Chloe Zhao’s Eternals is an ambitious film. She has packed origin stories, the end of the world as we know it, and the eternal question of ‘should humanity be saved?’ into two hours and 36 minutes. That is a lot and it definitely feels like it.
Eternals is about 10 superhero immortal beings created by the Celestials to save Earth from their diametrically opposite beings, the Deviants, who are horrendous beastly creatures. The team includes the matriarch Ajax (Salma Hayek), Sersi (Gemma Chan), Ikaris (Richard Madden), Thena (Angelina Jolie), Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), Sprite (Lia McHugh), Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), Gilgamesh (Don Lee), and Druig (Barry Keoghan). Having been around for centuries, they have witnessed everything and have lived among humans for a long time now. But, despite their abilities, they are never to interfere in the actions of human beings. However, they have all gone their separate ways in the last few centuries.
In present-day London, Sersi is attacked by a Deviant when she is out with her human boyfriend Dane (Kit Harrington) and fellow Eternal, Sprite. The altercation not only results in the return of the group’s strongest member, Ikaris, but also leads to them finding out that the Deviants can now absorb energy making them harder to kill.
With this new information, they decide to travel to reunite with the rest of the Eternals. Sometimes, they find them in the weirdest places – Kingo is a Bollywood superstar whose upcoming film has one of the worst dance sequences ever known to mankind.
The plot of Eternals is complex enough as it is given that there are 10 characters, but Zhao also spends a lot of time showcasing their role in human history by transporting us to ancient Babylon, Mesopotamia, and even the Gupta Empire. She charts their arrival, their adventures, and their fallout through these sequences. The flashbacks are numerous and tedious.
As in any movie, there are dramatic reveals and twists. However, they do not have the intended effect because the exposition is just that draining.
The Eternals still have an archnemesis that they need to combat and the fact that they are just beasts is very underwhelming. For immortal beings with extraordinary powers, one would expect a more worthy opponent.
Despite these shortcomings, Eternals is unlike any Marvel film that we have seen. It is a visual masterpiece. This is Zhao’s forte and she does not disappoint – the special effects and the natural landscapes are stunning.
The actors also do a fantastic job. Chan’s portrayal of the group’s de-facto leader is memorable. She brings a certain vulnerability to a powerful and compassionate character who rises to the challenge. Similarly, Kumail Nanjiani as Kingo and Harish Patel as his trusty valet are effortless in the way they add humour to the movie. Surprisingly, the only let-down among the actors is Angelina Jolie. Her acting prowess is wasted in a rather one-dimensional role, making Thena, the literal Goddess of War, a disappointing character.
While most Marvel films sprinkle diversity to seem progressive, this film actually champions the cause. Eternals effortlessly gives us (nearly) realistic portrayals of Asians, showcases a kiss between a gay couple, and features the first deaf superhero.
At its best, Eternals is a visual journey worth taking, but as a superhero film, it fails to make the mark.
If you found Eternals‘ take on the genre refreshing, here are seven other movies and shows that also flipped the usual superhero narrative.
WandaVision (Disney+ Hotstar)
Starring Elizabeth Olsen, Kathryn Hahn, and Paul Bettany, WandaVision follows Avengers Wanda and Vision who have moved to the suburbs in Westview, New Jersey to enjoy an idyllic domestic life. But there is a catch. Their life is straight out of a television show – quite literally. The show begins in the 1950s like a sitcom with the married couple trying to hide their superpowers. This is especially bizarre because WandaVision picks up three weeks after the events of Avengers: Endgame. It also references and generously utilises television tropes from a wide range of sitcoms, including modern-day shows like The Office and Modern Family.
An Emmy-nominated series, WandaVision takes a unique approach to a superhero origin story. Instead of giving its audience most of the details right at the beginning, the miniseries confuses them and even hints at Wanda being a villain before revealing her true destiny in the show’s penultimate episode. The in-depth focus on trauma, grief, and nostalgia also sets it apart from the regular Marvel superhero films, where such themes receive only a passing mention.
This 2019 film directed by Todd Philips is based on the famed villain from DC comics. Joker is set in the 1980s and follows Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a mentally-ill man who is shunned and mocked by the society he lives in. Working as a party clown, Arthur is a failed stand-up comedian who lives with his ageing mother, Penny. After a series of events where he is constantly subjected to apathy and neglect, Arthur feels betrayed by everyone and adopts the persona of Joker. He also inspires city-wide violent riots and protests against the rich and privileged of Gotham City.
While Joker is a villain origin story of sorts, it is mostly a poignant tale on mental illness, trauma, and the ill-effects of the class divide. Unlike other stories on comic book characters, this stand-alone movie is more an intimate character study than an action-packed take on the supervillain.
The Boys (Amazon Prime Video)
A group of vigilantes who call themselves ‘The Boys’ take on powerful and corporate-run superheroes who are morally reprehensible and corrupt. The Boys are led by Billy the Butcher (Karl Urban) while the group of superheroes, known as the Seven, are led by Homelander (Antony Starr), a popular but megalomaniacal leader. Billy also believes that Homelander is responsible for his wife’s disappearance.
The Boys is based on the comic book series of the same name and is a satirical take on Marvel and DC superheroes. Showcasing superheroes as individuals who abuse their power and leave a trail of destruction, the series depicts the horrors of a world where these corporate heroes are idolised and given a free hand.
In the Marvel comics and director Sam Raimi’s Spiderman series, Venom is a villainous alien symbiote who latches onto Spiderman, wreaking havoc on his life and surroundings. However, in the 2018 film Venom, the symbiote is showcased as a hero of sorts after latching itself to reporter Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy). While Venom’s original plan involves its species taking over the planet, it slowly begins to bond with host Eddie and the two forge a reluctant partnership.
This deviation from the original comics was well-received by the audience and spawned the sequel Venom: Let There Be Carnage (2021).
The Incredibles franchise (Disney+ Hotstar)
This hugely successful franchise follows the lives of the Parr family who have superpowers. In the first film, Bob Parr (Craig T Nelson) also known as Mr Incredible, begins to feel bitter about the mundaneness of his suburban life. When he is called on a secret mission, he is only too happy to oblige. However, he is captured during an assignment and his family hatches a plan to rescue him.
While The Incredibles seems to be a regular superhero story, a lot of its themes and plots make it an atypical film. For instance, the government programme to hide the identities of superheroes, the public’s frustration with them, the problem of collateral damage, and the primary focus on the Incredibles’ familial bonds set it apart from other films in the genre.
Unbreakable (Disney+ Hotstar)
Directed by M Night Shyamalan, Unbreakable was released at a time when superhero films were not yet mainstream. And that is what sets this movie apart from the barrage of superhero films that followed.
Unbreakable is a simple film that tells the story of David Dunn (Bruce Willis), a security guard who is the lone survivor of a fatal train crash. He is contacted by comic-book expert Elijah (Samuel L Jackson), who tells David that he has special abilities and fits all the necessary requirements of a superhero. Unlike other superhero films, Unbreakable does not rely on special effects and mass destruction to make its point. It gives us a realistic portrayal of a man with superhuman abilities.
Starring Will Smith as the titular superhero, Hancock tells the story of a brash and irresponsible superhero who becomes a public menace. Despite having superpowers, Hancock is despised by the public for the damage he causes. However, his life changes after he runs into public relations expert Ray (Jason Bateman), who promises to revamp his image.
An action-comedy, Hancock is truly an offbeat superhero movie for its comic elements, bizarre (and often questionable) twists, and a main character who is disliked by the very people that he is supposed to protect.