The Eternals group shot

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.

A large slab in the sky
This is what the apocalypse looks like

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.

Eternals – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022


Fern has a cigarette

In January 2011 the US Gypsum plant in Empire, Nevada, shut down. By July of the same year the town’s zip code had been discontinued. Nomadland makes personal a phenomenon that’s been going on for decades but has accelerated since the big crash of 2008. Of displaced older blue-collar workers who lose their homes and jobs and take to the road, travelling around the US working at any job they can, living out of cars, vans and recreational vehicles, a new nomad class.

The film is based on the 2018 book by Jessica Bruder, an extended piece of non-fiction reporting detailing the phenomenon, and stars Frances McDormand as Fern – the only person in the film not using their own name – one of the migrating horde of nomads who travel from one Amazon dispatch centre (“good money”, says Fern) to another, one seasonal harvest to the next, sharing (a bit), looking out for each other (a bit) and generally making the most of what to many people would be an invitation to lay down and die.

The film is the bastard child of reality TV and features three distinct components, skilfully blended together by director Chloé Zhao, who also did the editing, which on its own would win her buckets of awards in a just world. At its most straightforward this is a documentary and the people we see are actual RV-dwelling nomads. On top of that is a layer of “structured reality” – the most direct lift from reality TV – consisting of McDormand’s interactions with members of the nomad community. And on top of that is a layer of “real acting”. It is all so well blended together, in fact, that when David Strathairn enters the movie as a potential love interest I spent a good time thinking “that nomad guy looks a lot like David Strathairn”. His name – Dave – not having alerted me. Doh.

Anyone expecting a Grapes of Wrath political message has come to the wrong film. Nomadland stays largely out of the political arena, possibly out of an astute realisation that banging the drum just doesn’t work, and partly as a reflection on the nomads themselves – a doughty bunch of resilient self-starters who are determined to hang on to their dignity even in defeat.

Fern with a lamp at dusk
Dusk falls

Bob Wells is as near as we get. An activist, YouTuber, founder of Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, an annual gathering of “The Tribe”, Bob’s message – capitalism is going down and the have-nots need to band together – is as close as you’re going to get to socialism, a word never mentioned. The Rendezvous is often referred to as the Burning Man for retirees and perhaps the main shock of watching the film is the age of all these people living hand-to-mouth lives at a time of life when you might expect them to be putting their feet up and buying the grandkids ice cream.

At this point (February 2021) McDormand looks like a shoo-in for the Oscar, which is often handed out in Daniel Day Lewis style to the person who has done the most work rather than given the best performance – living in her van for months, she has clearly thrown herself at this project, though has also pointed out in interviews that at a certain point she gave up the van-dwelling. It was just too tough. All that to one side, it is a remarkable performance, not least because, in order to pass muster with non-actors, real people, McDormand has had to throw away all that screencraft – the stuff Michael Caine goes on about in his acting masterclasses about which eye to turn to the camera etc. She passes.

Being frozen in winter and boiled in summer, earning a pittance for working in shitty jobs, Nomadland sounds like a wallow in misery but it is determined not to go there – the landscape, the wildlife, the swimming in crystal clear streams, the simple things in life are all extolled to the max. And beyond.

And yet. The good-to-be-alive stuff seems also like a feint, a case of protesting too much. There is a sense of great sadness throughout. Fern has lost her husband, job, hometown and way of life, and this story repeats with variations for all the nomads we meet – like 75-year-old Swankie, cheerfully on the road yet dying of cancer.

Where’s the anger? Hiding, I think, that mournful piano of Ludovico Einaudi nudging the viewer beyond feelings of powerless empathy and towards bigger, more political questions. Or that, I am guessing, is the hope.

Nomadland: Surviving American in the 21st Century – the book that inspired the movie at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021