The first genuinely bad entry from Marvel Films, Chloe Zhao’s “Eternals” is a colossal bore, a bloated, meandering superhero odyssey that’s intended to serve as the foundation for the studio’s next extended epic.
It will serve as a rocky underpinning, what with indistinctive characters, a purpose that lacks direction and a tenuous connection to the rest of the cinematic universe. To be sure, the plans Marvel previously put into motion have proved to be a masterstroke of narrative connectivity that has set a standard other studios have failed to duplicate, so it’s too early to cast judgment. But there’s no question that Phase 4 is off to a rocky start.
Based on the Jack Kirby comic, the title characters are 10 godlike creatures charged with protecting the cosmos from the Deviants, dragon-like creatures that look like they escaped from a rudimentary programmer’s laptop. (Perhaps the biggest surprise is how cheap these creatures look from a studio that prides itself on slickly produced effects.) This duty takes them to Earth, a place they fall in love with and vow to protect, despite the objections of their creators, the Celestials.
Hiding in plain sight, these demigods watch over the planet and its inhabitants from 5,000 BC to the present day, protecting but not interfering with major events that shape the human race. Having finally vanquished the Deviants in the Middle Ages, the members have gone their separate ways, but when their ancient foes reappear in London and other spots, they must reunite to combat them.
And who are the members of the team? Well, that’s part of the problem, as the 10 characters are, because of their sheer number and the fact they’re all introduced at once, hard to keep track of — some make an impression, while most don’t.
Ajax (Salma Hayek) is their leader; Sirse (stand-out Gemma Chan) and Ikaris (Richard Madden) have been in an on-again, off-again thousand-year romance; Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) is the comic relief; Gilgamesh (Ma Dong-seok) provides the muscle; Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) is a master inventor; Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) is mute but fast; Druig (Barry Keoghan) controls minds; Thena (a sleepwalking Angelina Jolie) is a warrior; and Sprite (Lia McHugh) is a bitter, eternal child. Laser beams shot from eyes, shapeshifting, flight and teleportation are among the variety of powers they employ.
Far too long at nearly two hours and 40 minutes, the film ratchets back and forth on a 7,000-year timeline, resulting in a disjointed affair that never finds its footing. It takes 90 minutes to get the band back together, and by then, you’ll have stopped caring about why.
What’s most frustrating is that the plot twist early in the third act is a genuine stunner that forces the characters to re-evaluate all they’ve done. However, before it can be fully explored, an overblown, special-effects-laden throwdown that’s apparently required in these movies takes place, wasting a prime opportunity to delve deeper.
At the end, when it’s promised the Eternals will return, I took it more as a threat. Hopefully in next go-around, more time will be taken to flesh out these characters in order to generate some empathy. Without that, all the action scenes in the world mean nothing.