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REVIEW – “Eternals”: By Marvel Standards, A Lengthy Slog through Character Building

ETERNALS
(L-R): Sprite (Lia McHugh), Druig (Barry Keoghan), Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), Karun (Harish Patel), Sersi (Gemma Chan) and Ikaris (Richard Madden) in Marvel Studios’ ETERNALS. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

The Marvel Comics logjam that had ensued by virtue of pandemic delays sees its greatest hurdle approached, though far from surpassed in the hesitant hands of one Chloe Zhao. Eternals is the latest to bring in new players to grow the stable of stars, and further evolve the MCU’s connectivity, both in a drastic manner, ultimately. And that is putting it lightly, as this ensemble-heavy fighting lesson takes a large step in the wrong direction. Backwards, to when the possibilities for pulling from that paperback world weren’t as boundless. And not in a flattering manner, with total disregard for pacing or empathy most films in this verse would offer to spare if it comes so naturally otherwise. Beyond travelling and wandering about aimlessly, having no clear direction or motive, this journey makes no small effort of using its time to a full disadvantage for both the viewer and its director.

Oscar-winner Zhao does put in no wasted effort sharing the antics of this Jack Kirby origination. Only in very fleeting occurrences does her auteur’s voice make itself present and center. When it does, the adherence is far from ideal as a core group of immortal misfit heroes with special abilities reunite after five centuries living normal lives, to take down a massive planetary threat. The main role of these Eternals, under the guidance of celestial being Arsham (David Kay) was always to foster growth in the Earth population.

It’s possible they had performed their duties a bit too well, if the planet is at risk for self-destruction. Specifically named The Emergence, it’s like a failsafe for Earth to achieve its full potential and aid in the creation of newer, more advance planets and civilizations at the clear cost of eight billion lives. And to think were it not for certain events post-Endgame, the threat this band of mess-moppers encounter would be less of a convoluted threat. The “Deviants” are that threat, ruthless yet no less confusing to the plot, as a clear first line of attack before a larger premonition arrives on scene. This group had been a constant enemy for the Eternal squad up until their breakup in the 16th century. Now they have a mere seven days to stop planetary destruction, heal their broken relationship, maybe quell their egos as well.

This is rather a lot to keep track, as Zhao, accompanied by co-writers Patrick Burleigh (Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway), & Ryan and Kaz Firpo seek to cram in plenty in the way of lore and character weaknesses. With how much jumping around time periods this story hobbles around, it does become overwhelmingly cumbersome to keep up with, and even willingly find an emotion to latch onto. Surely, there still remains a sense of awe, some delight in look and design, and a few carefully placed jabs handled well by fighter turned actor Kingo (a very drilled-in Kumail Nanjiani). All as Zhao engulfs the viewer in a very subdued, ambient atmosphere, only interrupted without much flash by those sparse action sequences reminding us it’s still a Marvel film desperately mirroring the same group dynamics of X-Men or Guardians, although unable to congeal with any effectiveness whatsoever. Maybe until perhaps the final act when a real conflict takes hold.

After Arsham, there’s point leader Ajak (Salma Hayek), entrusting the usually chill Sersi (Gemma Chan) to captain in her absence. There may be no real standout leader among the group, however. All take equal responsibility for their efforts barely staying logical, between troubled Thena (a somewhat indistinguishable Angelina Jolie), brooding Ikaris (Richard Madden), Sprite (Lia McHugh), Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), Druig (Barry Keoghan), and Gilgamesh (Don Lee). A rather large group whose backstories have little to no difficulty interweaving together, just enough to gather a sense for their collective ambition, although still adding time Zhao didn’t quite have in the first place, but makes for herself anyway, grounding herself in her own relaxed, introspective world. That’s her voice being expressed, just not through the strongest possible filter.

And that alone does sour our relationship with this wide-reaching ensemble, where even time can’t save the context. At times, one wonders the potential of expanding character lore as the basis of a miniseries. At least there, we’d have no confinement to a singular entity. For all the exploratory flashbacks, not enough is shared for the weaker characters, particularly Druig and Makkari (the MCU’s first deaf representing hero), who have so little to work with. Jolie’s Thena is on thin ice with a thematic plight that is barely skated, and an otherwise on-point Henry is nearly wasted in conveying a scientist with a litany of regrets.

Nanjiani is perhaps the devoted scene-stealer whose interjections are warranted only to melt any on-screen tension. If your first scene in present tense involves a Bollywood dance routine, then both the tone and physicality worked around by his character are instantly drilled in. Miss Chan, following up from her focused villain performance in Raya and the Last Dragon, now proceeds in that opposite direction, a protagonist caught in the crosshairs of uncertain change and associated ethical mystery. Her buoyancy to move things along and question the viability of her team’s initiative (and her distracting chemistry with Madden) is one of very few ways Zhao is at least trying to push past the typical Marvel formula.

That formulaic tendency does win back, the back and forth clashing an exhausting constant all throughout. Zhao’s foresight, doesn’t impact what she’s known best for, the introspective character drama that worked so brilliantly on Nomadland. Ben Davis’ (Cry Macho) cinematography is no help to break that trap, even as the scope is well accentuated, particularly on an IMAX screen. But when a grander scale and many more individuals are involved, that smaller frame of mind cannot adapt. The result is a humbling, unremarkable work, with gears, and VFX work often stuck in the past. The heroes’ daunting spaceship alone looks like a slab of tempered glass turned to stone and plopped onto a random late-era PS1 game. Unremarkable and interchangeable, just like the amount of buildup endured to achieve a fleetingly tepid resolution, only salvageable in the last 15 or so minutes.

When Eternals looks like it’s trying to be different compared to other recent Marvel fare, the inventiveness bears some flavorful fruit. The longer we spend with these characters, regrettably, the less away we are as an audience from whatever point Zhao is reaching. To spend over two and a half hours with these soul-searching do-gooders equates to going nowhere in particular. The journey catches your eye, but nothing else as it settles on a cycle of stagnation. Not in a long time has an MCU film manage to leave me high and dry in the end. Hopefully wherever this band find themselves in future will be much more exciting. But here and now, might not be worth getting lost into. (C-; 2.5/5 Horns Up!)

Eternals arrives in theaters this weekend; rated PG-13 for fantasy violence and action, some language and brief sexuality; 157 minutes.