Eternals is a Marvel movie, yet its comic book source is so unfamiliar to most audiences (including yours truly) that the film is effectively original content. As such, perhaps it would have been okay to change the names of some of its characters, saddled as they are with awkward monikers like "Sprite", "Kingo", and "Gilgamesh". This may sound like a petty complaint on my part, but these names are uttered throughout the movie, pervading it with an air of silliness: Just when you start getting into the story, an actor quite seriously starts talking about "Druig" or "Phastos" and your suspension of disbelief slips a little. Well, blame Marvel artist Jack Kirby, who created the Eternals in the 1970s and probably didn't think his characters' names would ever be spoken out loud by adults.
The opening scenes briskly lay out the Eternals' backstory: the titular heroes, each with his or her own unique superpowers, are immortal cosmic beings dispatched to various planets by godlike entities called the Celestials. The Eternals' one and only job: to exterminate other cosmic beings called Deviants, monstrous beasts who prey upon innocent civilians. This detail conveniently explains why the Eternals were MIA during the whole Thanos/Infinity War saga in the Avengers movies: Thanos wasn't a Deviant, so they had no truck with him. Okay Marvel, if you say so.
This particular team of Eternals was sent to Earth some 7,000 years ago, and it's been hundreds of years since they killed off the last of this planet's Deviants. So they split up and settled individually in various parts of the world, cooling their heels for centuries. (Despite its many time-spanning flashbacks, the film doesn't much address the emotional and psychological toll of being alive for thousands of years, although Angelina Jolie's character hints at it.) But when a Deviant suddenly attacks London in the present day, local Eternal Sersi (the film's main protagonist, played by Gemma Chan) fights it off with the unexpected assistance of her ex-boyfriend Ikaris (Richard Madden) and his little buddy Sprite (child actress Lia McHugh). After a bit of exposition, the three decide to track down the other long-estranged Eternals and save the world.
There's plenty of plot – and plot twists – in Eternals, much of which I found interesting. Other than those distracting character names, the dorky superhero costumes designed by Sammy Sheldon Differ, and Salma Hayek's hammy turn as Eternals leader Ajak, the film mostly worked for me. I liked how all the actors (save Jolie) spoke in their native dialects, and I appreciated the diversity of its cast and characters – including the Marvel Cinematic Universe's first openly gay and deaf superheroes – which never feels forced.
One of the most intriguing behind-the-scenes elements of Eternals was the decision to hire indie filmmaker Chloé Zhao to helm this blockbuster. Zhao's first three features, including Oscar winner Nomadland, were intimate and documentary-like, as far from a comic book movie as you can get. Was she the right choice for Eternals? Does Eternals feel like a Chloé Zhao film? The answer to both questions: sorta. Obviously, Zhao is new to effects-laden extravaganzas, so it's hard for me to reconcile the scruffy style of her earlier work with all the lasers, CGI creatures, and flying around that Eternals entails. Yet much of the film was shot during Zhao's trademark magic hour – the story unfolds over just one week, but it seems like nearly everything happens at sunset – and she even squeezes in her beloved South Dakota as a story location. (Those scenes were actually shot in England.) In short, I can't think of anyone better than Zhao to direct this movie. That doesn't mean she was the perfect person for the job. I just can't think of anyone better.