Eternals opens with a long piece of onscreen text that speaks to what happened “In the beginning” of time. And what you may be thinking is, in fact, true: After a decade-plus of superheroes with messiah complexes, the world’s biggest ongoing movie franchise has finally, officially found religion, adding literal gods to its ever-expanding roster of wizards, extraterrestrials, and wizardly extraterrestrials with the names of gods. Eternals, the studio’s latest $200-million, two-and-a-half-hour epic, offers an origin story of large, cosmic proportions: nothing less than an explanation for all of life in the universe, at least the Marvel Cinematic one. The source material is vintage stonerific Jack Kirby, the famed artist, worshiped like a god himself in some circles, who introduced these characters in the anything-goes 1970s. His idea was: What if the legends of Greek mythology were actually ageless superheroes, stationed on Earth for thousands of years, playing protector to the planet’s superstitious masses? That one of them can, effectively, turn water to wine implies that this cavalry may have been immortalized and deified as a few other holy figures in Earth’s storied history of organized belief systems. Not that Disney would even dare go there, of course.
Eternals fills itself with a large team of those gods. Our entryway into their ranks is Sersi (Gemma Chan), the aforementioned manipulator of matter, who’s gained a real affection and respect for her charges over the millennia. She has an on-and-off thing with Ikaris (Richard Madden), whose powers are so similar to Superman’s that some kid actually calls him Superman. That’s just a fraction of the call sheet. There are quite a few of these Eternals — too many even for a movie of this length. There’s Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), who can throw bursts of glowing CGI energy and has spent the 20th and 21st centuries posing as a dynasty of Bollywood stars; perennially childlike illusionist Sprite (Lia McHugh); the deaf and speedy Makkari (Lauren Ridloff); embittered mind-controller Druig (Barry Keoghan); blade-generating goddess Thena (Anjelina Jolie); tech/weapon support Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry); resident puncher Gilgamesh (Don Lee); and wise, maternal team leader Ajak (Salma Hayek).
From its start, the movie is all over the place in regards to time period, flashing back from present day to scenes jumping through seven-thousand years of history. Where were these heavy-hitters when the Avengers needed them, a casual viewer might wonder. The film addresses that, awkwardly shoehorning in talk of the larger franchise world. Turns out the Eternals have a pretty narrow jurisdiction: Their bosses, towering space gods called Celestials, have deployed them to our planet only to deal with a rampaging species of generic monsters called Deviants. The director and co-writer this time though is quite different; making an astronomical leap in budget and scope from her last, Best-Picture-winning movie, Nomadland, Chloé Zhao takes a step into the Marvel machine. Leading up to the movie’s release, it was much talked about how she was said to have brought her natural tactility to this franchise’s collection of rotating green-screen backdrops. And indeed, Eternals does carry moments of her fluid vistas. It also even has an actual (albeit very brief) sex scene, adding a touch of fleeting carnality to a weirdly sexless movie world of virginal super soldiers and chaste romances, and a tone marginally more solemn than the average MCU entry, appropriate for a story that literally spans throughout human existence.
Yet Eternals likely puts the nail in the coffin proving that whoever is behind the camera of these quality-controlled Marvel blockbusters may not matter so much. What’s the difference in shooting a real landscape and just generating one on a laptop if it’s going to serve as wallpaper for another round of visually undistinguished comic-book combat? As an action movie, Marvel’s latest offers more of the weightless digital same: variably convincing avatars of the actors darting across beachfronts, tossing fireballs and fists. Where Nomadland showed a clear Terrence Malick influence in its smooth, floating camerawork and editing, Eternals occasionally suggests what The Tree of Life might look like if Kevin Feige micromanaged the awe and wonder over the filmmaker’s shoulder, simply by taking vast chunks of it out. However singular Zhao’s sensibilities are, they’re no match for the uniformity of Marvel’s previsualization protocol.
The even bigger problem though is that the characters themselves seem pretty previsualized, too; all baked into broad types. The movie throughout flirts with the melancholy and the neurosis that comes with all their countless lifetimes of service, only for it to essentially conclude that thousands of years on the planet just turn you into, well, a second-string Avenger. The broad plot actually brings to mind some kind of big-budget The Big Chill, as the Eternals slowly reassemble after a death in the family. Zhao keeps it moving along, across continents and eras and passages of expository information, without ever transcending the MCU storytelling template. It’s distinguished this time mostly by almost whiplash-inducing tonal shifts: In between jokey scenes of demigods addicted to cell phones and the usual sitcom interpersonal conflict, these characters wring their hands about genocide and free will.
A decade ago, the idea of a big-screen treatment of these particular superheroes would be inconceivable. While the Eternals may be among the most literally godlike characters in the whole Marvel catalog, they also qualify as decidedly obscure source material; no one would call them household names. Yet this Eternals never fully taps into its nuttiness, from a visual nor narrative perspective (there’s a piece of its finale, that’s about it). It’s probably good for business that Marvel can cram one of its weirder, more out-there properties into a one-size-fits-all formula for success. But when even the story of ancient, planet-sized gods and their undying servants comes out looking like just another Marvel movie, one might be displeased how the studio is starting to leave the eccentric pleasures on the pages instead of lifted to the screen. Its occasional moments of tranquil musing are more than welcome, but even as Eternals has its scale stretched to cosmic proportions unlike anything else in Marvel’s catalog, it still remains truncated and bloated.
Eternals is playing in Theaters nationwide