Woefully short on wonder and awe and shockingly long on dialogue-heavy exposition and platitudinous ramblings, Eternals, Nomadland Academy Award winner Chloé Zhao’s first — and possibly last — foray into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), disappoints on practically every level. As either a standalone superhero film or an entry in the post-Infinity Saga Phase 4, the muddled, middling Eternals doesn’t bode well for the future of the MCU. Then again, it’s not entirely unsurprising that the Marvel/Disney-Industrial Complex would eventually stumble or even fail outright, especially after 25 relatively high-quality, commercially successful entries over 14 years.
After an extra-long, explain-everything crawl more likely to induce annoyance rather than engagement, Eternals segues to the first of several flashbacks. Cut to a prehistoric past where the titular Eternals–near-immortal, near invulnerable super-beings created by the god-like, planet-sized Celestials–literally fly and/or drop from the heights to save a Neolithic village. The Eternals’ foes are the ravenous Deviants, monstrous creatures of great size and nasty dispositions that are also created by the Celestials. The Eternals succeed, but it’s only the first of many, possibly countless battles between with the Deviants, leaving little trace of their endless conflict except in the myths and legends of the people they encounter across millennia.
The Eternals are also teachers, instructors, and mentors to humanity across millennia. They can coax and guide their adopted wards in matters of science and technology, but (no) thanks to an ironclad Celestial edict, they can’t directly interfere in conflicts or wars. Uttered in a throwaway line between characters, the Eternals’ strict non-interference policy, a prime directive of sorts, leaves them perpetually on the sidelines. They’re forced to watch as other, non-Eternal super-beings like the Avengers repeatedly protect and save the world from dangers domestic and intergalactic. That makes them all but useless except where the long-dormant (as in five centuries dormant) Deviants are concerned.
Spoiler alert: the napping Deviants wake up from their centuries-long slumber and return to present-day London just as one of the Eternals, Sersi (Gemma Chan), goes on a date with her non-immortal, semi-serious boyfriend, Dane Whitman (Kit Harington), moments before her on-again, off-again Eternal boyfriend, the Superman-inspired Ikaris (Richard Madden), literally drops in. He semi-saves the day while a stunned, soon-to-exit Whitman looks on in dazed befuddlement. A third Eternal, Sprite (Lia McHugh), an illusion creator stuck in the body of a preteen, lives with Sersi as Sersi’s adopted daughter (or something along those lines).
With the Deviants back in town and the other Eternals scattered to the four or six winds, Sersi takes charge. She becomes the de facto leader, at least until former team lead Ajak (Salma Hayek), a literal and figurative healer, can come back into the fold. From that point on, though, Eternals devolves into a lackadaisical, lackluster, globe-trotting road trip. It lacks urgency with its “let’s get the band together for one last run” vibe that doesn’t evaporate until the final battle-to-end-all-battles on a seashore unspools at a languid pace over the last 30-40 minutes of of a bloated, self-indulgent 2-hour-and-37-minutes running time.
That nearly three-hour running time qualifies as the longest of any Marvel entry exclusive of the two-part Avengers: Infinity Saga (Infinity War and Endgame). Unlike its predecessors in terms of running time, however, audiences will feel every minute, every second, and every nano-second pass at an excruciatingly slow pace. This lethargy is chiefly because Eternals has the unenviable task of introducing ten entirely new super-powered characters. (Some, to be fair, are slightly more distinctive than others.) It somehow has to get us to care about them and their fates, and build a recognizable superhero world around them. It’s a big ask and one that Zhao, despite her best efforts and talents as a filmmaker, ultimately can’t handle, let alone answer. She’s not helped by bland production design, forgettable costumes, and merely adequate CGI for all of the big action scenes, each one as generic and disposable as the last.
Paradoxically, there’s both too much and not enough story in Eternals. A limited series along the lines of WandaVision or Loki might have been the better alternative. With every Eternal getting his or her spotlight moment, multiple flashbacks to happy and unhappy times, and complex lore drawn in part from creator Jack “King” Kirby’s ‘70s psychedelic run on the title, it’s impossible to move beyond a surface-deep approach to the characters, story, and themes. All the talk of free will vs. predestination, the value of human life, and the Celestials’ role in human evolution (if any) are attempts to hide a faux-profundity that might, at best, thrill a freshman college student taking an Intro to Philosophy class.
Eternals opens theatrically on Friday, November 5th.