The best superhero movies downplay their ties to their ink and paper past.
Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy slathered the Bat with layers of grit and realism. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” advanced realpolitik threads between Cap’s super battles.
“Eternals” tries the latter approach, and boy does it come up empty. Then again, it’s hard to dwell on contextual flaws when its parade of new heroes proves so forgettable.
Director Chloe Zhao’s film looks beautiful, but it’s as empty as a Halloween treat bowl come Nov. 1.
The Eternals, for the uninitiated, are a team of super beings dropped on earth some 7,000 years ago. Their mission? Defend the planet against the Deviants, nasty critters that look like rejects from a “Jurassic World” sequel.
Our heroes wiped them out oh, so many years ago, but the colorfully clad souls stuck around just in case they came back.
And you thought union workers took too many breaks.
The Deviant threat re-emerges in our current time (after Thanos’ snap and the subsequent restoration), meaning the Eternals must reunite to finish their original mission. They’ll also be tasked with a new order from Arishem the Judge, the all-powerful Celestial who sent our heroes to earth in the first place.
The film does a yeomanlike job setting all the pieces in motion, but few of them will snag your attention. The Eternals themselves fall into a similar rut. There’s Ikarus (Richard Madden of “Bodyguard” fame), a Superman-like figure with laser beam eyes and a confusing sense of purpose.
Brian Tyree Henry, a gay Eternal with a knack for gadgets and parenting tips, doubles as the film’s conscience. Salma Hayek gets little to do as the group’s de factor leader, but she’s spared the indignity of the film’s flimsiest character.
Yes, that’s Angelina Jolie looking regal as Thena, wielding a glowing sword and a mental condition where she turns on her friends at random intervals. It makes no sense and is poorly woven into the story.
The Eternals were told not to interfere with human history, similar to “Star Trek’s” prime directive. So why did they stick around for 7,000 years? And can we really believe two of the Eternals dated for 5,000 years but went their separate ways?
They said it wouldn’t last, right?
The film’s pre-release hype tripled down on the film’s woke bona fides.
- Look at the cast’s diversity!
- We have our first, fully “out” gay MCU hero!
- One Eternal is deaf (Lauren Ridloff), a condition added for the film
- Another hero curses the U.S. dropping nuclear bombs on Japan via flashback, ignoring the full context behind the decision
- There’s even a blink and you’ll miss it “love scene” that adds nothing besides a marketing-approved talking point
The woke bullet points don’t hurt the movie beyond some mild distractions. The lack of compelling characters and a preachy script do more damage than any Deviant assault.
Matters get worse in the busy, bewildering third act.
By now, the various “Eternals fight Deviant” set pieces have worn out their welcome, even though the earlier skirmishes are handled expertly by Zhao. That leaves some character contortions that either make little sense or muddy the film’s mood. Plus, one character disappears for a long stretch during a critical fight.
And, once again, the Eternals stop bickering long enough to battle one another. The MCU really needs to push past this shtick.
The tenuous bonds forged between the characters during the 2.5 hour running time are shaken as the story limps to the finale, arguably the worst in the MCU franchise.
MCU films routinely balance large ensemble casts while letting the individuals shine. One reason “Avengers: Infinity War” is such a joy is how it showcases so many heroes without leaving us dizzy.
It helped that we previously got to know the characters, of course, in previous films.
Here? Everyone is a new face, and perhaps Kumail Nanjiani fares the best as Kingo, leaning into his natural comic rhythms to make his character pop. Equally good is Harish Patel, following the Eternals around to capture their heroics in documentary form. (Let’s ignore that these heroes prefer to keep their super powers secret…)
Most MCU films shrewdly interlock with previous installments, one reason the franchise is so beloved. That’s a mission the new “Star Wars” sequels failed… miserably. In “Eternals” we get some references to Thanos and “the blip,” but it rarely feels organic.
The Eternals concept, as presented here, is sillier than most MCU concepts. Yet the notion of super beings being forced to live among humans, while hiding the fact that they never age, offers intriguing potential.
The film’s screenplay, credited to Zhao and three other scribes, never fully explores that vein beyond cutesy references. Nor do the obligatory mid-credit scenes make us pine for more “Eternals” stories.
This isn’t as soul-crushing as “Captain Marvel,” the MCU’s bottom of the super barrel. “Eternals” may still need a time out before Hollywood considers a second swing at the saga.
HiT or Miss: “Eternals” is too busy to be dull, but that doesn’t mean it’s a worthy addition to the MCU canon.