Marvel’s Eternals 4K Review: More Divinely Inspired Than Comics-Faithful

WARNING: This Eternals 4K Review contains major plot spoilers.

“In the beginning…”

Most English translations of the Bible begin with those three words, and it’s an audacious move by director Chloe Zhao to do likewise. Especially when what follows specifically contradicts the creation stories of every major religion on Earth. In her ambitious entry into the Marvel canon, inspired as much by Terrence Malick as Star Wars and Wong Kar-wai, Zhao attempts nothing less than the creation of her own cinematic Bible. Eternals takes on the challenge of telling nearly the entire history of humanity on Earth, from the first leap to the Bronze Age to the designated (and ultimately, thwarted) apocalypse. And unlike other scriptures, it tells the story not from the point of view of humanity, but of the angels.

This has been done within the parameters of Christian imagery before — Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens comes to mind. But Eternals, perhaps in order to not get hung up on specific doctrinal differences, goes further. In Disney’s most ultra-lucrative, family friendly franchise, it dares to suggest that God does not care about humanity, beyond its use as a Matrix-like energy source, and that all religions are a lie.

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In a deleted scene included on the disc, the film goes even further. Sprite (Lia McHugh), who at this point is still a sympathetic character, opines that, taking the long view, gods, nations, and money are all human illusions. Despite its unimpeachable status as one of the biggest profiteering entities on the planet, Disney probably balked at outright Marxist-leaning declarations. It’s unfortunate, because that scene also explains how Dane (Kit Harington) knows about the Deviants, a key bit of plot information that gets glossed over in hasty dialogue later.

Sprite, along with Sersi (Gemma Chan), Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), Ikaris (Richard Madden), Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), Druig (Barry Keoghan), Gilgamesh (Don Lee), and Thena (Angelina Jolie) believe themselves to be powerful natives of the planet Olympia, sent to protect humanity. In fact, only their leader Ajak (Salma Hayek) knows the truth: they’re celestially created automatons designed never to evolve, there to ensure humanity generates enough energy to hatch a giant Celestial from inside the Earth. Mirroring the fact that their Celestial boss Arishem lies to them, the film itself lies to viewers. The opening text crawl presents Olympia to us as a fact. Later, it reveals that the place never existed.

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Zhao, born in China but educated in England, has spoken about having to relearn history from a non-communist propaganda point of view. In Eternals, she puts Marvel Cinematic Universe fans in that same position, along with her characters. The monolithic, red Arishem may be the God substitute for this film, but it’s no stretch to see him as a stand-in for Maoist uniformity. Arishem even lies when he’s supposedly telling the “truth” — he says he made the Eternals to never evolve, and yet they do, in learning to love. Just as he made the Deviants to clear out alpha predators, only to have them develop beyond those boundaries as well. Children must always grow beyond their parents. Even if it’s in ways that the parents come to resent.

The knock on Eternals is that it’s not Marvel enough for Marvel fans, and not Chloe Zhao enough for Zhao fans. The latter criticism feels even more off-base after a viewing of the Blu-ray. On the commentary track with effects supervisors Stephane Ceretti and Mårten Larsson, Zhao’s enthusiasm for the project comes across as intense and genuine. She’s a director who loves her slow-paced Malick and Kubrick. But she also shouts out to films like Oliver Stone’s Alexander. Art-house viewers may have put her in a box, but she’s not anxious to stay put forever.

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With that said, this is an art-house approach to superheroes, and one that’s becoming increasingly popular, at least with filmmakers. Like Zack Snyder’s Justice League, and even The Book of Boba Fett, the approach is to immerse the viewer in a world with its everyday rhythms, interactions, and conversations. Rather than focusing the story around hero and villain battles, they’re incidental to the creation of an ecosphere that manages to feel immersive without an artificial assist from 3D. This is not the usual MCU approach, which has come to depend heavily on big surprises that the studio cautions audiences not to spoil.

It’s tough to surprise people with the actions of characters they’ve never seen before, so the story must set the table first. No doubt some viewers expected cosmic explanations for super powers on Earth, or a new origin for mutants. But even the rings the Eternals use to confine or amplify their powers were a last-minute design addition, rather than the obvious tie to Shang-Chi one might presume.

And it may not help that, unusually for a modern Marvel movie, this adaptation ignores comics canon more than most. Olympia originated on the page as a real city, and the Deviants got fully formed personalities rather than being just wild beasts. When evolved monster Kro and Thena finally face off onscreen, the fight bears none of the emotional impact it would in comics, where they have a shared past. So if fealty is sought, Eternals may let you down.

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But on the whole, as a movie in itself, it’s a bold swing, and an ambitious attempt to bring indie slice-of-life drama to the lives of immortals. The ending suffers a bit from Harry Potter syndrome, with characters excessively explaining after the fact what just happened and why the good guys magically won. Within the parameters of the MCU, however, it’s a stealthy way of examining faith at different levels, and perhaps a roadmap for moving forward despite those varying views. Though ironically,  fundamentalist viewers will probably instantly reject the movie out of hand for its sacrilege. It is nonetheless a movie that reveals more levels upon repeat viewings, and one that particularly suffered from the quick turnaround/spoiler-free environment of first-run criticism.

The 4K disc offers the best sound and image this movie has to offer, in a presentation markedly superior to that on Disney+. The streaming version has the Imax expanded ratio on certain scenes, while the home version does not. But the Disney+ version includes scenes that remain practically unwatchable in daylight. Those early scenes in Camden, particularly. 4K HDR, with its varying levels of blackness, makes it penetrable at any time of day. And Arishem’s voice really needs that full reverb only the home disc gives it.

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Zhao/Ceretti/Larsson’s commentary track necessarily focuses on the look of the film, given that two of the three talkers worked on the effects exclusively. So fans won’t hear a lot of script analysis, except to the extent that visual cues tell a story. It’s also fascinating to see complete, coherent scenes that filmed in multiple, widely disparate locations. And to note super-small digital effects like the pattern on Gilgamesh’s apron. One particularly fun bit of trivia is the revelation that the walls of the World Forge consist of made of multiple Domo spaceships acting like tiles. Also, they acknowledge Pip the Troll is a CG rush job.

A blooper reel showcases Salma Hayek’s foul mouth, the on-set Kro mo-cap suit, and Kit Harington’s difficulty in pronouncing “Thanos” correctly. (Honestly, couldn’t they just chalk that up to accent differences? Guess not.) The three other deleted scenes include one of Phastos video calling his kid while working on the Unimind, Sprite and Makkari waxing nostalgic for Babylon, and Gilgamesh dropping some Francis Ford Coppola references. Like the Sprite/Dane scene, the Phastos one actually fills a plot-point gap, but the other two feel superfluous.

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Finally, two featurettes focus on the adaptation process and the cast diversity, to a degree that even the most liberal, social-justicey viewer might start to think it’s pushing the point a bit much. Remember: nobody forces you to watch the extras.

The movie itself, however, you should watch. Maybe more than once. There’s a lot going on, especially when it feels like nothing is.

Grade: 4/5

Eternals debuts on Blu-ray and 4K as of February 15, 2022. Let us know your thoughts in comments.