surround them. The Eternals experience life on Earth across thousands of years, and with the help of a strong ensemble cast, Zhao tracks their shared awe and despair as observers of history.

But as a film that must introduce 10 characters whose origins involve the creation of the universe, Eternals also has much to explain. I’d braced myself for some prosaic exposition—no Marvel movie, 26 films in, can escape the greater apparatus of the franchise—but almost every flashback required further explanation. This is a movie that starts with an opening crawl summarizing the group’s origins and includes trips to 5000 B.C. Mesopotamia and A.D. 1521 Tenochtitlan, not to mention interludes in outer space. Sometimes the dense lore and immense scope enhance the story Zhao’s trying to tell: Jolie’s Thena, for instance, suffers from an affliction, based on the comics, in which having too many years of memories causes her to forget where she is in time. In that context, Gilgamesh’s repeated assurances—“You are safe, you are loved, you are Thena”—are heartbreaking.

More often than not, though, information dumps slow the narrative. Such weighty comic-book history may help to explain how the weirder corners of the Marvel universe work, but they mostly distract from the film’s interest in the Eternals’ intense bonds. The fact that these scenes are frequently drenched in CGI doesn’t help: Whenever Arishem communicates with an Eternal, he yanks them off Earth and into space, abandoning Zhao’s signature style. It’s like listening to an orchestra that occasionally veers out of tune.

Still, Zhao’s delicate examination of her characters outshines Eternals’ duller and more convoluted moments. The climax centers on the Eternals’ internal strife, and after spending so much time with this family, seeing them fight is both agonizing and breathtaking. No buildings fall, no hordes of alien armies invade, and no civilians are shown screaming in terror. The most tragic blow doesn’t come from a fist, but from a single look exchanged between two characters. That’s an ambitious approach—to sink a Marvel-size budget into a personal character study and still keep it feeling like a sweeping blockbuster. Only Zhao could have made it so.