Eternal slog: Chloé Zhao’s big swing is a whiff for the MCU

Rating

Marvel’s fans and critics will remember 2021 as the year the superhero empire added television series like “WandaVision” and Loki” to its arsenal, but the MCU’s 26th (!) feature film may prove to be an equally important harbinger of the franchise’s future. “The Eternals,” helmed by the Motion Picture Academy’s reigning “Best Director” Chloé Zhao, strays further from the standard Marvel formula than any other movie in the series to date; with a plot spanning 7,000 years, photography that fuses breathtaking landscape shots with boatloads of CGI, and a cast of 10 relatively unknown superheroes, the film is truly epic in scale and ambition.

Unfortunately, it’s also just not very good.

A fairly standard opening exposition dump explains the eponymous heroes were sent to Earth in the year 5000 BCE by a Celestial (basically a beneficent space god) to defend humanity from “Deviants,” which appear to be evil CGI dinosaurs. Besides their agelessness, each of the crew of 10 Eternals has a unique power: Ikaris (Richard Madden) can fly and shoot lasers from his eyes, Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) can shoot lasers from his hands, and Thena (Angelina Jolie) can create a spear made out of lasers.

You may already be correctly deducing that this is not a film for the anti-laser crowd. Indeed, several fight scenes, especially those set during the first half of “The Eternals’” mammoth 156-minute runtime, are merely bland collages of CGI superpowers taking on CGI monsters. Yet just when viewers are ready to write off the movie’s action altogether, a number of dynamic sequences built around Makkari’s (Lauren Ridloff) super speed and Ikaris’ flight offer some redemption. There may not be any Marvel film with a greater disparity between its best and worst fight scenes.

The Eternals disagree about whether they should prevent wars and other human atrocities.

Most of the story is set in the present day, 500 years after the team seemingly defeated the last of the Deviants. Sersi (Gemma Chan) has lost touch with most of the team, which broke up on shaky terms after completing its mission. But when the Deviants suddenly reemerge, Sersi must travel the world to reunite the Eternals. The stakes? What else but the fate of all life on earth?

With each new character we meet, we learn a little bit more about the family dynamics that have defined the team for 7,000 years – think love triangles, rivalries and mental illnesses. The film is at its best when tugging at these interpersonal threads, but the sheer volume of plot points and characters often keeps things frustratingly two-dimensional. The script teases some unique ideas – how has Sprite’s (Lia McHugh) perpetual adolescence robbed her of the measure of humanity that her older teammates have achieved? – but these are rarely fleshed out beyond a couple of very on-the-nose monologues.

Not every Eternal gets even this cursory characterization. Sersi, ostensibly the most important hero in the film, is shockingly hollow; she’s defined mainly by Ikaris’ love for her. Screenwriters Zhao, Patrick Burleigh and Ryan Firpo seem to think the twists and betrayals in the second half of the film provide depth, but they’re mistaken; characters changing their minds for no reason is always a movie sin, but it’s especially unforgivable when the heroes in question have had 7,000 years to get their priorities straight.

Scenes featuring Celestials might hint at new, cosmic storylines within the larger MCU.

Sweeping shots of ancient civilizations and even some of the galactic-scale CGI look as good as anything else in the MCU, but something is tonally off. While Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune” made the futuristic feel somehow ancient, Zhao misses that mark; the Eternals mostly look silly running around Mesopotamia in their Power Rangers outfits. Meanwhile, the present-day heroes feel entirely at home in our modern world – Nanjiani’s Kingo provides the same quippy humor you’ll find in any other Marvel film – but this just undercuts the epic sweep Zhao is clearly aiming for.

“The Eternals” needed to pair alien characters with deeply human desires. Instead, it gave us heroes that feel entirely ordinary except for their cosmic motivations, which no viewer could possibly connect with. With its uneven tone, shaky script and bloated runtime, this film will probably not inspire many repeat viewings, despite its relatively strong third act.

Yet for those who have tired of the MCU formula, this may be a step in the right direction. While standard Marvel fare is almost always pretty good, the studio’s aversion to risk has kept it from producing much that’s truly great. By allowing talented directors like Zhao to step farther away from the tried-and-true recipe for superhero comfort food, Kevin Feige may be opening the door for the next generation of game-changing blockbusters. But, as “The Eternals” proves, he’ll have to put up with some failures along the way.

Watch it: if you liked Zack Snyder’s “Justice League.”

Skip it: if you’re hoping for crossovers with existing MCU heroes.  

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