Director Chloé Zhao, with her eye for vast open spaces, lots of silence, and naturalistic acting, seemed an odd choice to helm a massive big-budget superhero movie, but bless Marvel and Disney for giving her a chance. The combo unfortunately is not magic, like a kid with a cape being forced to jump off a rooftop when he actually just wants to gaze thoughtfully at the sky.
It doesn’t bode well when there is a long exposition of scrolling text at the start, à la the Star Wars epic. It’s presented as a confusing mish-mash of mythology and Harry Potter, with players introduced like Eternals, Deviants, and Celestials, and you just hope it will sort itself out as it goes along. It sort of mostly does, but it takes its time getting there.
Basically the pack of almost-dozen Eternals were sent to Earth 7,000 years ago by the Celestial (God?) Arishem to help the human race along on their way to civilization, evolving from wearing pelts to staring at their phones. To allow this to happen, the Eternals need to protect the people from the toothy Deviants who want to rip them apart, just because that is what THEY are there to do. But meanwhile, our heroes can’t interfere with human war or stupidity… just hold their wards’ collective human hands along the way. You see the leader of the Eternals, Ajak (Salma Hayek as sort of a mother hen) looking benevolently at lowly humans in Babylon. You see Ikarus (Richard Madden) and Sersi (Gemma Chan), in their superhero outfits mingling among the Mesopotamians before going off in the desert hills to have Eternals sex (the first Marvel love scene that NO ONE asked for). You see Thena (Angelina Jolie), goddess of war, going unhinged and fighting her own “family” of Eternals because the spark of universal sorrow occasionally clouds her brain. And you see strongman Gilgamesh (Don Lee) protect Thena from becoming unhinged again, as he is the only one who can stop her.
You may notice that was but a handful of the many characters. I’m too lazy to introduce all. Well, OK. Let’s just say there is a deaf one (Lauren Ridloff), a gay one (Brian Tyree Henry), a marble-mouthed surly one (Barry Keoghan), and a comic relief one (Kumail Nanjiani) as well. Is that 10 yet? Oh, no, there is also Sprite (Lia McHugh), a god stuck in a 12-year-old body with poor acting skills who is “the sarcastic one” who wishes she were big. Ugh. (They are impressively diverse, at least.)
At some point a few hundred years ago the Eternals went their separate ways to live among the humans. After all, the Deviants were finally dead, so their job was pretty much done. But in present-day London, Sersi and her human boyfriend (Kit Harrington) get attacked by a Deviant that has the curious new power of self-healing. That’s not good. Time to track down the rest of the Eternals peeps.
The problem is, getting the band back together takes well over an hour. They are all kind of grumpy, like hesitant siblings being forced to go to a family reunion. We are supposed to get to know them in their new lives. They discover that the return of the Deviants is actually a sign of something much much bigger coming in just seven days, and I’m talking bigger-than-Endgame bigger. This is, after all, a Marvel movie. The problem is that they don’t all agree on what to do about the impending… thing… leading to distrust, secrets, and a surprising amount of superhero tears.
Eternals is overall puzzling, a bit boring, and sometimes a bit intriguing. Yes, I’d call it an uneven mess. But there are some good things. I liked Don Lee’s Gilgamesh despite confusing him for half the movie with Doctor Strange‘s Wong… thinking Benedict Wong somehow lost his belly and got super-beefed up… coulda happened! He has a nice chemistry with Angelina Jolie, who throws her cheekbones into her role the best she can. Gemma Chan is always appealing, and Brian Tyree Henry (despite having his superhero power being… an inventor?) has a kind, warm, low-key presence. Kumail Nanjiani always steals scenes with his humor, but in this case, it usually falls like a thud since the whole movie around him takes itself so very seriously.
My friend summed it up when he scratched his head and said, “There were a lot of… concepts in there…” The movie feels like an extremely earnest attempt to launch something thoughtful and noble to shed light on our own messed up world. But then you realize it IS based on a comic book of cobbled together mythology and sci-fi and 7,000 years of human history. Maybe expectations were a bit high.