The Marvel Cinematic Universe makes a major misstep with Eternals

click to enlarge The superpowered stars 
of Eternals don't shine.
The superpowered stars of Eternals don't shine.

The opening onscreen text of Marvel's Eternals lays out the history of the title characters as if it's a creation myth for the universe, and in a way that's exactly what it is. The Eternals aren't just individuals with extraordinary powers; they're a race of beings who've shaped the entirety of human development for thousands of years, and they carry themselves with the corresponding solemnity.

That doesn't sound like the recipe for a fun superhero adventure, and the tension between grandiose cosmology and blockbuster action is never resolved. Eternals is a ponderous sci-fi movie about the meaning of existence, drawing from heady cult classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life. But it's also the latest building block in the never-ending Marvel Cinematic Universe, capped with multiple post-credits scenes that set up future movies. Director and co-writer Chloé Zhao also devotes substantial time to the small-scale character interactions that define her earlier films, including the Oscar-winning Nomadland.

Those various pieces aren't successful on their own and don't fit well together. They combine to drag the 157-minute movie down, as it lumbers across history and slowly brings together an unwieldy set of 10 main characters. Early scenes establish the arrival of the immortal alien Eternals on Earth in 5000 B.C., sent by godlike galactic entities known as Celestials with a primary directive to protect humanity from the deadly monsters known as Deviants. But the Eternals also mingle with humans, using their powers to help shape human culture and civilization, even though they're technically not supposed to interfere with human conflicts.

That's the flimsy excuse for why the Eternals have remained hidden until now, never helping any of the other MCU superheroes with various world-threatening catastrophes. They're living mundane lives scattered around the globe, until Eternals Sersi (Gemma Chan) and Sprite (Lia McHugh) unexpectedly encounter a Deviant in present-day London. With the Deviants seemingly returned, the Eternals slowly reunite, starting with Sersi's former lover Ikaris (Richard Madden). Eventually a larger threat emerges, and in typical MCU fashion, the Eternals must band together to save Earth from destruction.

The Deviants are mostly just savage beasts, so Eternals lacks a primary villain for the heroes to focus on. Instead, there's a lot more intra-group conflict, as centuries of resentments and disagreements come to the forefront for all 10 Eternals. The fractured relationship between Sersi and Ikaris gets the most attention, but Zhao attempts to make time for all of the other Eternals, including fierce but unstable warrior Thena (Angelina Jolie), introspective inventor Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), wisecracking movie star Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) and wise leader Ajak (Salma Hayek).

All of those characters and more struggle for the movie's attention, and none of them progress beyond thin sketches. Most of the dialogue is pompous and overstated, which makes the standard MCU comic relief, especially the awkward references to other Marvel characters, sound jarring and out of place. The characters continuously pontificate but rarely say anything, and Chan and Madden generate no passion as characters who have supposedly been in love for thousands of years.

Zhao shot much of the movie on location rather than on sound stages, as is common for MCU movies, but the characters still feel divorced from the world around them. The action sequences are unremarkable, and the characters' range of powers mostly just amounts to slight variations on the same swirls of gold CGI. Even lesser MCU movies can generally be relied on to deliver fast-paced blockbuster entertainment, but there's very little fun in Eternals. It's sprawling and somber, collapsing under the weight of its own misguided ambitions. ♦

One and a Half Stars ETERNALS
Rated PG-13
Directed by Chloé Zhao
Starring Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Lia McHugh

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