The latest film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe takes some risks and breaks the formula a little: just not entirely successfully.

With only her third feature film, Chinese-born filmmaker Chloé Zhao made history. Earlier this year, her adaptation of Jessica Bruder’s book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century saw her become the first female filmmaker of colour to win the Best Director Academy Award. Best known for her independent features, Zhao is tackling her biggest project yet – the latest installment in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe (MCU).

Starring an ensemble cast that includes Gemma Chan, Salma Hayek, Angelina Jolie and Richard Madden, Eternals focuses on a group of beings that were created by Celestials to protect Earth. After secretly living on the planet for more than 7,000 years, its members reunite to safeguard humanity from the Deviants.

We’re now, then, at phase four of the MCU and this is film 26. It’s weird to say there’s a first time for everything as after 13 years of practically the same formula, but Eternals breaks ground on various levels. Not only does it have Zhao at the helm, but the film features elements such as the MCU’s first on-screen gay kiss, love scene and deaf character (namely super-fast Makkari, played by deaf actor Lauren Ridloff), as well as its first female lead character of colour in Sersi (Chan). Similar to Marvel’s recent films, Black Widow and Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings, Eternals is another endeavour by Marvel to rectify the qualms of the Infinity Saga, which was mostly led and dominated by Caucasian male characters. Needless to say, its goal to further promote diversity in mainstream cinema stands out.

However, this is fundamentally a Marvel film so audiences and fans anticipate a certain level of entertainment from an audience-winning blend of witty banter, dazzling visual effects, and empowering fight scenes. While Zhao tries to step up and take on a blockbuster film, there’s an evident clash of styles in Eternals that strays between mainstream and independent filmmaking.

Amid the ambitious visual effects is an ever-expanding story that delves into Eternals‘ theme of humanity. Arriving on Earth in 5,000 BC, their mission – spearheaded by Eternals leader and healer Ajak (Hayek) – is threatened by their growing compassion for mankind, not to mention the fact that despite their powers, they cannot interfere in global disasters. One being the events in Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame.

In fact, the group’s battle with human emotions results in some doubting the relevance of their top-secret mission and their practically blind loyalty to Arishem, an entity of a race previously mentioned in the Guardians Of The Galaxy films but strangely one that not many of Eternals have had direct contact with. Their emotions and divided loyalties only cause them to fracture all too easily, making us wonder whether this group of beings who have stood aside one another for thousands of years ever supported each other at all. In addition, the collaborative script comes across as dull and sporadically wooden, which affects both the resonance and appeal of the characters. Therefore, the film offers a melee of uneven performances, a notable lack of light-hearted moments, and an inconsistent and formulaic narrative that doesn’t warrant the Eternals‘ lengthy runtime of 157 minutes.

Nonetheless, Eternals is a step in a new and refreshingly different direction while Zhao doesn’t hide behind its grandiose scale. While she puts her own touch on superhero films with her love of vast landscapes, she conveys the hardships of being a God-like being on Earth. Through weary eyes and compassion, the characters offer more personal depth to show that, like Captain America: Civil War, their fight is no longer just a clear-cut case of good versus bad. With everyone possessing an unspoken loyalty to someone else, this creates a complex story that capitalises on the characters’ growing friction.

With the weight of Eternals on her shoulders, Chan anchors the film with grit and compassion, making Sersi an endearing character and a surprisingly considerate leader. It is no wonder that her on/off relationship with Ikarus (Madden) is a notable subplot, as the intense feelings between certain characters are tested in unforeseen circumstances. Although this causes the relevance of certain Eternals to be brushed aside (notably Barry Keoghan’s Druig and Brian Tyree Henry’s Phastos), this enables Thena (Jolie) and strongman Gilgemesh (Don Lee) to stand in the limelight, as the former’s tortured psyche tests her judgement in battle. However, standout performances from Eternal-turned-Bollywood star Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) and his loyal assistant Karun (Harish Patel) offer occasional yet appreciated light relief, preventing Eternals from straying too far from its superhero roots.

After 25 films, it can be hard to consider something new in the MCU and for the most part, Zhao’s efforts disappointingly do not reach the dizzying scales of previous Marvel films. However, what Eternals does offer is a bold yet epic vision that further reinforces a new creative direction in the franchise.

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