WARNING: Contains major plot spoilers for Eternals.
Should you have to see a film twice in order to really get it? The answer, in principal, should be no. Repeat viewings of a movie you already enjoyed often deepen the original experience, but when a re-watch becomes a pre-requisite, it suggests the all-important first viewing won’t satisfy in its own right. But some films undeniably play completely differently (and far more successfully) on a second go, when you’re more attuned to certain storytelling rhythms, destinations for character arcs, or thematic preoccupations.
I struggle to think of a film in recent years that has shape-shifted more significantly for me on a re-watch than Chloé Zhao’s Marvel epic Eternals – the most divisive MCU movie in years, earning conflicted reviews, sparking lukewarm buzz, and swiftly muscled out of multiplexes by No Time To Die and Dune, two other 150+ minute blockbusters that more successfully vied for audiences’ attention.
When the end credits rolled on my first viewing of Eternals, I couldn’t make head nor tail of what I’d just seen – a rarity when it comes to Marvel movies. As an MCU mega-fan with a personal predilection for fence-swinging fantastical sci-fi epics, who also loved Zhao’s awards-friendly character dramas The Rider and Nomadland, I was primed to fall head-over-heels for it. But while elements of Eternals clicked when I first saw it – the multiple-millennia-hopping timespan, the Jack Kirby-inspired cosmic Celestials, Kumail Nanjiani’s charismatic Kingo – so many parts left me cold. I felt myself on the outside of the film as it played, stewing on questions rather than getting swept up in it all. Why introduce us to engaging characters like Salma Hayek’s Ajak and Don Lee’s hulking Gilgamesh (his super-power is punching things really hard!), only to bump them off and instead centre on Richard Madden’s snooze-worthy Ikaris? Why was the largely-unthreatening re-emergence of the Deviants deemed an event significant enough to require the intervention of ten super-powered beings? Why were some of the new heroes so personable, while others felt so distant? Even while admiring many things in Zhao’s film, I felt bamboozled come the credits.
_Eternals_' true narrative involves unpicking a mystery you don't even know is there first time around.
On a second viewing, so much changed. There’s a major reason for that: the story Zhao initially presents viewers with is not really the story of Eternals – and the film’s true narrative involves unpicking a mystery you don’t even know is there first time around. Because it is not really about the re-emergence of the Deviants, and Ikaris isn’t the dull, steadfast hero he initially appears to be. Eternals is a film about losing – or questioning – your faith, of realising that the story you were brought up believing is no longer one you align with. And to pull that off, Zhao tells the audience 90 minutes of lies before unfurling the horrifying truth: that Ikaris killed Ajak in the name of serving the Eternals’ Celestial deity Arishem, and that the very reason for their existence is to not to defeat the Deviants, but to allow the Earth to perish for a new cosmic life to be born. The episodic family reunion prior to that revelation has all been Ikaris stalling for time – he hasn’t been a stoic good-guy, but a (super)man on the brink of breaking down as he hides the truth from everyone he loves in service of his beliefs. Not so boring after all, then.
It’s a successfully disorientating experience, if not one that lends itself to easy viewing – but it aligns viewers with the real central character here, Gemma Chan’s Sersi, whose love for Earth and its people (“It’s beautiful,” she instinctively reacts on seeing our planet for the first time) finds her willing to fight back against the authority of Ikaris and Arishem. When those twists are revealed to her and the real plot unveils itself to the audience, it’s a lightbulb moment that kicks the whole film into gear. And when you go back to the start – now aware of Ikaris’ deception, aware that the opening biblical crawl is a doctrine that doesn’t actually align with the truth, aware that the entire film is really about god-like figures fighting back against their own god – that knowledge transforms the experience entirely, lifting every character and every interaction.
The effect of watching Eternals for a second time on the big screen was a fascinating one. Every frame of the film was the same as before, as was I. But the magic middle-ground where the film and I met conjured wildly different results. Since then, I’ve become a true believer – urging anyone who wasn’t sure about the film to give it another go, ready to convert more viewers to the cause and bolster the numbers of the ‘Eternals is actually great!’ Uni-mind.
Because what struck me as I became fully hooked on a second viewing of Eternals – with its beautifully-shot fight sequences, meaty explorations of existential questions, and Kumail Nanjiani doing a Bollywood dance – is that it’s everything Marvel sceptics always say they want MCU movies and modern blockbusters to be. It’s a huge film wrangling with massive ideas, boasting brains and brawn in equal measure, and bearing a real authorial stamp from Zhao, evident both in the natural vistas that echo the look of her previous films, and in the clear influences from the likes of Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Zack Snyder’s Man Of Steel (you only need to read an interview with the filmmaker to realise her nerd credentials are as strong as her indie-flick ones). Eternals is exciting, it’s funny, it’s bold and unexpected – and it’s emotional too, climaxing with a superhero suicide from a fallen hero who can’t live with the fact he betrayed his god. So much for Marvel playing it safe.
You shouldn’t have to watch a film twice in order for it to work, then. But since Eternals is now streaming on Disney+, I’d implore anyone who felt confounded by their first viewing to consider another go. If you’re anything like me, the most divisive film in the MCU might just rocket up your rankings – and you’ll be eternally grateful you went back for seconds.
Eternals is streaming now on Disney+