Two stars. 2 hours and 37 minutes. PG-13
Gorgeous and vacant, “The Eternals” is the most numbing entry in Marvel’s 13-year-old MCU franchise — even as it struggles to be its weirdest and most philosophical.
An Oscar-winning director (Chloé Zhao of 2020’s “Nomadland”) and exciting ensemble cast are no match for corporate demands in the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is clearly building to another Infinity Saga-style climax after 25-odd movies.
But Disney isn’t necessarily to blame for the movie’s Swiss-cheese plot holes, oppressive cinematography and flat delivery (of everything, including action sequences). That’s on the filmmakers.
Set throughout modern human history, “The Eternals,” opening on Nov. 5, stars a diverse ensemble as the title-beings, with most of the focus on the slight, stoic Sersi (Gemma Chan) and similarly fleet, expressionless Ikaris (Richard Madden). Their fellow Eternals — a.k.a. super-powerful buildings living secretly on Earth for the last 7,000 years — are led in their shiny, form-fitting suits by Ajak (Salma Hayek), who also lords over Thena (Angelina Jolie), Phastos (Bryan Tyree Henry), Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), Sprite (Lia McHugh), Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), Gilgamesh (Don Lee) and Druig (Barry Keoghan).
Add to that a hunky love interest (“Game of Thrones” co-star Kit Harington as Dane Whitman, who will soon become the MCU’s Black Knight), a comic-relief Harish Patel (as Kingo’s manager, Karun) and other gods and monsters, and you’ve got a mess of script.
And yet Zhao at least gets this part right, giving all characters their due as they grapple with orders from their celestial, Marvel-demigod master, Arishem (David Kaye), who first dispatched the Eternals to Earth to defeat the Deviants. The latter are a squishy, skinless bundle of neon muscle that need to be eradicated to protect humankind.
Having been scattered centuries ago, the Eternals must now reunite to confront the resurgent, mysterious Deviants. But there’s little agreement on how to do that. Thena’s grappling with the weight of thousands of years of memories; Druig and Phastos are breaking the Eternals’ pledge not to interfere with human history; Kingo is clinging to a career as a Bollywood star. Their clashing personalities — some like children, others like wizened owls — make for agreeable sparks, especially with comic masters like Nanjiani and Henry delivering solid, affecting performances.
Still, the general sleepiness dulls otherwise appealing scenes as the movie takes an enormous amount of time to say almost nothing. My enduring sense of it is tiny people set against huge landscapes, dwarfed by nature, history and the unrelenting, same-y cinematography. “Doctor Strange”-style spells and visuals feel pat at this point.
It’s the inverse of most MCU films, which can sound inane or arbitrary on paper but which can also translate beautifully to the screen (think “Guardians of the Galaxy,” for starters).
In real life, though, it’s a depressing waste of its $200 million budget. As with its last few genre-shaped MCU widgets (the wuxia-influenced “Shang Chi,” the spy-thriller “Black Widow”), “The Eternals” would have looked better without the Marvel logo, which figuratively undermines Zhao’s languid pace and Ben Davis’ hazy, beachfront frames (he also shot “Guardians” and “Captain Marvel”).
By contrast, Denis Villeneuve’s new “Dune” masterfully dispatches with this sort of complex, atmospheric world-building by leaning away from the blockbusters’ tentpoles. You know them well: crowd-sourced, toy-friendly designs (“Eternals” Happy Meal toys are already out); a puzzle-piece script; and an unintelligible, CG-driven third-act.
Suspension of disbelief frequently pancakes in “The Eternals,” with gods acting like spoiled Gen X’ers and soulless white-collar workers. But the MCU’s numbing regularity is the real enemy, constantly crying wolf on Earth’s destruction while depicting millions of deaths from environmental and cosmic disasters — a precipice so high that audiences may eventually just plummet to their boredom.
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