Like a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy, Eternals is a Marvel superhero movie that’s sketchy, thin, never fully fleshed out. Not bad, exactly, just hard to get a bead on. Is stuff missing or was it never meant to be there?
Perhaps its problems lie in the origins of the source material, an iteration of an iteration etc etc. The first of the superhero gangs was 1960’s Justice League (itself a revival of the 1940s Justice Society of America), a greatest-hits compilation of DC Comics’ big hitters – Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Flash and more. In 1963 Marvel responded to the success of the Justice League with its own version, the Avengers – Thor, Iron Man, Hulk, Ant-Man and more. When comic-book artist and innovator Jack Kirby left Marvel in 1970 – sick of Stan Lee getting the credit (and paycheque) for his creations – he went to DC and created a whole new pantheon of superheroes, the New Gods, a mythological spin on the superhero genre, where, against a backdrop of the two worlds of New Genesis (hooray) and Apokolips (boo), a good versus evil war was waged, with Orion, Highfather and Metron among the heroes and Darkseid a key villain. Back at Marvel again in 1975, Kirby did it again, coming up with the Eternals, a mythological spin on the superhero genre, where, against a backdrop of two… you follow my drift.
They’re not entirely comparable, any of these comic universe creations – the New Gods are from different planets, whereas the Eternals have been deliberately created by the Celestials to counter the menace that is the Deviants – but there is a reason why you’ve probably not heard of the New Gods, nor the Eternals, until the Marvel machine cranked them back into life. They’re largely unnecessary. Those positions are taken.
Enter Chloé Zao, who hadn’t yet won her Oscar for Nomadland when she signed on to direct, the latest in a series of bold directorial choices by Marvel (among plenty of other examples see also Cate Shortland for Black Widow and Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck for Captain Marvel). Zhao co-writes too, and attempts to put fresh faces and a new spin on superhero material that’s being asked to do three things simultaneously – lay out the origina and lore of the Eternals universe, prepare them for integration into the Marvel Cinematic Universe and tell a dramatically satisfying standalone story.
Unsurprisingly, that story is apocalyptic – the immortal Eternals’ brief has always been to save humans from the depradations of the Deviants (ugly, nasty) but under no circumstances should they interfere otherwise in the progress of the species. Now, with an apocalypse impending, should the gang get back together to save Planet Earth?
Requirements one (lore/origin) and two (MCU insertion) Eternals manages pretty well. By the end of the movie we know who these immortals are, where they’re from, how they fit into our world and theirs and where they might be heading. We’ve met Sersi (Gemma Chan), Ikaris (Richard Madden), Thena (Angelina Jolie), Ajak (Salma Hayek), Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), Sprite (Lia McHugh), Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) and Druig (Barry Keoghan), all up to the job of, by turns, appearing vulnerable before striking the next in a series of power poses.
It’s diversity casting, which won’t make the Proud Boys too happy, and they’re a good cast, though often without much to do except pout. There’s a lot of chat, quite a lot of ethical trolley-problem philosophising about “the Emergence” (as the apocalypse is called) and a slight desperation on everyone’s part – writers, director, actors – not to sit in a groove already worn smooth by the Avengers. Even so, Kumail Nanjiani is clearly in Robert Downey Jr territory as Kingo, an incredibly vain superhero whose cover story is that he’s an incredibly vain Bollywood star. Thumbs up to him, and to Brian Tyree Henry as “Marvel’s first gay superhero” (this isn’t the place to point out that superheroes and sex are uneasy, er, bedfellows – in spite of Superman and Spider-Man’s dalliances). Henry was great in The Outside Story and is entirely great again here, somehow injecting character and pizzazz into a handful of lines, which is more than can be said for Gemma Chan and Richard Madden, who seem to be drowning. As for Angelina Jolie, whose presence in this film seems all wrong – as if a real superhero had touched down at your local supermarket – she gamely mucks in with the rest of them and gets about as much lift-off – not very much. Oddly, deaf actor Lauren Ridloff (“Marvel’s first deaf superhero”) does get cut-through. Maybe not speaking is a bonus.
To try and sum the whole thing up, it’s a valiant fail. A superhero movie that doesn’t need to exist, made by a company who didn’t really spend enough money on it. Zhao directs well, there are some neat new special effects based around light’s changing qualities – it shimmers, it stabs. And there are some good fights and some fun interchanges between the (too) big cast. But a lack of a real bad guy as a focus is a problem, particularly as things wheel towards the inevitable big fight finish and the Eternals end up, more or less, fighting against themselves. The film’s big problem in a nutshell – it’s fighting the entire MCU.
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© Steve Morrissey 2022