Despite its Oscar-winning director, Eternals is a bottom-of-the barrel Marvel superhero saga.
Chloé Zhao, the first Oscar winner for Best Director to direct a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie, promised to bring to the blockbuster realm the character-based portraiture and documentary-tinged realism she exhibited in The Rider and Nomadland. Yet, surprise! Eternals is one of the dumbest, cheesiest, most trite, and least human of the 26 MCU movies, a creative misfire on the order of the first two Thor movies or Avengers: Age of Ultron. Zhao has graduated from delicate artisanal indies to overprocessed, soul-challenged, assembly-line Hollywood junk in record time.
Eternals is a second-rate X-Men retread about a squadron of godlike beings who have secretly been here with us on Earth throughout human history but take a hands-off approach to all of our conflicts, though they have an ongoing battle with a silly-looking race of monsters called Deviants. These are essentially dinosaurs made out of tree roots and look like a crafts project your nine-year-old brought home from summer camp. Despite all of their roaring and biting, they are about as scary as shrubbery.
The certified auteurs in the blockbuster business are increasingly making a point of stretching out their films in hopes that ponderousness will be mistaken for seriousness, and so Zhao drags things on for over two and a half hours, largely by gumming up the narrative drive with an endless number of increasingly dull flashbacks. The points made by all of these scenes combined could have been made in a single prologue, but they at least serve to drive up the budget with meaningless historical spectacle, from Babylon to Tenochtitlan.
Though the movie fancies itself a bit deep and philosophical, it contains only half an interesting idea, which is that wars are necessary because they lead to innovation, which in turn leads to growth. That’s wrong, of course, which is why the notion isn’t developed at all, but at least it provides a point to argue with beneath the meaningless blizzard of CGI effects. Background questions about the devastating vastness of time and how punishing it must be to be immortal, or even how to make a relationship work across centuries, are simply ignored in the script, which is redundantly credited to “Chloé Zhao and Chloé Zhao & Patrick Burleigh and Ryan Kirpo & Kaz Kirpo).” I’m not sure if cloning or ego is what that signals, but neither of the Zhaos knows how to write superheroes.
Closely watched by the god-of-gods Arishem, who looks like a six-eyed Iron Man and is as difficult to take seriously as anything else in this tacky-looking movie, the Eternals finally get the plot going after an hour or so, when we learn that, having been split up for hundreds of years, they must reunite to save the Earth from destruction. Since there are only two noteworthy humans in the story — one is dumped after the opening ten minutes and the other is a comedy-relief doofus — humanity is notably missing from the story. The movie never puts across the sense that the stakes are high for all of us; instead, it gives us boring actors playing boring characters alternately squabbling and joking around while they debate whether the humans are even worth saving or whether it’s a good idea to undermine their boss Arishem. (He turns out to be surprisingly forgiving of their shenanigans: Despite the booming voice, he has the disciplinary instincts of a kindergarten teacher.) The climax is a piñata of meaningless bashing and clashing across a barren island landscape sprinkled with the usual CGI vomit.
And who are the Eternals? They’re a caste of the dullest ripoffs that could possibly have been dreamed up by the diversity, equity, and inclusion committee down at your local community college. Meet Ikaris (Richard Madden): He flies and shoots laser beams from his eyes, so he’s Superman, but Scottish! How about the Flash, only it’s a deaf woman of color (Lauren Ridlof)! Or a gay, black, plus-sized Reed Richards, Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry)! A surly mind-control artist named Druig is played with no appeal whatsoever by the charisma-free actor Barry Keoghan. Equally boring is Lia McHugh, as a shape-shifting kid named Sprite who is compared to Tinkerbell. Except picture Tinkerbell first thing in the morning when she’s moody and grumpy and hasn’t had her coffee yet.
The only vaguely amusing character is a guy who heaves laser-cannonballs this way and that but has been undercover as a Bollywood actor for 100 years. Kumail Nanjiani musters a bit of sparkle in the role, but it’s a mystery why he bothered to get so jacked for it. Why does he need massive arms when he can hurl magical golden grapefruits at his foes?
Completing the sense of thrift-store casting, this list of leftovers and has-beens and third-stringers is rounded out by a couple of 1990s actresses, Salma Hayek and Angelina Jolie. Jolie’s character, Thena (hipster Athena, I guess), keeps conjuring golden laser spears and tridents and stuff out of the air, which looks as silly as it sounds.
I almost forgot about the lead character, but only because she’s utterly forgettable. Played by the underwhelming Gemma Chan, Sirse is a Sino-English anthropologist who can turn things to stone or to dust. She seems . . . nice? I can’t think of a central character in any superhero movie who is less compelling. Chan has about the level of star power you’d expect from a mom in a Target commercial. Like every other element in this movie, she gives off a sense that this franchise is running out of ideas and talent.
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